The long-feared storm has broken, following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. For longtime observers of this part of the world, there’s a certain inexorable logic to this grim moment. For at least a generation, relations between the two countries have been characterized by Russian fears that its smaller neighbor was getting too open, too democratic and too Westernized. This extends to space for alternative culture and cannabis use, as well. Even in Soviet times, the “seed beneath the snow” represented by underground hippie networks was especially strong in Ukraine.
The process of cultural loosening that began with the Soviet collapse and Ukrainian independence in 1991 has greatly advanced since the Maidan Revolution of 2014. In this popular upsurge, a months-long protest occupation of Kyiv’s Maidan Square finally succeeded in ousting a corrupt and repressive Russia-aligned president.
But this sparked the Russian backlash. Moscow fomented a separatist movement in the eastern Donbas region, and unilaterally annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
It remains to be seen how ambitious Putin’s plans for Ukraine really are—putting a puppet in power in Kyiv, or seizing the entire country and rebuilding the Russian empire. In any scenario, the recent advances for cultural freedom in Ukraine will be threatened—including for cannabis.
First Tentative Openings for Cannabis in Ukraine
Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine had been approaching its first significant loosening of its cannabis laws. The Verkhovna Rada, the country’s unicameral parliament, had been considering a bill on the legalization of medical marijuana. The bill was actually introduced by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Cabinet of Ministers, according to a January report on the official news agency UkrInform.
Mykhailo Radutskyi, MP from Zelensky’s Servant of the People party and a member of the Rada Committee on Public Health, stated: “The government bill on the legalization of medical cannabis has already been published for discussion… I hope that the committee’s members will support it.”
Under the bill, importation and distribution of cannabis would be under the control of the National Police—but it would allow use of actual herbaceous cannabis flower. Radutskyi expressed hope that the Rada would approve the bill in 2022.
Ukraine took its first step in this direction last April, legalizing the use of certain cannabinoid-based pharmaceutical products for medical purposes. As the Kyiv Post reported, a decree issued by the Cabinet of Ministers made legal use of the THC analogues dronabinol (marketed in the US as Marinol) and nabilone, and nabiximols, a THC-CBD extract designed to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
As an analysis on Lexology makes clear, the decree left CBD extract in a slightly ambiguous area, as Ukrainian law bars extraction of cannabinoids but only actually prohibits sale or possession of THC. Therefore, imported pure CBD extract was technically legal—and was already being marketed, with the tolerance of the authorities.
The decree was part of an opening to medicinal cannabis by the administration of Zelensky, who was elected in April 2019. In late 2020, his office issued a study finding that some two million cancer patients in Ukraine could benefit from medical cannabis as a safer alternative to addictive painkillers. That October, the possibility of legalizing medical cannabis was put before the voters by Zelensky in a non-binding poll—a part of Ukraine’s burgeoning model of democracy based on citizen consultation. More than 60% of respondents supported legalization.
Crimea and the Carpathians: Counterculture Havens
A particularly bitter irony is that the Crimean Peninsula—which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, in a prelude to the current drama—had been a center of alternative culture for both Ukrainians and Russians, going all the way back to Soviet times.
The Crimea, with its agreeable climate (by Russo-Ukrainian standards), was as natural as a regional hippie haven. While Crimea’s Black Sea coast is now more famous for the Russian naval fleet based there, it also hosts numerous nude beaches that have long been a magnet for Ukrainian and Russian hippies and self-styled Slavic Rastafarians.
Starting in 2007, “Fairy Town” festivals have been periodically held in areas of natural beauty in different parts of Ukraine, principally Crimea. These events, on the model of the Rainbow Gatherings and Burning Man in the US, are organized by a group called the Rainbow Academy, based in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and the local capital of the Crimea Autonomous Republic, Simferopol.
Another such festival has been held every July since 1993 at the other end of Ukraine, high in the Carpathian Mountains, near the borders with Hungary and Slovakia. The Shipot Festival is named after the scenic waterfall where the hippies, punks, drop-outs and weekend warriors convene, in Volovets district of Zakarpattia region.
Ukraine’s western city of Lviv was a center of the quasi-underground hippie subculture in Soviet times. Starting in the 1970s, Soviet hippies organized back-to-nature gatherings in remote areas, where they could let their hair down away from the watchful eye of the authorities. These were coordinated through a network called Sistema—humorously, or ambitiously, posing itself as a counter-system to the ruling Soviet one. This strain of alternative culture has taken deeper hold in Ukraine in post-Soviet times than anywhere else in the ex-USSR.
Meanwhile in Russia…
While Ukraine has twice seen free elections and peaceful transfers of power since the Maidan Revolution, in Russia there has been a consolidation of increasingly autocratic power in the hands of Vladimir Putin—who has ruled continuously as either president or prime minister since 1999. This consolidation has included a harsh crackdown on cannabis and other illegal drugs—and often, cannabis prosecutions have been weaponized as a form of political repression.
Some cases have made brief headlines in the West, because they concerned Westerners caught in the legal snare. In January, Russian authorities finally released details of a criminal case against a US teacher who has been jailed since his detention in Moscow last summer. Russia’s Interior Ministry said that Marc Fogel, who was detained at Moscow’s airport in August 2021, was accused of attempting to smuggle cannabis into the country in his luggage.
As CBS reported, Fogel was a teacher at Moscow’s Anglo-American School and a former employee at the US Embassy who used cannabis medicinally and was enrolled in a medical marijuana program back in the States. A search of his baggage turned up a small quantity of cannabis oil and herbaceous flower. He was charged with trafficking of “narcotic substances on a large scale,” and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Moscow human rights activist Alexander Khurudzhi, speaking for Fogel, told Russia’s Interfax news agency, “He claims he was unaware of Russia’s ban on medical marijuana.”
In 2019 was the egregious case of Naama Issachar, an American-Israeli woman popped at the Moscow airport with a small amount of cannabis while changing planes on her way home from a yoga retreat in India. Sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, she was pardoned by Putin in January 2020—in what was widely assumed to be a quid pro quo worked out with the government of Israel.
That same month, Putin was invited to speak at an Israel event commemorating the liberation of the Nazi death camps at the end of World War II in 1945. Then Polish president Andrzej Duda boycotted the event in protest, noting that the revised version of history made official in Putin’s Russia practically excized the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the 1939 deal in which the two dictators gobbled up Poland between them—and plunged the world into war.
Israel’s decision to sacrifice Duda in favor of Putin was speculated to be a pay-off for the freeing of Issachar.
Chechnya: Laboratory of Russia’s Police State
But there have also been plenty of Russians caught in the web. When the 2018 World Cup was hosted by Russia, there were calls for a boycott over rights abuses in the country. One notorious case, drawing special ire from rights groups, was that of the leading human rights activist in the Russian Federation’s southern republic of Chechnya—who had been imprisoned on an almost certainly trumped up cannabis charge.
Oyub Titiev, Chechnya head of the human rights group Memorial, had been arrested on possession charges after a police search of his car that January, and faced years in prison. Even within the increasingly authoritarian Russia of Putin, Chechnya is a harshly closed place, with the republic’s President Ramzan Kadyrov running what critics call a “totalitarian state within a state.” Titiev’s arrest came amid a draconian anti-drug crackdown in Chechnya, which was one of the things he’d been protesting—along with the internment of gay men in detention camps.
At the time of his arrest, Human Rights Watch called the charges against Titiev “blatantly fabricated,” and expressed fears for his safety—noting the many threats and attacks on members of his organization. Titiev assumed leadership of the Chechen branch of Memorial after the 2009 abduction and assassination of its then-leader, Natalia Estemirova.
In 2017, horrific reports emerged from Chechnya that authorities were rounding up gays in camps and subjecting them to torture—the first time that kind of thing had happened in Europe since Nazi Germany. Soon the reign of terror was being extended to drug users and small-time dealers, who began facing grisly abuses at the hands of Chechen security forces as part of the same ultra-puritanical campaign. Reports described the use electric shock to induce suspects to “confess.”
And, again, many such abuses were politically motivated. Human Rights Watch charged: “Framing people for drug crimes has become an increasingly frequent tactic used by Chechnya’s authorities to punish and discredit their critics in the eyes of conservative Chechen society.”
In June 2019, Titiev received parole, which was welcomed by Amnesty International with reservations: “We’ve been calling for Oyub Titiev’s immediate and unconditional release since his detention. The real agenda behind his criminal prosecution on trumped up charges was to stop a human rights defender from doing his lawful human rights work. In spite of overwhelming evidence that the case against him had been fabricated, the authorities in Chechnya crudely abused the justice system to convict an innocent man.”
Late last year, Memorial was ordered to disband by the Russian courts, on the spurious grounds that it was acting as a “foreign agent.” This means the country’s most prominent human rights monitor has been effectively eliminated.
The police-state measures first implemented in Chechnya were soon applied across Russia. In October 2018, the International Drug Policy Consortium, an international network of non-governmental organizations, submitted a “Civil Society Shadow Report” to the United Nations, calling the global war on drugs a “spectacular failure” and urging the world’s governments to reconsider it. The report, entitled Taking Stock: A Decade of Drug Policy, especially called out Russia for using beatings and other torture methods to extract confessions or information from drug suspects. The report emphasized that the prohibition against such methods in the UN Convention Against Torture is “absolute and non-derogable, even in time of public emergency.”
The neighboring ex-Soviet state of Belarus, Moscow’s ally which is serving as a staging ground for Russia’s thrust into Ukraine from the north, is under an even more closed regime—where cannabis and every other social freedom is concerned. The country has been led by a single man, Alexander Lukashenko, since 1994—and he has now established himself as an outright dictator. After blatantly stolen elections in August 2020, Belarus exploded into mass protests. These were put down with such brutality that members of Lukashenko’s security forces are facing charges of crimes against humanity by German prosecutors.
Russia has also been a leading voice on the world stage for hardline anti-drug and anti-cannabis policies.
Russia and International Cannabis Policy
At the December 2020 annual Vienna meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the governing body of the UN Office on Drugs & Crime, voted to strike cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the global treaty regulating drug control policy. Cannabis had been classed in Schedule IV for 59 years, alongside dangerous and highly addictive opiates such as heroin. With the reclassification, the Commission cleared the way for official recognition of the medicinal and therapeutic potential of cannabis by the United Nations. Among the 25 voting against were Russia, China, Pakistan, Brazil and Cuba—all authoritarian regimes, not coincidentally. The one abstention was Ukraine.
As the UN General Assembly met in New York in September 2018, US President Donald Trump issued a “Global Call” to renew the war on drugs—to the dismay of activists and dissenting nations who had been pushing for a reconsideration of a failed strategy that has caused untold and useless suffering in countries around the world. The Trump administration enlisted Russia and the Philippines as “co-hosts” of the initiative—both countries with appalling human rights records, where drug enforcement merges seamlessly with political repression.
Both Russia and Ukraine are major hemp producers. But, as the USDA notes, both have extremely stringent regulations permitting only strains that produce close to zero THC—more restrictive standards than either the 0.3% allowed under United States law or the 0.2% in the European Union.
With the world potentially approaching the brink of the unthinkable, cannabis policy in Eastern Europe may seem like a small footnote to a staggeringly momentous situation. However, an examination of this question can shed light on the more general stakes for human freedom as Ukraine struggles for its very survival as an independent state.