By Oliver Carroll
Artyom had been minding his business, waiting for a friend near a metro station in Moscow’s lugubrious suburbs.
The Russian winter had already hung its evening shadow on the city, so the 26-year-old computer technician did not immediately notice the three officers who made their way from the underpass. By the time the men were in sight, it was already too late. Artyom, who had a joint in his top pocket, knew the encounter would not end well – they “never do”. So he ran.
Freedom ended a minute later with the embrace of a dozen policemen, a broken nose and a serious head injury.
Several months later, Artyom – not his real name – was charged under the infamous article 228 of Russia’s criminal code, and accused of possession of hard drugs. Prosecutors claimed his joint was not just marijuana and tobacco, but also contained synthetic cannabinoids. They applied for a prison sentence of three years, and given Russia’s 0.1 per cent acquittal rate, certainly expected to get it.
In the end, Artyom was lucky with the judge, who saw inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case and ordered a suspended sentence and no-travel order. But others are not so lucky. According to statistics seen by The Independent, almost half of the 102,217 guilty verdicts handed down by Russian courts in 2017 related to cannabis and related soft drugs. That year was not an exception.