Russia is a land of amazing landscapes that amazes tourists from around the world with its rich cultural heritage. From its quiet rural countryside with fairy-tale cottages to its bustling major cities with high-life entertainment, Russia has something to offer for every tourist. But what about cannabis? What is the legal situation of cannabis in Russia?
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Few people know that Russia has a fairly open legal stance toward cannabis. According to the state’s laws, cannabis possession for personal use is essentially decriminalised. But what does this mean for tourists? Could you get in trouble for consuming cannabis in Russia? Read on to find out.
Drug laws in Russia
Russia is home to the highest number of people imprisoned for drug crimes per capita in Europe. And that might come as a surprise because, according to the state’s Criminal Code, the drug laws in Russia are not harsher than in other European countries.
According to Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code, producing, acquiring, transporting or possessing small quantities of drugs for personal use classifies as a misdemeanour and leads to administrative punishments, such as fines of up to 40,000 roubles (approximately €450) or corrective labour for up to 480 hours.
The legal framework classifies all quantities of drugs up to 10 times the average one-time consumption dose as ‘small’. Anything over 10 times the average dose is considered a ‘large quantity’ and anything over 50 times the average dose is considered as ‘especially large’.
If an offender is caught with large quantities of drugs, he or she risks being punished by a fine of up to 500,000 roubles (about €5,630) or prison convictions of three to 10 years. For very large quantities of drugs, one risks being sent to prison for five to 12 years with or without a fine of 500,000 roubles.
Russia’s law even allows its citizens to turn in their drugs without fear of punishment, especially if they collaborate with the authorities to inform them of their drugs’ origin.
But what separates Russia from other European countries is how law enforcement agents follow the state’s laws.
Cannabis laws in Russia
According to Russian laws, the possession of up to 6 grams of cannabis classifies as a misdemeanour and shouldn’t cause too many problems for the offender. Anything over this quantity classifies as a criminal offence and may lead to imprisonment.
But, in reality, being caught with weed, even small amounts such as a single spliff, may lead to serious complications. In 2017, more than 100,000 people were jailed for drug-related charges. And nearly half of those verdicts were related to soft drug offences, such as cannabis possession charges. However, many of the offenders say that they were carrying small amounts of drugs that should have qualified as misdemeanours.
According to Maskim Malishev, the coordinator of an NGO that’s trying to change Russia’s drug laws, people are constantly complaining that police officers either plant drugs or increase the quantity of drugs in their reports to prosecute the offenders under criminal law. The officers use these tactics to shake down the offenders and convince them to offer bribes.
In 2019, Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter, was arrested and charged with drug trafficking. Golunov’s lawyer claimed that the drugs were planted on his client and that he was actually being persecuted because of his journalistic activity.
The public criticised the way investigators handled the case and protested for the journalist’s release. Several days later, Golunov was freed after the accusations against him were dropped, and the authorities opened an investigation on high-ranking officials that had overseen his case.
But not everyone accused of drug-related charges is as famous as Golunov, so most cases go unnoticed. According to Olga Romanova, the director of an NGO that fights to reform Russia’s justice system, one-third of the country’s convicts are imprisoned on false charges.
So despite being essentially decriminalised, cannabis possession and use are still prohibited and may lead to serious complications. Foreign tourists who are caught with cannabis may be treated better than Russian citizens, but they may be coerced to offer bribes in exchange for their freedom.
Medical cannabis in Russia
Medical cannabis is prohibited in Russia and can only be imported for scientific purposes. Cannabinoid drugs are considered ‘List I’ narcotics, which means they can only be imported by state-owned enterprises with relevant licences.
The production of medicinal cannabis or cannabis-based medicine is prohibited in Russia, and doctors are not allowed to prescribe cannabis to patients under any circumstances. While cannabis is used for medical purposes in many western countries, Russian lawmakers have no intention to launch a medical cannabis program.
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In 2017, Deputy Health Minister Dmitriy Kostennikov said that marijuana smoking is not as popular in Russia as it is in the United States and that cannabis is a harmful drug that fuels the drug culture and serves as a stepping stone toward harder drugs.
So, it’s safe to assume that Russia’s lawmakers will not consider launching a medical cannabis program anytime soon.
Hemp in Russia
Russia has a rich history of hemp growing. Some Russian communities have been growing hemp for millennia, and the country has been one of the leading hemp producers since the 18th century.
Hemp growing for industrial purposes was prohibited by President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, which lead to the quick decline of a thriving industry. By 2011, cannabis cultivation almost disappeared. In 2018, there were only about 1,500 hectares of hemp grown in Russia.
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But the prohibition for industrial-scale growing ended in 2020, and Russia is set to retake its place as one of Europe’s largest hemp producers. However, unlike the hemp varieties allowed in the EU that have a maximum allowed tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of 0.2 percent, Russian law only allows varieties that have a THC concentration of up to 0.1 percent.
CBD in Russia
Even though the prohibition of hemp growing ended in 2020, and it’s now legal to grow hemp for commercial reasons, cannabidiol (CBD) falls under a legal grey area. On the one hand, it’s illegal to extract CBD from hemp. On the other hand, cannabis possession is a misdemeanour if the quantities involved are small.
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CBD is not specifically mentioned anywhere in the Russian legislation, so owning CBD may be treated as cannabis possession. However, advertising CBD as a treatment for various conditions may make it cannabis medicine, so it would be prohibited in Russia.
The future of cannabis in Russia
Even though Russia’s laws seem to be lenient and permissive for cannabis users at first glance, the reality is completely different. Being caught with cannabis can be a very unpleasant experience, so tourists should stay clear of weed on their trips to Russia.
At the moment, it seems that the harsh treatment of cannabis users is tolerated by the authorities, and that may not change anytime soon. Cannabis is still a taboo subject, despite the fact that it’s pretty popular in Russia’s large cities. And, according to a 2018 survey, 59 percent of Russia’s population is against cannabis reform.
Related: The Legal Situation of Cannabis in Georgia
Cannabis use is frowned upon, and cannabis users will continue to be persecuted for their actions for the foreseeable future. Because, unless Russian lawmakers reform Article 228 of the Criminal Code, police officers have the legal authority to shake down weed users for bribes.