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Artem, an artist from Belarus, started using psychoactive substances back in Belarus. A year ago he was forced to leave from the threat of repressions and now lives in Poland. “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” talked to Artem about the experience of using psychoactive substances abroad and at home and about drug education and legalisation.

Artem, 37 years old

“I used alcohol as a tool…”

I emigrated from Belarus for political reasons: the authorities started persecuting me. I left, as they say, in the last carriage. 

When I lived in Belarus, I faced alcohol addiction. I used alcohol as a tool, it helped me to open up. Then it turned into another stage, when alcohol began to use me as a tool. 

I’ll tell you straight away that I didn’t drink a lot.  I’m not a big man myself, so my version of alcoholism was impulsive, when you need to get drunk as fast as possible. It’s hard to determine how much I drank a day. I would wake up, have a drink, fall asleep, and so on throughout the day. Over time, days turned into weeks and weeks into months. But I was still able to quit drinking. I haven’t had a drink in six years. It really was a problem in my life. Alcohol replaced everything for me. I would wake up in the morning and immediately think about drinking. At the same time, I was also working: work didn’t prevent me from alcoholism, as I worked on a rotational basis. 

Artyom, photo “Not today, not yesterday, not tomorrow”

“I like pure stim, without any euphoria and other nonsense…” 

I’ve been using psychoactive substances for a long time, about 20 years, now mostly amphetamine. In the past it was all sorts of weed, hallucinogenic plants, and pharmacy drugs. I used to take them rarely, a couple times a year. Then I tried opiates. And I liked it, but I didn’t get hooked on them. Maybe at that time I didn’t fully understand the essence of the high.

I used opiates only in the company of other people. I didn’t want to look for them myself. I used opiates for two years, but with precautions. And I was able to quit. In general, I did not have the same craving for substances as for alcohol during all these years.

What particular substance I favour at the moment is only amphetamine. Because I like pure stim, without any euphoria or other nonsense. 

“In the topic of addiction, there is usually space for co-dependent relationships…”

That I had a serious drinking problem was suggested to me by my loved ones. I began to realise that I was losing them. And the choice was either to drink to the end or to stop. It was always important to me that no one suffer because of my abuse. 

In addiction, there’s usually a co-dependent relationship. When they indulge your desires and at the same time try to control your addiction. In my opinion, if a loved one is not happy with your addiction, you should not give money for drugs or alcohol. On the other hand, you can’t put yourself above your loved one who is facing this problem. After all, the banal accusation “you are an alcoholic, you are a drug addict” will not change anything. If you can not accept someone else’s addiction, it is better to cut off communication altogether. I believe that any person has the right to live his life as he has decided. And if he has decided to live his life by using, why and by what right should we stop him? 

Artyom, photo “Not today, not yesterday, not tomorrow”

“In Poland, I definitely started using more…”

I don’t have a positive outlook on my own account, and I have to admit that perhaps my addiction to psychoactive substances is still only at the developmental stage. Sometimes, I think I can feel it progressing. This is probably influenced by my move to Europe. 

Before emigrating, I used to buy substances through the darknet (on hydra), it was quite easy. I would not say that in Belarus there is a problem with the availability of psychoactive substances. Rather, there are problems with their control and criminalisation. After the fall of hydra I didn’t buy anything anymore because of distrust of new sites. 

In Poland, I definitely started using more. I attribute this to the fact that the quality of substances in Europe is worse than in the former Soviet Union. This is noticed by almost all users of psychoactive substances who moved here from Belarus or Ukraine. 

You use, but the gestalt is not closed, you need more and more. And still it is unrealistic to achieve the desired result, the organism will not tolerate such amount of crap in itself. If in Belarus I could use a quality, tested substance once a month and I was not drawn to it anymore, in Europe I resort to psychoactive substances much more often. It’s like a car race: you are used to one car and one speed, but you are suddenly given another car, and it drives slower.

“Entertainment turns into addiction when you have the urge to use it for no good reason…”

At the moment, I still characterise my use as controlled. Or, let’s just say that my addiction is still at the stage where substances don’t distract me from my normal activities. I can normally go to work, see my friends, pay attention to my loved ones and do the things that normal people do.

However, I am aware of the risks, and I don’t expect that my experience with alcohol dependence will help me if psychoactive substances dependence occurs. Sure, its stages and course will be the same as with alcohol addiction. But it may happen that before that I will do a lot of troubles and lose all my loved ones. And then there will be no point in quitting.  

Fun turns into an addiction when you probably have the urge to use something for no good reason. I mean when it’s not a party or holiday where you planned to relax and take psychoactive substances . But when you’re sitting at home on a weekday and suddenly you think: “Why don’t I do heroin now?”. And the appearance of such thoughts already indicates that you are on the step to addiction. 

Artyom, photo “Not today, not yesterday, not tomorrow”

“In Belarus, almost all drug shops are controlled to some extent by the police…”

If we talk about stigmatisation of substance users, I have not heard bad words about me except from cops. I use substances as tools, sometimes for recreation, not to be bad. So I guess that’s why people have never said anything negative about me or my use.

I support the decriminalisation of substances. People who got into trouble because of psychoactive substances, in most cases, in my opinion, should be rehabilitated, not criminalised. But in Belarus everything is built in such a way that the only form of rehabilitation you can hope for is a methadone program. And it all looks so doomed, people come there driven to despair. 

I’ve had the experience of incarceration, and where I was in prison, there were a lot of young men between the ages of 18 and 20 years old who were being held under Part 4 of Article 328. They were given up to 15 years in the penal colony. And they all worked for the same store. It is not difficult to guess who owned the store, and none of the owners are in jail. So what kind of fair criminal responsibility can we talk about? In Belarus, almost all drug shops are controlled to some extent by the police. Who else has the money and nerve to open and promote drug business in a country like Belarus? 

“If one day there is free access to psychoactive substances, many people will not be able to cope with it…”

Can substance use be attributed to mass culture? I can’t answer unequivocally. People in general, in my opinion, have this problem of shifting responsibility to others. Some blame mass culture, some blame the state. Many people are brought up as if there is someone to take responsibility for them, someone to regulate their lives. First the school decides everything for a person, then the state. Because of this, people often do not take responsibility for their own use, cannot fully make an informed choice in favour of a substance or refuse to use it. And if one day there will be free access to substances, many people will not be able to cope with it. This is why control over substances is, in my opinion, desirable to maintain. 

On the other hand, control over the market of psychoactive substances is beneficial for the state, if we are talking about Belarus. It is an endless factory of convicts, free labourers.  

Artyom, photo “Not today, not yesterday, not tomorrow”

“European society is more tolerant of people who use substances…”

In Poland, the substances are of such lousy quality that there’s no point in using them. The generation of people who are now in their 20s don’t know what  substances used to be. And their kids won’t know what it is at all. Grandparents will sit around and tell their grandchildren how their hair stood up from speed or how they burped from opiates. Sometimes I feel as if substances are being purposely modified to remove this subculture altogether. 

But it should be noted that the European society is more tolerant to people who use substances than the Belarusian society. I worked with different contingent in Poland, including the generation older than mine. And even among them, even among the most ardent “PiS” (supporters of the right-wing party Law and Justice – ed) there are those who can smoke pot. 

“The issue of tolerant attitude has its roots in drug education…”

The issue of tolerant attitude is rooted in drug education and upbringing in general. It seems to me that with proper drug education there would be fewer addicted people. Often the rapid development of addiction is due to poor awareness. People don’t know about the harmfulness and unpleasant sides of the substance they are on.

You are told all the time that it is “bad”, but this only encourages interest. When I was young, I wanted to rebel, and when the propaganda from every radio station said that “drugs are evil”, I wanted to try them. This approach doesn’t work. Rather, it is important to talk about the real consequences of use, not sugar coating them, but not minimising them either. This requires a culture of consumption. After all, when you eat food, you have a sense of satiety and proportion. It should also ideally work with substances. 

Many problems could be solved by decriminalisation of substances and legalisation. In Portugal it had a positive result, they didn’t defeat the drug war, they stopped participating in it. I don’t know much about how people live in Portugal, I don’t know what their level of education is, what their average income is. But for some reason it worked there. Maybe because they are doing well?

On the other hand, in America, this approach is not effective yet. Perhaps it is profitable for the US to keep people socially stratified, and the authorities turn a blind eye to the existing problems. 

“Dependence is a rather vague concept…”

People are addicted to everything: food, movies, sports, and more. And addiction to the same thing gets boring and you want to change it sometimes. Just as people replace the cult of food with sports, they replace one substance with another. 

Food, for example, is only fuel for us, but we have elevated it into a cult. We spend a lot of time on preparation, invent miracle dishes, spend an incredible amount of money. And thus, instead of wanting to simply maintain energy in the body, we form nothing more than an addiction to the cult of food. 

In general, it seems to me that jumping from one addiction to another is the only form in which the human brain can exist. So, fostering a situation of existence, then supporting the addiction, then fighting it. A kind of conflict that the mind needs for normal existence.

I think  substance use is a specific choice of a person, and no one should control this choice, use and its consequences.

The article was created within the framework of the Free Belarus Centre programme.