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In Belarus, Sasha worked as a finishing master. In 2019, he became involved in civil activism and was forced to leave Belarus due to political persecution. Sasha made a difficult journey: first he went to Ukraine, from there to Georgia, then again to Ukraine, and finally – to Poland.

“For a long time I used opiates without consequences…”

I faced addiction back when I was 16-18 years old. I was on tramadol (a medical opiate) and in parallel I used all the substances that came to hand. 

I was initially encouraged to use substances by company. I lived in the Northern settlement of Minsk. We knew that the older guys smoked pot, so we were interested in it. Then, when I was 16, I tried tramadol. With opiates, my life became much easier. But you don’t pay attention to how your life changes, how your priorities change, the focus of your values. Eventually it starts to interfere with living life to the full.

For a long time I used opiates without consequences, I just liked the altered state. But we should not forget that tramadol is the same synthetic derivative of opium. Soon I began to feel the manifestation of physical dependence. It became not just a way of life, but a necessity. I would wake up in a cold sweat, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t do anything. I became anonymous, but it didn’t help me much. The point of treatment was to jump from one addiction to another. To treat opiate addiction, they usually prescribe tramadol, diazepam, as lighter substances. But if you’re on tramadol, what do you get prescribed? And there was a high probability of falling into a new addiction to the drugs that you’re prescribed. I’ve heard it said that tramadol is worse than the poppy system because it’s a synthetic opiate and the withdrawal from it is stronger. 

But at the age of 18 I was sent to jail under article 328 for drugs. So the issue with addiction to opiates resolved itself.

Before the trial, the only thing the doctors gave me was analgin and valerian. It was very hard for three months, I had insomnia due to withdrawal syndrome. But when I arrived at the colony, I was lucky to have doctors there. I was prescribed a course of treatment, after which it became easier.

Sasha, photo from personal archive

“Gradually I became addicted to meth…”

After leaving prison, I sometimes used mephedrone and regularly smoked marijuana. I gradually became addicted to meth. It happened against the background of a difficult life situation, my wife and I separated. The child stayed with her, I became despondent. 

Mephedrone threw me out of reality, and I started using it too often. I developed a serious addiction, and spent several thousand dollars in a couple of years. It left a serious imprint on me. 

Then I moved to Ukraine and continued using mephedrone for some time, until I had a drug psychosis. I took it intravenously and thought I was being taken by the KGB. Then I raised all my acquaintances’ ears and after that I thought that I should probably let myself go and went into a three-month remission. I started to feel good, but then I got back into it. I fell in love, and my girlfriend and I abused mephedrone for about 1.5 years. Then I realised it was interfering with my life, it didn’t work the way it used to. It doesn’t have the same effect. In addition, all of this started to affect my social life, I was slumping in place, not developing.

I think that modern designer drugs like mephedrone, flakka, NBOMes are bad for the personality. Take the same NBOMes  – it is such a strong psychedelic that it is difficult to cope with it. In general, experts do not recommend using psychedelics before the age of 27, when your psyche is not sufficiently formed. After all, you can simply go crazy.

The same goes for mephedrone. It can lead to schizophrenia, psychosis, obsessive thoughts. I even think that sometimes it works stronger in this respect than amphetamines. I have acquaintances who started using designer drugs, and their thinking changed a lot: there were more obsessive, delusional thoughts.

“When you’re an addict, your value system collapses…”

When you’re an addict, your value system collapses. The only desire you have left is to change your mind. When you go from psychological addiction to physical addiction, it becomes a matter of your normal existence as a social unit. So you can’t function without the substance. But the same tramadol I needed in the morning was just to recharge my “battery”. I couldn’t do anything until I took it. Overall, addiction fundamentally changes your life. The motivation to develop, to be a better person goes down. There are exceptions, of course. For example, businessmen who use heroin, but do not exceed their dose and live with it. But this is rare. When you are sober, you set goals for yourself. In principle, many people have simple goals: to survive, to eat, to find a mate. When you’re in systematic use, you have one goal: find a substance. When you are sober, in addition to all of the above, your priorities may include self-realisation and financial independence. When you are in the system, you don’t have these goals, the first tasks change and your whole life changes from there. 

In emigration I started smoking marijuana and using designer drugs much less often. Despite the fact that often people start resorting to psychoactive substances more often in emigration. In fact, I had no problems finding substances in Belarus.

Why did I start using less? I don’t know… Maybe in Belarus I experienced some kind of drive from treasure hunts. Probably, it’s something unhealthy, but the atmosphere of going to the forest 10 km away by car, walking there with flashlights attracted me. And here it is not interesting. 

Secondly, the quality of substances in Poland is much worse and it is more difficult to control. In Belarus, there was a hydra, where everything was convenient: you could read comments, find out the opinion of consumers about the substance. But all the shops here are in Telegram and it’s not clear what kind of quality you will get. 

There is no good mephedrone in Europe, and thank God. There are not only negative sides to the availability of substances in Poland, but also positive sides. As I said, I’m using it now, but in a controlled way. And just yesterday I wrote myself a prescription for marijuana. 15 grams for 480 zlotys, that’s a great price. And I have the opportunity to buy a pure, tested product without breaking the law. 

There are also illegal ways, like ordering delivery. People don’t get caught at it and don’t sit for colossal terms. But in any case it remains a black market and I, as a drug activist, am against such methods. 

I believe that substances should be controlled in terms of quality so that there are no harmful effects on human health. For example, overdose prevention on the black market is not well developed. In Belarus, though, there were overdose help bots on Hydra, as well as a health corner where you could get information. 

Now the shops are just black business and it is dangerous for people who are not initiated to have access to it. They don’t understand what the substances are and can get lost.

Sasha, photo from personal archive

“For recreational use of substances is personally unacceptable to me…”

My attitude towards substances has changed in recent years. There is some realisation that there should be a culture of use and the population should be informed about it. After all, substances are around us, they can be in our environment and in moments of weakness, especially when you are not sober, you can be offered to use them. And you will agree, even if you had not planned it before. And as a result you can end up with serious problems: financial, health, mental. 

I am loyal to substances, I continue to use them, but not systematically. I think that substances are like tools that you have to know how to use. Of course, you can have fun, but for me personally it is unacceptable to use substances for fun. After so many years of use I don’t see any fun anymore. 

When I say a tool, I mean something to work with yourself, to expand your consciousness. The same marijuana changes your consciousness and you see many things from a different angle, your consciousness becomes more flexible. Unfortunately, the routine of the days makes your consciousness become ossified. Monotonous work or even creative work still weighs on you. Sometimes you want to drink and smoke with friends, talk about different topics, get that weight off. And marijuana will accompany the flight of fancy. Psychedelics can be a way to work more deeply with yourself, to analyse your inner dialogue. They are even used in medicine to treat mental illness. 

I believe that drug education can change the substance situation in the right direction. But not as it happens in Belarus, when people go to schools and tell their stories about drugging in dens. It doesn’t work that way. I also think that these programs should take place more often and be more accessible to the audience.

The boundaries of cultural use probably depend on the substances. Cannabis, for example, you can smoke cannabis twice a week and I don’t think you will see any strong changes in yourself. Mephedrone once a month or even less. It’s more likely to make you addicted to it. 

If you’ve taken it four times a month, that’s the ceiling. But if you’re going for more, it shows that you haven’t dealt with hunger and don’t recognise the fact that the substance will no longer work the way it did. If using makes you uncomfortable, then you need to stop using. If you disappear for days on drugs rather than one night at a rave, that’s a red flag. What kind of culture can we talk about then? 

If control is lost, you have to hope that there are people around you who can help you. Or you should seek help if you’re practising it. You need to find ways to protect yourself from yourself. It is better to know in advance the contacts of specialists, where to call. In Poland, as far as I know, the situation with specialists who can help you is better than in Belarus. 

Sasha, photo from personal archive

“In Belarus, people continue to treat drug users and drug policy as the Lukashenko regime teaches…” 

The stigmatisation of drug users does not disappear in Belarusian society, it is still as conservative. This topic is tabooed, it is not popular, it is almost not talked about. In particular, in the democratic Belarusian community everyone is focused on political issues and political prisoners. And such a huge group of people as drug users or those convicted under Article 328 remain unnoticed. 

In Belarus, people continue to treat drug users and drug policy as the Lukashenka regime teaches. They believe that these are lost people, that they should sit in prison. The stigmatisation of drug users is very tangible.

I, despite 20 years of experience of use, continue to use substances occasionally. But this does not prevent me from being a good person, an activist, helping thousands of people, counselling them, seeking help. I also helped refugees from Ukraine for a year. But as soon as people find out that I used to use drugs, they just freak out. And I notice that sometimes they start to see not an activist who has done a lot of good things, but an addict. 

Despite all the downsides of using, I think legalisation and decriminalisation of substances should happen. Especially decriminalisation, and absolutely all substances. 

There are many pitfalls associated with legalisation in different countries. America, Iran… There are a lot of drug addicts on the verge of homelessness there. But we have to look at each case individually. To look for reasons why this happened in a particular state or city and to take measures to solve the problem. In Iran, as far as I know, opium is part of the culture… And access, I think, should be limited.

Ideally it should be like this: you go to a psychiatrist, he gives you an opinion that you are mentally stable, and decides to prescribe you a joint or a microdose of mushrooms. If you’re ready, for a whole LSD. He looks to see if you have a firsthand experience of using and decides which substance would be safer for you.  

Substance users should only be prosecuted as a last resort. There should be rehabilitation, rehab, good psychological help. 

In general, this is a very complex topic, because drug users have many triggers. You can live in rehab for three months, but see a syringe in a pharmacy, and that will be the trigger. I had one of those once. I went to a friend’s house, we smoked ganja, and I saw syringes in the clip. I woke up that night in a cold sweat, dreaming I was injecting. So rehabilitation is not a quick process. It doesn’t work the way it does in Russia and Belarus. People are forcibly held, almost in handcuffs. And these people still break down in the future. It is necessary to adopt the experience of other countries and create more humane conditions.

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