That was the first time I’d seen someone’s brains where they’re not supposed to be. They have a president there, Rodrigo Duterte, who’s a psycho and just wants to kill all addicts and dealers. Since 2016, there’s been something like 26,000 killed, either from police murders or vigilante death squads. That’s basically a genocide. They say they’re going after drug kingpins, but really it’s just the poor getting fucked in the ass.
There’s a chapter about drugs in the Middle East. What did you learn?
I thought it would be interesting to see how these ultra-conservative, religious Middle Eastern societies deal with the problem of drugs. I’d heard a story about the Alaei brothers — two doctors in Iran — who were imprisoned for helping their addicted patients. I got in touch with one of them and found that in the nineties they set up a free clinic for drug users, sex workers, and HIV sufferers. Iran’s the first stop on the smack track from Afghanistan and it is traditional to smoke opium there, so there was a lot of heroin about. But the government doesn’t want to admit this happens. They want everyone to think their citizens are good, pious Muslims.
A clinic like the one the Alaei brothers opened meant not everyone was acting entirely in-line with scripture. In 2008, they were accused of “spying” and thrown into Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. But even there they continued their work, setting up health programs for prisoners, and even a weekly newspaper. Finally in 2010-2011, they were freed after an international outcry and now live in exile, teaching online classes to medical students in Syria.
What are your thoughts on Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs?
The police in Portugal don’t care if you’re carrying a gram in your pocket. It’s an administrative offense, like a parking ticket, so if you’re a kid smoking pot you won’t get a record that follows you the rest of your life. Not only that, but the Portuguese government poured money into free treatment and harm reduction, like handing out clean needles and teaching people how to take drugs safely. And it’s been extraordinarily effective. They’re not locking people up in the millions and they have the lowest overdose rate in Europe.
I wonder how far that would get in the States before everyone freaked out about “handouts.” I think what they’ve done in Portugal is great but they haven’t gone far enough. There’s still a hard core of addicts. Also, dealing — coke, weed, etc. — is still illegal. My good buddy Mario’s a Lisbon club promoter but I haven’t heard from him in a while — maybe cops got him.
What have you concluded about America’s opioid crisis?
You could argue that the crisis is an example of why we shouldn’t legalize anything. You’ve got Big Pharma — supposedly trusted doctors and drug companies — giving people highly addictive drugs, all above-board. And it’s caused a higher death toll than the Vietnam War did. The opioid crisis is complicated, but a lot of people I talked to were led to heroin by prescription drugs, and then either lost their prescription or couldn’t afford it. They don’t have that problem in Switzerland and other countries where you can go to a clinic and shoot up diamorphine for free. So it seems to me the problem is still black-market smack being taken illegally.
What’s the drug situation in Russia, where you were born?
Heroin used to be the big thing. In the nineties, my friends used to hustle and steal every day just to score a bag of dope from the gypsy village. Now everything’s gone online, on the dark web, but unlike in the West, it’s tricky to get drugs delivered straight to your house. Instead, once you send the money, you’ll get the GPS coordinates where to find the goods, along with some photos of where they are stashed. For instance, it’ll be under such-and-such a tree, when you take the first left in the park. It’s like a little quest or scavenger hunt.
What’s prison like in Britain?
My prison was called HMP Isis, so you could say I was in Isis before joining Isis became a thing. There’s some people out there who say prison is like a holiday camp, but I think they’ve just been booking the wrong holidays. I’ve gotta say there is violence, there are drugs, there are gangs, but mostly it’s just boring and depressing.