MOSCOW — When a young official from Soviet Central Asia recently checked into the huge Rossiya Hotel, a minute's walk from the Kremlin, a drowsy desk clerk examined his internal passport and quickly snapped to attention.
It was not a sense of duty that aroused the clerk. The official's documents showed that he came from the city of Samarkand. Leaning closer, the clerk inquired discreetly whether he had brought any plan --Russian slang for marijuana--to sell.
No, the official replied, he had not. But the question was no surprise. Samarkand in the last few years has become known not only as a center of marijuana cultivation but also as a source of opium-based drugs from illicit poppy fields hidden in the foothills of the nearby Alay mountains.
Contrary to assertions by Radio Moscow, and indeed for many years by virtually the whole of Soviet officialdom, the Soviet Union does have a drug problem. It is almost entirely a home-grown problem--drug smuggling by soldiers returning from Afghanistan appears to be the main exception--and the scale of habitual use is still much smaller than in the United States and some other Western countries.
Moreover, there is little evidence to suggest that cocaine--a tropical drug--or drugs that require significant chemical processing, such as heroin or LSD, have appeared on the scene. A militarized border and a web of state controls over laboratory equipment and industrial chemicals give the Soviet Union an advantage over Western nations in this respect.
Yet the problem does exist. What is more, all indications suggest that it is spreading at an alarming rate beyond the traditional areas of drug use in the southern tier of republics, consisting of Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, and into the major cities of the Russian heartland--Moscow among them--as well as westward into the Ukraine and north to the Baltic region.
Spreading to Cities
As a blunt yet poignant letter published last month in the local Moscow newspaper Moskovskaya Pravda put it, "We smoke dope."
Written by a vocational school student who identified herself only as Sveta M., the letter told of a friend--"a regular junkie"--who stole drugs from his psychiatrist-uncle and another who nearly died from a drug-induced allergy as her terrified companions stood by, afraid to summon an ambulance and the inevitable police.
"Parents, it seems, notice nothing," Sveta wrote. "They are outraged when people on television talk about drug addicts in the West, and they don't suspect that their own son or daughter has been playing with these dangerous 'toys.' "
Only a few years ago, drug use in Moscow appeared to be confined mainly to hospital, veterinary and ambulance workers and their friends, who made off with ampules of liquid barbiturates and other painkillers for their own use.
In the army, a draftee's choice of intoxicant still followed ethnic lines: Russians drank vodka they smuggled into the barracks, while Georgians and other southerners, shunned and disparaged by the Russians, preferred the anasha --hashish--that friends and relatives hid in packages of food and clothing from home.
Now, however, Russian teen-agers in Moscow are talking casually about puffing plan and anasha, popping tranquilizers, sniffing chemical fumes and drinking a toxic, mind-numbing concoction known as "BF," or "Boris Fyodorovich," made from butylphenol glue.
Varnish and 'Toxicomania'
A seventh-grade teacher's introduction to toxic-substance abuse came in school one day recently after workmen had varnished some classroom floors. Puzzled by the glassy eyes and wobbly gait that some of her students displayed, the teacher crouched down in one of the freshly varnished rooms, inhaled the fumes and promptly discovered what the Russians are now calling "toxicomania."
Even if they haven't yet experienced a drug-induced kaif, Russian slang for "high," growing numbers of teen-agers and even preteens seem familiar with the jargon and the chemistry.
Along with the spreading use of drugs, a new vocabulary has suffused the language. Young Russians talk knowingly about "shooting up" ( kolotsya-- literally, pricking oneself), getting high ( kaifovat ), getting off the needle, and withdrawal ( lomka , the Russian word for "breaking.")
Most troubling of all, the technique of boiling down the stems and seed pods of ordinary poppies and injecting the resulting opiate infusion--a practice that has led to widespread addiction and needle-borne hepatitis in Poland and Hungary since the early 1970s--appears to be catching on among Soviet youth.
Drug Abuse Is Written About
More remarkable than the mere existence of drug abuse in the Soviet Union is the fact that, for the first time, the state-controlled press is talking about it.