Harsh Treatment for Addiction in Russia

Harsh Treatment for Addiction in Russia

Russia is a vast land frequently associated with severity. Whether referring to the long, frozen winters or the stereotyped national stoicism found in literature, it isn’t a place that has been painted with soft lines and warm colors.

Now, Russian pragmatism has found expression in a new approach to dealing with the country’s rampant drug addiction problem – an approach which takes “tough love” to an entirely different level.

Treatment centers run by the private group City Without Drugs have come under scrutiny of late for their harsh methods of detox and drug rehabilitation. With written permission from the families of addicts, the centers lock large numbers of addicts in a quarantine room and literally handcuff them to their beds. Those in charge of the centers say that the handcuffs are psychologically calming to men going through withdrawal as is the presence of others in the room who are perhaps days or weeks ahead in the process.

After as many as 30 days of drug detox, during which the men are given little other than bread, water and porridge to eat, they are released from the quarantine room and allowed to perform either manual labor, cooking duties or exercise. In all, treatment usually lasts one year and during that time the patients are almost entirely isolated from society.

The City Without Drugs gained the national spotlight when a judge sentenced a satellite center director to three and a half years in jail on charges of kidnapping, illegal detention and torture. The public outcry was significant enough to win the director’s release. The incident has made the center and its unorthodox treatment methods the center of a larger discussion about how to address the country’s growing drug addiction problem.

According to the Russian government, the country has 2.5 million people addicted to drugs and 5.1 million who abuse drugs. It is estimated that the majority of them are hooked on Afghan heroin (an estimated 1.6 million users), making Russia the country with the highest level of opioid abuse in all of Europe. Russian President Medvedev has mandated the development of new drug control strategies to replace the currently ineffective methods.

Drug treatment experts and others outside of Russia say that the unorthodox addiction treatment methods are cruel. The center can offer no proof to substantiate its 70 percent success rate claims. The monitoring unit Human Rights Watch has been vocal in opposing the center, calling its methods “pseudo-medical treatment and abuse.” Other advocacy groups within Russia have also denounced the “just stop taking and tough it out” approach. Nevertheless, few other drug rehab programs are available and criminal enforcement appears to be ineffective.

While the treatment certainly causes bristling among outside observers, most within Russia sense that the country is experiencing a wildfire of drug addiction and are thankful for anyone willing and able to help dig a firebreak. Not only families of addicts, but even public officials, lend a sympathetic ear to sentiments perhaps best encapsulated in a quote attributed to City Without Walls’ founder: “Is it wrong to save a drowning person by pulling their hair?”

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