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Ketamine Squad Turns on Doctors

First they went after veterinarians. Now, an army of 40,000 drug enforcement officers is aggressively pursuing and entrapping gynecologists, abortion doctors and detoxification doctors for using anesthetics and other widely accepted medicines.

The worried medical community is accusing the Federal Anti-Drug Service of using technicalities to ensnare doctors while letting harder-to-catch heroin dealers walk free. They say that in a country where drug abuse -- and related health problems like hepatitis and HIV -- are spiraling out of control, the anti-drug agency's efforts are misguided, if not downright dangerous.

"You can't compare doctors with drug dealers," said Yevgeny Chernousov, lawyer for an abortion clinic director who was charged with dealing illegal drugs in January.

"Even if some don't follow the rules exactly, that doesn't mean they are criminals," he said. "What are they supposed to do? Perform abortions without anesthetics?"

The Federal Anti-Drug Service, which has been ordered by President Vladimir Putin to crack down on drugs and answers directly to him, defended its actions and pointed out that there are less than 10 criminal cases pending.

"We have a responsibility to fight the spread of illegal drugs, as well as to control and limit the use of all drugs," agency spokeswoman Maria Lutsenko said.

Tell that to Anatoly Koryabin, the owner and director of the Blagvest abortion clinic who is facing up to 15 years in prison on charges of dealing ketamine, a powerful anesthetic. That is the same drug that veterinarians are being targeted over.

In January, narcotics agents raided Koryabin's clinic, near the Dmitrovskaya metro station in northern Moscow, locking his wife, Valentina Koryabina, a gynecologist, in her office there and combing through medical records and other documents for six hours, Koryabina said.

The agents said the clinic was using ketamine during operations without a proper license, and Koryabin was charged with dealing drugs. If convicted, he faces a sentence of seven to 15 years in prison.

Koryabina called the charges "nonsense" and said the clinic has a valid license to use ketamine. She said Health and Social Development Ministry officials even reassured the clinic many times that the license was good through 2007, even though changes to the law in 2000 required them to apply for a new one, which they did.

Lutsenko, who works at the Moscow branch of the anti-drug service, said, however, that the old license was not valid and that the clinic continued using ketamine while their application was being processed and the new license was not yet approved.

Even if that were the case, Chernousov, the couple's lawyer, said Koryabin should only be facing a fine and no prison time.

Lutsenko said that in the eyes of the anti-drug agency, the couple are drug dealers. "They accepted money in exchange for the drug," she said. "It's all very clear."

Lev Levinson, a harsh critic of the agency and head of New Drug Policy, an advocacy group for drug law reform, called the crackdown on doctors a witch hunt that distracts drug enforcement officials from more pressing problems like drug trafficking and the spread of HIV by heroin addicts using dirty needles.

"They have 40,000 employees whom they don't know what to do with," Levinson said. "They are just searching out these special niches to justify their existence."

In early February, Nikolai Trukhin, a doctor who runs his own detoxification practice, received a call from someone claiming a friend was dangerously hung over and asking if he could make a house call.

When Trukhin arrived at the apartment, Lutsenko said, he proceeded to load a dose of diazepam into a syringe to inject into the man's friend, who was sprawled out on a couch. Diazepam is used to relieve anxiety and muscle spasms, and control agitation caused by alcohol withdrawal.

The two men turned out to be undercover drug agents, and they arrested Trukhin and charged him with possession of illegal drugs with intent to sell, which carries a maximum prison sentence of three years.

The Lyublinsky District Court is to hear Trukhin's case, though no trial date has been set, Lutsenko said.

The sting was strikingly similar to one used last year to arrest veterinarian Konstantin Sadovedov, a defendant in one of six criminal cases opened by city prosecutors against veterinarians and owners of animal clinics for the illegal possession and use of ketamine.

Undercover drug agents called up Sadovedov and asked him to make a house call to operate on a cat. They arrested him after he injected the animal with ketamine to prepare for the operation. In May, a Moscow court largely let Sadovedov off the hook, ordering him to pay a fine of up to 6,000 rubles ($200) for possession of an illegal drug -- although he could have received jail time.

Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov said last Wednesday that all but one of the six cases against veterinarians have been dropped at the request of his office, Interfax reported.

Koryabina said she is not so sure her husband will be so lucky, even though Chernousov has appealed to the Prosecutor General's Office for the case to be dropped.

Whatever happens, one thing is for sure, Koryabina said: She and her husband are getting out of the business.

"I don't want to have anything more to do with that drug," she said. "I have a grandchild now. We're going to take a well-deserved retirement."

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