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Legalize Belarus is a civil campaign that emerged in response to the tightening of drug laws in the country. “Not today, not yesterday, not tomorrow” spoke coordinators of the project Pyotr Markelov and Mikhase Varantsov: about their main activities now, as well as about whether Belarusian society is ready for the decriminalization of psychoactive substances.

– Tell us about yourselves and about Legalize Belarus (LB): what is this initiative, what are its goals and main principles?

– (Petr): I am one of the founders of Legalize Belarus. The project was launched in 2017 as a reaction to the inhumane drug policy in Belarus. We, the youth, often traveled to Europe, where we saw how people could freely smoke cannabis without fearing imprisonment for 8 years. And we believe this is one of the great humanitarian problems in Belarus – criminal prosecution for the use of psychoactive substances (PAS).

The strategy of Legalize Belarus consists of three points: education on PAS issues and harm reduction, advocacy for the decriminalization of small amounts of controlled substances, and legal support for people convicted under Article 328.

– (Mihas): I joined Legalize Belarus after its creation. For me, PAS seemed to be a very interesting tool for exploring consciousness, as well as a means to work on psychological issues. And I experienced dissonance: substances can be a useful tool if used correctly, but in practice, I saw huge prison terms. Therefore, my goal is to ensure that PAS users who do not harm anyone are not repressed or persecuted.

For me, one of the main principles of LB is to protest creatively. At least while we were in Belarus, that was the case.

Photo from the personal archive of Legalize Belarus

– How did the idea of creating Legalize Belarus arise? What events or circumstances led to the formation of this initiative?

– (P): In 2016, Stas Shashko and I, another co-founder of Legalize Belarus, went to Berlin for the Hemp March. There we learned about the case of Artem Barodich, an actor from the Kupala Theater, who was sentenced to 5 years in a maximum-security prison because 26 grams of cannabis were found in his apartment. We considered this unfair because we were smoking marijuana ourselves at the time. You can’t imprison people for such a term for consuming a plant.

And a year later, the Hemp March in Berlin, essentially, became the beginning of the LB campaign.

– How did society and the state react to the emergence of LB, especially in the context of the dubious situation with drug policy in Belarus at that time?

– (M): The state reacted quite aggressively and inadequately. The authorities generally did not understand how to react to this, but began calling on people to unite against us. According to the propaganda version of Shpakovsky, we existed for the money of the world drug lobby (if this is true, then we are still waiting for that money. If you are reading us, world drug lobby, please send them!)

At one point during winter, we held an action in the city center, near the “Central” department store, and another propagandist was sent after us, this time from Russia – Prydybaylo. He filmed a report that, according to the propagandists, was supposed to morally destroy us. And at the end of the story, they said that we “freeze for the idea of ​​smoking weed.” And this is absolutely true, but for them, this phrase sounded like an insult. For corrupt people, it’s hard to imagine how others can freeze for an idea. What is offensive to them is very characteristic of themselves.

–(P): Speaking about society, there were many problems. But at the same time, there were quite a few people who supported us. They saw that we were young and initiative people who wanted better for the country, so there was trust.

Nevertheless, even private organizations often refused to hold events with us. Because the topic of legalization and decriminalization of PAS is very stigmatized in our society, and it is not easy to work with it.

– Tell us about your street actions and events. What was the reaction of society, and how did you deal with the risks associated with defending the rights of drug users?

– (P): In general, the reaction was positive: people smiled when they saw our actions. At least the youth was on our side. But there are also elderly conservative people who do not accept our views. However, I can understand them.

We organized designer actions with Belarusian motifs. On Dziady (All Saints’ Day) we walked the streets of the city with a grass column dedicated to the victims of cannabis. We walked with empty portraits because nobody died from cannabis.

For each action, we took emergency kits: with a toothbrush, soap, and other necessary items. It’s a standard Belarusian practice when you’re an activist.

Photo from the personal archive of Legalize Belarus

We also celebrated Kupala Night: we walked along the central street of Minsk with carols in the form of cannabis leaves, singing songs about hemp. Formally, this was the first legalization parade in Belarus, and so far – the last.

We also picketed during the campaign of the Youth Bloc in Mogilev. But our most dangerous event was the so-called “rave in the bunker.” We gathered in an abandoned bunker in the forest near Minsk to relax and rest, but at night we were captured by special forces, literally. Until morning, we sat in custody. At most, some were fined for drinking alcohol in a public place. They didn’t find any prohibited material, although they were very hopeful because they searched for a whole hour with dogs. Then I met with a representative of the Department of Internal Affairs, and he said that a man was sent to our rave from the special services. 

– (M): We came up with even more radical actions, but we never did them. For example, burning a spliff. The idea was to burn a real spliff in front of journalists in the city center and show that it is not scary, that a person does not die or go crazy from it.

– What is drug policy? Does it exist in Belarus? What, in your opinion, are the main problems in the country’s drug policy?

– (M): Drug policy is a universal term. It refers to any rules and laws regulating the relationship between people and drugs in a specific territory. For example, these could be rules on university campuses or other institutions. When it comes to the state, it’s the criminal code.

– (P): The main problem in Belarus is the presence of criminal punishment, which threatens imprisonment for possession of drugs. Furthermore, there’s a general flaw in the legal system. The burden of proof required in court is very low. Many accusations are based solely on hearsay: someone saw, heard, or knew something. And that’s enough to imprison someone.

– (M): In my view, the main problem is the punishment of users. Those who use drugs peacefully and without causing harm face criminal persecution. Similarly, we advocate that sellers, distributors, and transporters who do not harm others should not be punished.

– (P): Of course, there are exceptions. If someone sells to minors, there should be accountability. However, for adults, cannabis should ultimately be legalized for recreational use, in my opinion. But that’s a step further. First, there should be decriminalization of drug use for all substances.

– (M): And the decriminalization of drug use should happen in practice, not just on paper as it is now. Formally, drug use is not criminalized today. However, buying, possession, processing, and transportation are offenses. But users cannot avoid all of these actions. In general, any voluntary agreements between adults should be acceptable, whether it’s joint use, sale, or something else. Punishment is acceptable, for example, when someone sells adulterated or diluted substances, deceiving customers.

Photo from the personal archive of Legalize Belarus

– What is the main difference between drug policies in Belarus and other countries?

– (P): It depends on the country and its legislation. Some have stricter laws, some less so, but Belarus tops the list of countries with the most inhumane drug laws in Europe. Slovakia is the second country on the list.

– One of the issues in drug policy is harm reduction programs. Do such programs exist in Belarus?

– (M): There is substitution therapy, which we all know about, so we won’t discuss it. Nevertheless, it exists, unlike in Russia. There’s also the “Positive Movement,” which provides legal, psychological, and therapeutic consultations. They distribute syringes, condoms, and needles.

There used to be a network of organizations helping people with HIV. Almost all of these organizations were shut down when repression against the NGO sector began. There were more than 10 initiatives.

Legalize Belarus also tried to do something towards harm reduction. But we mainly focused on people who are not dependent. On those who sometimes smoke weed, consume psychedelics, or stimulants.

It’s a myth that people who use drugs immediately become addicted. There are many examples of occasional use without escalation into addiction. Such cases are numerous, I would say, the majority. And we chose to work with this audience. We traveled around the country with lectures, made flyers about safe drug use, popularized reagents for testing substances.

– Tell us about Article 328. How many people have been convicted under this article in Belarus? Have there been cases of acquittal or closure of cases for those convicted?

– (M): First of all, it’s better to talk about all drug-related articles: 327, 328, 328-1, 328-2, 329, 330, 331, 332. But most people are convicted under Article 328. If we take all articles from 327 to 332, then from 2000 to 2023, about 62,500 people were convicted. Of these, about 61,000 were under Article 328. These figures are not exact because we don’t have statistics for 2001-2004.

Approximately a third of all convicts receive imprisonment, meaning they go to jail. I couldn’t find statistics on restricted freedom, but based on indirect signs from other figures, I can say this: previously, about half, now about a third of all convicts. These people end up in so-called “chemistry” [drug rehabilitation centers].

Acquittals are rare. In 2019, among all those convicted under Articles 327-332, one person was acquitted. In 2017, as well as in 2016, there were three people. So, as we can see, there is a real witch hunt for drug users in the country. But at the same time, psychoactive substances do not disappear from the streets.

Photo from the personal archive of Legalize Belarus

– How has the situation with Article 328 changed in 2020? What is the current trend of this article and those convicted under it?

– (М): 2020 was a turning point. Interestingly, from 2016 to 2020, the trend for Article 328 was decreasing, from 3,500 to 2,000 people, and from 2020 it is increasing again. In 2022, 2,383 people were convicted. On articles 327-332 the dynamics is the same.

So far we can say that repression has increased. But let’s look at the statistics of 2023. There is also a hot topic: they come to detain people for political reasons and find prohibited surfactants. Or vice versa, they come to detain people for surfactants, but find national symbols or subscriptions to independent Telegram channels. And people are given big sentences. There are dozens of such cases. The most typical of them is when a person is detained under 328 part 1 at the same time with 342 part 1 (organization of group actions that violate public order).

– (P): it should be added that in 2019, amendments were adopted that lowered the lower bar for parts 1 and 2 of article 328. for example, from 5 years to 3 and from 8 to 5 years. This was a slight improvement under pressure from the “Mothers’ 328 Movement” and ours.

– Do you provide assistance to those convicted under Article 328 and their families?

– (P): Yes. For the third year now, we have been providing free legal support to those convicted under Article 328 and their families, as well as to people concerned about the convicted individuals. Additionally, we provide consultations on writing appeals and complaints. Furthermore, we conduct more in-depth monitoring, gathering information from cases, analyzing it, and further disseminating it.

– What is drug education, and why is it necessary?

– (M): First of all, drug education should be at both the governmental and civil society levels. This is to ensure that civil society organizations do not face obstacles in conducting courses and lectures.

I believe that these teachings should start in schools. The main problem with drug education in Belarus today is that it is heavily biased towards horror stories. Students are scared into believing that if they try drugs once, they will become “addicts” and their lives will deteriorate rapidly. However, teenagers do not take this seriously because they see different examples in life.

Therefore, drug policy should be balanced, without exaggeration, without scare tactics, and without imposing a particular choice. Of course, students need to be warned about the consequences of drug use. But the foundation should be a scientific approach, as this tactic works much better than “fear-mongering”.

– (P): There are sad cases where someone starts “playing” with drugs and ends up harming themselves severely. This gets reported in the media, people read about it, and immediately conclude that any controlled substances always lead to such consequences.

Therefore, societal drug education is necessary. If everyone knows more about substances and their consequences, these terrible cases will decrease. We understand that the government may fear negative reactions from people, especially with conservative views. But education, including for them, is necessary. They did not grow up with this knowledge, they are not familiar with it. However, unfortunately, drug education does not reach them, and they believe what propaganda tells them.

Photo from the personal archive of Legalize Belarus

– Are there drug education programs in Belarus now? What are their pros and cons? Do you know specific examples of successful programs?

–(M): I saw some programs on the “Positive Movement” website, and there are a few others. We also conduct a school of humane drug policy, where experts talk about various aspects of drug policy, and we pass on activism experience.

– (P): We have our “School of Drug Activism”, and our third “Drug School” is coming up soon. We plan to organize 10 such events to create a powerful movement of people knowledgeable about drug-related issues, dependencies, and drug policy. This way, our experience can be used in other countries to eventually overcome the injustice that exists in our country at the moment.

– Are there common grounds between human rights and drug user rights?

– (P): There is the Declaration of Human Rights, there are various constitutions in many countries, and all of them state that people have the right to health. Often this is discussed when talking about the right to use drugs. Because health is not only physical but also mental and spiritual. To treat physical pain, sedatives are consumed, for the treatment of mental disorders – psychotropic drugs. And for some, it is important to heal the spirit, the spiritual realm, and for this, some use psychedelics. Within these concepts, I believe the right to use drugs should be considered.

– Do you advocate for legalization? In your opinion, what should the process of drug legalization look like, and what advantages will it bring? Is it possible to create humane drug policy in the new Belarus in the future?

– (P): First of all, it is important for us to talk about the decriminalization of drugs, about the decriminalization of cannabis. The benefits of this are obvious: it opens up new opportunities for the treatment of PTSD, mental disorders.

– (M): The most important step is decriminalization of consumption. And no less important is medical legalization because sick people must have access to medicines. Scientific legalization is also needed for research to be conducted. Over the past decade, global science has paid active attention to this, and a lot of valuable medical information has been obtained.

We need to see how similar issues are handled in other countries and use the best approaches from there, carefully and consistently. There is also a need to review all cases under Articles 327-332 of the Criminal Code. We need to release from prisons all those who do not harm others.

It is worth starting real drug education, launching broad public discussions, and helping people with problems.

– How do you assess the readiness of Belarusian society for the legalization and decriminalization of drugs? Is this topic taboo? Is there interest in discussing it?

– (P): Interest definitely exists. This topic was taboo when we first started in 2017. Today the situation is better. For the conservative part of the population, it is still a taboo, indeed. But progressive society approaches it with more interest: we receive many emails with various questions. And we hope that interest will only grow.

– (M): And even if society is not ready for legalization, there is no longer silence on the topic; the main question now is decriminalization and medical legalization. The majority of people are ready to discuss these issues.

– Is there any historical mention of drug use in Belarus?

– (M): There is one scientific work on this topic from 2016. Drugs have always been known on our territory. These included hemp, wormwood, valerian, poppy, belladonna, thornapple, fly agaric, tobacco, and others. Overall, altered consciousness was perceived as something “bad”, meaning not only “poor quality” but also something that makes a person foolish, play around, act recklessly. In an altered state, it is difficult to manage an economy, so clearly, any drugs hindered this, except maybe on holidays. Overall, it seems that alcohol and tobacco were the most commonly consumed substances.

P.S. If after reading the article you feel interested in the topic of drug education and harm reduction, or want to support the initiative, you can find out more on the Legalize Belarus website.

This article was created as part of the Free Belarus Center scholarship program