Forget gritty world politics, forget cold war antics. Today we’re looking at Russia’s somewhat contradictory, sometimes peculiar, and definitely interesting take on cannabis regulation.
Russia is one of those countries that brings a lot of intrigue, and questions, and curiosity. Former Eastern Block leader, cold war player, Putin… When it comes to politics regarding nearly any topic, it’s not always easy to get a clear idea of what is actually going on in Russia, and what can be separated out as unnecessary media frenzy.
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Where Russia stands on cannabis regulation
Before even getting to cannabis, it should be pointed out that Russia has a very vibrant drinking culture. They are not a country that holds back when it comes to imbibing alcohol, and like many countries that follow suit, there is an automatic disconnect between the lax laws on alcohol consumption, and the much harsher laws for cannabis.
While this conundrum is commonplace nearly everywhere, it does raise the question of why one mind altering substance is considered so universally okay, while another – with less risks attached – is considered so taboo still. Anyway, this is certainly the situation in Russia. The basics of Russian cannabis law go something like this: cannabis is illegal. However, not unlike other countries, a personal use amount is decriminalized, in this case, up to 6 grams of marijuana, or two grams of hash.
This is considered only an administrative offense, and is punishable by a fine or short detention period (of about 15 days). This is laid out in Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code. Though this doesn’t meet exact decriminalization standards as they apply in other places, it does give a much-lessened punishment to those who are using cannabis personally. Anything over the amounts above will subject a person to criminal prosecution.
These possession laws came into effect in 2004 with updates made in 2006. In 2004 the acceptable limit for a mere administrative offense was actually 20 grams (and this after a single gram could land a person in jail prior to this legislation). In 2006 the laws were looked at again and most of the amounts lessened considerably; in the case of cannabis, from 20 grams down to six. According to the Russian Ministry of Affairs, Kazakhstan is responsible for about 93% of the cannabis that makes its way into Russia.
Who regulates cannabis in Russia?
In Russia, cannabis is considered a Cannabinoid drug, which is included as a narcotic drug – list 1 – meaning it is illegal, and can be imported for scientific reasons only. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs acts as the main authority on Cannabinoid drugs (import, export, and distribution). The Ministry of Health is the state authority which is responsible for establishing/maintaining requirements of Cannabinoid drugs.
There are certain specifications for Cannabinoid drugs that were established by the Federal law of 8/1/1998, No. 3-FZ. It sets the following requirements when it comes to cannabis:
- Production of cannabis as a list 1 drug can only be done by state enterprises or institutions which have the correct licensing.
- License is required for storage, and storage must be done in rooms especially equipped for that purpose.
- The only bodies that can legally import it are state unitary enterprises, with all relevant licenses.
One of the things that makes Russian cannabis laws a bit wacky, is that it operates much like Albania. Cannabis is illegal recreationally as well as medicinally – as in, no medical cannabis program exists there. It can’t be grown, bought, or sold, yet having a personal use amount will cause a person very little problem overall. So basically, there’s no legal way to actually get it, yet having it in smaller amounts is acceptable (relatively).
What about CBD and hemp?
Another aspect of Russian cannabis law is that CBD is also illegal even though hemp farming is legal. The farming itself is totally fine, but the extraction or isolation of any cannabinoid is illegal for the Soviets. This is the case in other places with 100% prohibition.
Even though CBD – cannabidiol – is a cannabis cannabinoid without any psychoactive properties, and even with the huge array of medical benefits it offers, it’s still lumped together with the rest of the plant, and made illegal for use. Since they don’t allow for isolating cannabinoids, no part of the cannabis plant is currently legal for internal use, and until laws change, they won’t be.
Problems with Article 228
In the last several years there has been more speaking out against Article 228, and how it deals with cannabis. Many Russians see it as a bribery measure, used to fill quotas for police. Some go as far as to say that police can be corrupt and often plant the drugs themselves in order to get a fine paid, and reach their targets.
Russia’s prisons are known to be full of drug offenders so the risk of a prison sentence is very real there, making the pressure to submit to the payout that much stronger. A massive 25% of Russians sitting in prison today are there for drug offenses, which is scarily close to the 27% that are there for murder. I admit I’d personally like to see that first number much lower, and that second number much higher.
That prison systems are often overflowing with inmates convicted of non-violent crimes is sad, and though Article 228 seeks to offer a different measure than prison for those carrying small amounts, it really seems to act as a threat based system to make people pay up for smaller amounts, and sends them to prison for bigger ones. In 2018, around 100k people were jailed under Article 228.
How the Ivan Golunov case could change things…
Last year, Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter from Russia, was charged under Article 228 with drug trafficking. As a weird choice, Ivan Golunov is actually an anti-corruption journalist, and his arrest sent major ripples through Russia. There was massive outcry from human rights groups that the drugs were planted and the charges fabricated.
Not long after his arrest, Russia’s Interior Ministry made a ruling to drop the charges and admitted there was no actual evidence that drugs belonged to the journalist. This case was more famous than others on account of Golunov’s celebrity, for most people who get arrested for the same thing, the outcome is entirely different. I find it interesting that he was arrested at all, although it certainly wouldn’t be the first time in history that a person legitimately fighting for a freedom cause would be arrested for a crime they are specifically fighting against.
For a guy that writes about anti-corruption, he made a bad choice for Russian police to make an example of, especially considering their tactics for arresting him were rather corrupt. Considering how easily it all went down, though, you can imagine just how many people are wasting away in Russian prisons on trumped up drug charges because they wouldn’t pay a corrupt fine for a crime they weren’t committing, or because they happened to have above the limit for personal use.
Human rights lawyer Mikhail Golichenko pointed out that over 80% of people charged under Article 228 are convicted for possession without intention to sell – which technically should then count as personal use only under that understanding, and not require jail time.
While this does seem to have started a general conversation over Russia’s drug laws, and particularly Article 228, there isn’t actually a huge push for decriminalization in Russia. Could this be relevant to Russia itself not known for being a large cannabis/marijuana provider?
Russia has only one independent polling company called Levada, and as of 2014 only 14% of the population cared at all for drug legalization. Of course, in a country like Russia, just one independent polling source sounds kind of questionable, as does taking that kind of number from six years ago. Regardless, that’s where Russia currently stands on the issue as per the information available.
Whether this most recent Golunov case will really change anything or not remains to be seen. It does seem to have started conversation, and that in itself is good. Russia, for now, will continue to straddle their cannabis laws with one leg toward legalization, and one firmly rooted in anti-drug policy. As with all countries in these changing times, it sure will be interesting to see what happens. I hope for the sake of Russian cannabis lovers, they get rid of that awful Article 228 for good (or at least start using it more effectively)!
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