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Rensselaer Lee Warns of Growing Influence of Criminal Organizations and Drug Trafficking in Former Soviet Republics


January 1996

In an article for a new report from the Center for American-Eurasian Studies and Relations, international narcotics expert Rensselaer W. Lee III cautions that European and U.S. leaders should be aware that drug trafficking organizations are buying influence and finding stability in the politically and financially unstable former Soviet republics (Rensselaer W. Lee III, "Russia's New Drug Threat," Eurasian Reports: A Report by the Center for American-Eurasian Studies and Relations, Winter 1994-1995, p. 33-50).

Lee points to many factors that have led to a prime environment for the growing influence of criminal organizations -- ineffective and underfunded law enforcement, an unorganized and unchecked financial system, relatively unstringent border crossings into European countries, and laws decriminalizing personal drug use. Four republics -- Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan -- have effectively decriminalized personal consumption, although some still impose civil fines.

Within the republics, opium and marijuana have traditionally been grown in states like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Most of that production has been consumed within the states, primarily by those living in the production areas.

Increasingly, however, criminal organizations are buying opium from Central Asia for shipment to other points in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Lee writes that these organizations are diversified, dealing in drugs, protection, prostitution, gambling, weapons, and nuclear materials, and exploiting ethnic strife. These organizations are even aiding in the transshipment of Colombian cocaine to Western Europe.

Lee predicts that the 2000 now-known criminal organizations will continue to gain influence within police organizations and the political system. Drug production has taken over the economy in some areas, with criminal organizations controlling police and social institutions. In October 1992, almost all interior ministers signed a promise to cooperate more closely in anti-drug efforts, but they have little funding to follow through on that commitment. The republics have no conspiracy laws, making it difficult for police to nab high-level organization players.

Within Russia, there are an estimated 1.5 to 4.5 million regular illegal drug users, although the reliability of use data declined with the reliability of medical care facilities. The most popular drug in ten of the twelve republics is opium, which is prepared in a poppy tea or an injectable opium mixture. Many people in Central Asia smoke or eat opium as a medicine and in traditional rituals.

Heroin is not very popular in the republics, and police seize more poppy straw (used to make tea) than processed opium. Lee warns that use of heroin might rise in the republics if drug organizations in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan move their heroin refineries to safer and less costly areas in Central Asia.

The use of amphetamines is also widespread in many regions, and is expected to rise. Chemists and medical professionals put out of work by plummeting economic markets are now creating new, more powerful amphetamine blends such as phenamine and pervitin, as well as LSD and methadone, in laboratories and university research centers converted to illegal drug production. Non-chemists are making ephedrone, a stimulant produced from the ephedrine in over-the-counter cold medicines.

[To obtain a copy of this report, which contains many excellent articles about political and social problems in Russia, send a check for $10 to CAESAR, 2947 Tilden Street, NW, Washington, DC 20008, 202-966-8651. Specify that you want to receive the issue "Russia's Social Problems."]