Standing by a bench near Pushkin Square in downtown Moscow, Ilya put a small chunk of a green substance into the end of a cigarette and lit up. What immediately followed was 15 minutes of disorientation and disembodiment, like getting dead drunk and losing control over your speech and movements.
This was "spice," a smoking mixture made from spraying marijuana-mimicking designer drugs on innocuous herbs. Two years after the night that Ilya smoked it in a cigarette with friends near Pushkin Square, he died at the age of 35 from an overdose of vodka, heroin, and spice in the apartment he shared with his mother and brother. Ilya's brother, who was smoking spice with him that night, is now in hospital for drug detoxification.
Ilya is one of a growing number of victims claimed by this seemingly harmless pot substitute that often proves highly addictive. Effects vary widely since the actual chemicals used in spice mixtures change frequently, outpacing lawmakers' attempts to ban them.
In recent months, spice has led to the hospitalization of 700 Russians and at least two dozen deaths, leading authorities to begin cracking down on the drug that is fast replacing heroin and the infamous skin-rotting opiate "krokodil" as a public menace.
"I never liked it and told Ilya it would be better not to smoke it, it would be better to just smoke weed… But it's cheap, and you can pretty much find spice wherever you spit," said Valera, a friend of Ilya's who attended a traditional vodka-drenched funeral banquet for his departed comrade on a recent Friday.
"You can't get it at kiosks anymore because they've already closed them down, but spice sellers write telephone numbers on the pavement, and everybody in the neighborhood knows each other anyway."
Yevgeny Roizman, is mayor of Russia's fourth-largest city Yekaterinburg and he cofounded the City Without Drugs foundation that has won both praise and notoriety for its harsh methods of treating addicts. He has warned that "heroin in Russia is yesterday's problem" because spice is much more widely used and attracts younger users.
"People don't know what they're smoking and for that reason the results are so bad," Roizman told VICE News. "They bring them into psych wards and they don't know what to do with them… The most common effect is that people go crazy. There are very serious psychological consequences."
UN warns of unprecedented surge in synthetic drug use worldwide. Read more here.
The Yekaterinburg news outlet Znak.com reported that drug overdoses rose there in September, quoting a report from in the regional poisoning center that 20 of the 32 drug users admitted there that month had taken designer drugs often used in spice.
Spice hit the Russian news in late September after at least 150 people were poisoned and four died after smoking it in the Kirov region, including one 15-year-old boy who became ill after smoking the substance on a riverbank, then fell in and drowned. The epidemic soon began to spread, killing six spice smokers in the Siberian city of Surgut, two in the Komi Republic and poisoning many more in these and other regions. A 16-year-old female refugee from war-torn Luhansk in eastern Ukraine died this month after smoking spice in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia.
Russian state television hinted that the drug's distribution was to blame on groups from neighboring Ukraine.
Russian media have reported that spice users often commit suicide and shown footage of crazed people jumping out of windows. "One day I stood up and I understood with absolute clarity that the only way for me to escape from the awful life I was in was to murder both of my children, and then kill myself," one spice addict told the Guardian. "I was crystal clear that this was the only course of action open to me. Luckily, my husband stopped me, and calmed me down. But what about people who don't have that support?"
In October, the director of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service Viktor Ivanov said spice mixtures had poisoned a total of 700 and killed at least two dozen since September 19. These lethal batches of spice contained a new designer drug known as MDMB (N)-Bz-F, which is not on the government's list of banned substances and is therefore not illegal, he added. (The drug is sometimes sold online and can also be obtained in the United States.)
Law enforcement authorities had begun "intensive" operations to find the drug and had detained 20 suspected spice dealers, Ivanov said, but he admitted that the "size of the problem is growing rapidly," with a total of 22 tons of spice confiscated by authorities. He blamed the epidemic on mass smuggling operations by "foreign mafia," as well as the inability of the Russian authorities to keep up with the quickly changing chemical formulas of the designer drugs used in spice.
Russian state television hinted that the drug's distribution was to blame on groups from neighboring Ukraine, where Russian soldiers have been supporting a separatist uprising in the country's east. A segment on the Rossiya-1 news show hosted by Dmitry Kiselyov, the virulently anti-gay and anti-Western television presenter who also heads the Kremlin's international news service Rossiya Segodnya, showed four men it said were Ukrainians who had smuggled spice in Surgut being detained by police. "Three weeks ago they were recruited in Nikolayev. They were offered $3,000 a month to work in Russia," the narrator intones. But the segment said the spice itself was produced in China.
Among the measures Ivanov proposed were new regulations allowing Russia's Federal Drug Control Service to ban for three years new substances it deems to be narcotics, and legislation to this effect has been introduced to parliament. The service has also proposed raising the prison term to eight years for those who sell spice as part of a criminal gang, or who sell spice that results in the death of a user.
Roman Khudyakov, a parliamentary deputy from the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, recently proposed that country reintroduces the death penalty specifically for spice dealers.
A recently published video showed drug control service "special forces" in bulletproof vests and helmets staging a dramatic spice raid in the parking lot of a garage complex. In the video, officers armed with machine guns fire several shots in the air as they jump out of their van, then quickly force half a dozen men in sweatpants and windbreakers to the ground. In the alleged smugglers' car, they find a stash of spice hidden in a secret compartment in the trunk, as well as a Kalashnikov machine gun and a pistol.
But despite the raids and legislative proposals, spice remains easily accessible even in the capital, Muscovites who have tried the substance told VICE News. Dealers' numbers can be found on internet forums and websites claim to sell smoking mixtures online. Moscow resident Ulyana, who declined to give her last name, said the drug could even still be found in some kiosks.
"If you know what you're looking for, you go to the window, hold out 500 rubles ($12) and say give me a black square, and they give it to you," she said, using a slang term that stems from the black packets spice is often sold in.
Ulyana used to smoke spice but quickly dropped it after a bout of paranoia brought her to the realization that the drug has more serious side effects than marijuana.
"Afterwards you feel bad. It takes a big toll on your body and it doesn't give you any pleasure at all," she said. "But if a person has it in mind to kill themselves, it's cheap and available… you can turn off your consciousness and try to go to some nirvana."
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn
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