Armenia Escapes Drugs Epidemic

The Armenian police say the country's drug problem is under control, although luck may have a lot to do with it.

Armenia Escapes Drugs Epidemic

The Armenian police say the country's drug problem is under control, although luck may have a lot to do with it.

Karen Javadian, not his real name, is a success story. This 35-year-old first tried hashish at the age of 16 and didn't realise that he would get hooked so easily. He was soon pulled into a life of drug addiction, which he only managed to shake off three years ago.

Now Javadian works as a manager in a prestigious firm in Yerevan and his colleagues do not suspect that his tall elegant young man used to have a drugs problem. He says he wants to put the nightmare of his years of addiction behind him.

Javadian says he was saved from addiction by doctors and his wife. She gave him an ultimatum: choose between her and narcotics. Remarkably, he also gives credit to the Armenian police and their tough anti-drugs policies.

"On several occasions, when I had money I wondered through Yerevan looking vainly for drugs," he said. "I was blocked on all sides. The people whom I used to buy drugs from were either in prison or were simply afraid to carry on with this trade. So the decision came to me to give up drugs."

In March this year, the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, launched the second phase of an anti-drugs programme for the Caucasus. In Armenia the programme involves working on new legislation against the drugs trade, giving new technical assistance to the law enforcement agencies, supporting the exchange of information and creating a new database.

In Soviet times, Armenia did not traditionally have a drugs problem. Now, positioned between Europe and Asia, it has become a drug-trafficking route. Most narcotics enter the country from Russia and Ukraine and come via Georgia. However, the closure of the borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan means that the quantities of drugs smuggled are relatively low and their cost on the black market are amongst the highest in the region. The price of heroin in Armenia is as high as 150 US dollars a gram.

The law enforcement agencies charged with combating the problem have very little funding. John Brown, an expert on drug trafficking, said that custom officers show a willingness to defeat the problem, but lack the money to do so. He said that was why the UNDP programme had supplied the Armenians with three Niva jeeps.

What the police, prosecutors and courts lack in means, they try to make up for in severity of sentences. You can be locked away for ten years for supplying drugs, a punishment which is rarely overturned on appeal.

"We are mainly interested in drug suppliers," said Ashot Mkrtchian, head of the Armenian interior ministry's illegal drugs trade department. "In 2001, 66 people were convicted of supplying drugs and 116 with using them." Mkrtchian said that the tough sentences against suppliers meant that the instance of repeat offending was only 20 per cent.

He said that a strong public antipathy to drug use in families and on television also contributed to Armenia's relatively successful anti-narcotics policy.

"In the five years that I have headed this department no one has ever interceded on behalf of a drugs dealer or addict," he said. "They all know what my attitude is. So all the places where drugs can be supplied and I mean on the whole discotheques, saunas, night clubs are strictly controlled by us. No owner of an entertainment establishment wants to lose his license and he knows that I can do that in a day."

Gayane Shaverdian, head of the psychology department at Yerevan State University, identifies another factor: poverty. "When most of the population is fighting to earn a piece of bread they don't think about drugs," she said. "A person has enough of his own everyday problems and he has no need for strong new sensations."

It's estimates that there may be up to 20,000 addicts in the country. Almost one thousand are registered and most of them are known to the narcotics clinic in Yerevan. "We work in constant touch with the illegal drugs trade department," said Alexander Gukasian, the director of the clinic. "When a crime is committed, it is essential to check if the accused was in a state of drug intoxication and we do that, but we do not have modern equipment for our laboratories."

"The whole of society has to fight against drugs," said Mkrtchian. "But people are passive. The fact that addiction is not a common phenomenon in Armenia means nothing." "We shouldn't sleep," added deputy interior minister Ashot Yeritsian. "Today we have to do everything so that Armenia does not face a serious danger in the future."

Avet Demurian, a journalist in Yerevan, works for the NGO, TEAM Research Centre.

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