Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia Goes Soft on Drugs

New law promises to go easy on hard drug users - but will there be any takers for the treatment offered in place of prison?
By Naira Melkumyan

Armenia is poised to revamp its drug laws, introducing softer penalties for users in the hope that they will come forward and seek treatment for their addictions.

 

The new legislation, which comes into force from August 1, will see the standard prison sentence for users reduced from two years to two months - although fines for drug use will be raised 200-fold, from approximately nine US dollars to 1,800 dollars.

 

The law has been changed at the request of the Council of Europe, according to Gagik Tadevosian, who was until recently head of the parliamentary committee on health-care, ecology and social issues.

 

"When this was discussed in parliament, the debate centred on reducing the punishment for drug use," Tadevosian told IWPR. "International experts believe drug addicts need to be treated medically rather than punished, as they are sick and suffering people."

 

However, the new law did not pass through parliament unopposed. According to Tadevosian, some local experts were against the softer penalties, arguing that the majority of drug users also functioned as suppliers.

 

In the event, the softer approach to users advocated by the foreign experts won out. The penalty for supplying hard drugs in Armenia has not been eased.

 

Artur Hovanissian, an expert from the justice ministry, said Armenia ought to regard drug abuse as a sickness rather than a threat to society, in order to get in line with international norms. "Their supply is another matter and you can be imprisoned for between three and seven years for that," he added.

 

The move to make users pay a large fine - rather than serve a lengthy term in prison - also reflects a shift in patterns of drug abuse in Armenia.

 

Over the past few years, a new breed of consumer has emerged. Affluent, professional urbanites are increasingly using hard drugs such as heroin, once the preserve of the poor in deprived rural areas. The new laws, with their emphasis on a financial penalty rather than imprisonment, are directed at these new users, most of whom are in a better position to pay a hefty fine.

 

David, 45, is a member of this new class of hedonists. A well-employed, affluent father-of-three, he has been using heroin for the past eight years.

 

"Drugs help me switch off from the outside world and reach new levels of being," said David, who combines a keen interest in Indian and Tibetan philosophy with a passion for the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

 

Although he admits heroin is bad for his health, he does not see it as any worse than cigarettes or alcohol. He told IWPR he has no intention of seeking medical help for his habit. "I never thought about this, as I think my condition is normal," he said. "I am in control and I see no reason to give up drugs."

 

Figures for narcotic use in Armenia are hotly disputed. It is unclear whether there will be many takers for the treatment regime the government hopes to impose on addicts in lieu of the existing penalties.

 

Armen Vatian, an officer in the Armenian police's anti-narcotics unit, estimates that there are around 20,000 drug abusers in the country. He and his colleagues say this figure is low compared with neighbouring countries, and they say this is due to family pressure as well as fear of punishment.

 

However, Petros Semerjian, head of the Anti-Narcotic Civil Alliance, is less sanguine, saying that "no one knows the real picture on drug addiction in Armenia, but it's obvious the problem is there."

 

Tadevosian believes the new law has not been introduced a moment too soon. "There are no mafia drug syndicates in Armenia today, but the fact that - according to unofficial figures - there are more than 12,000 student drug users means there is a serious problem," he said.

 

"The fight against drugs ought to become a priority for the state and the law enforcement authorities, because drug addiction worsens the criminal situation in the country and threatens national security," said Tadevosian.

 

Whatever the real number of addicts, hardly any of them seem to be seeking medical help at the moment. The Republican Drugs Centre outside Yerevan has 4,000 people on its books, but only 191 of them are drug addicts.

 

When this IWPR reporter asked for directions to the centre along a dusty, unpaved road leading out of Yerevan, she was surprised to hear, "Is that where the alcoholics are?"

 

Sedoi Jamalian, the deputy director of the centre, confirmed that nine out of ten patients there were alcoholics. "We have practically no drug addicts here," Jamalian told IWPR. "Of 510 patients hospitalised last year, only seven were drug addicts and six were substance abusers." At the time of the interview, there was not a single drug addict in the centre.

 

Although everyone has the right to be treated at the centre anonymously and for free, it seems that most addicts are still afraid to seek treatment.

 

And the centre's success rate is also patchy. "We can get rid of the physical dependence, but the psychological effect stays for a long time," Jamalian said.

 

Most of the narcotics currently used in Armenia are of the soft variety - marijuana leaves and their solid derivative, hashish. As cannabis grows wild in much of Armenia, that is hardly surprising.

 

Experts estimate that 90 per cent of all drug users consume cannabis, and only 10 per cent use opiates.

 

But educated thrill-seekers such as David fit into both categories. He had been smoking marijuana for 13 years before taking up heroin.

 

According to Anna, a 26-year-old translator, there are now two types of drug user. "It's either poor people, mainly from the provinces, or the rich…. For the second group it's like a fashion."

 

Naira Melkumian is a journalism student at the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan