Given the prevalence of alcohol in both Russia and Ukraine, marijuana is still taboo and very illegal in both countries. Here’s why.
Russians, along with other Eastern Europeans such as Ukrainians, have a global reputation for being heavy drinkers. Russia is also known as the birthplace of a flesh-eating drug known as krokodil (“crocodile), or desomorphine, a synthetic opiate more powerful than heroin. Given the prevalence of alcohol and opiates, it may be surprising that marijuana still remains taboo and illegal in Mother Russia.
Ukraine was poised to begin a medical marijuana program, but the process now appears to have hit a wall, with the newly elected president and former comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy now suggesting the cannabis plant be studied further and implementation delayed.
Cannabis possession of under 6 grams of cannabis is a minor infraction in Russia, while penalties for distribution or for possession of amounts greater than 6 grams carry prison terms. Marijuana is more difficult to find than in nearby Western Europe, but “spice,” or synthetic cannabis, is more widespread in the country, and it’s cheaper. Anecdotal stories of dealers selling shake laced with spice exist online, but the veracity is difficult to confirm, and marijuana consumption continues to be a taboo subject of discussion.
Small personal amounts of cannabis, up to 5 grams, is a minor offense subject to a small fine in Ukraine. Cannabis is generally seen as a bad drug, but its popularity is growing among young people. Cannabis users caught by the police with cannabis frequently bribe officers an amount similar to the fine to avoid the legal system, according to personal accounts from locals, ex-pats, and tourists.
Ukraine had appeared to be ready to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes, with support from Parliament and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy as recently as this summer. However, Zelenskyy has stated that the country has other priorities, the risks need to be better understood, and that supporters of medical cannabis “will put up with waiting.”
Among former members of the Soviet Union, Georgia is the only nation that has legalized marijuana consumption, although cultivation and distribution remain illegal. Former Soviet Republics adjacent to Western Europe, such as Estonia and Latvia, have relaxed penalties for possession in small amounts. Cannabis remains illegal throughout most of Central Asia. In nations such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan cannabis grows wild, and has long ties in the region’s cultures, often used for medicine or hemp fiber, and marijuana laws are largely unenforced.