Poland Inches Closer to Evidence-Based Drug Policy

Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch
Global Drug Policy Program, Open Society Foundations
April 7, 2011

poland-drug-lawsTen years after introducing one of Europe's most draconian drug laws, the Polish Parliament has voted to amend it, in an effort to draw a greater distinction between drug user and drug dealer.

Public prosecutors will be able to avoid bringing people to court on possession charges if the quantity is small and it is a first-time drug offense. Prosecutors will also be expected to determine whether the person is drug dependent.  At the same time, the maximum penalty for possessing a large quantity of illicit drugs will be raised from 10 to 12 years. MPs in favor of the amendments totaled 258, with 159 against and 6 refraining.

This is a huge success for civil society groups that have been campaigning to reform Poland's drug law. To date, a person can be sent to prison for up to three years for possessing any amount of an illicit drug. The amendment project, drawn up by a team of experts appointed by the former Minister of Justice, had been waiting for over two years to be debated in Parliament.

Ahead of the parliamentary vote, celebrity chef Robert Mak?owicz appealed to Members of Parliament in a video spot,  "Cook our children a better future!", which became a hit on Facebook in just two days.

Poland's current policy can have a devastating effect on a young person's future. With a criminal record, a young person is unlikely to get far in their chosen career. Yet Poland's prime minister, Donald Tusk—like many politicians worldwide—has admitted to smoking marijuana in his youth, as have one in three teenagers in Poland. The current drug policy is also costly, as the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank, recently noted. Today Poland spends over €20 million sending people to prison for possession of drugs.

Around the same time as the Facebook appeal, an open letter from 71 Polish artists was sent to the Polish Parliament, asking for an urgent review of Poland's current drug policy. In the letter, the artists point out that Poland's policy has only served to exacerbate drug-related problems in the country. Since the law was introduced in 2001, drug possession cases have risen by around 1,500 percent, placing an incredible burden on a court system that is already stretched to the limit.

It often happens that a drug-dependent person well on their way to recovery gets summoned to court for possession charges from their days of active use. So the patient is treated and then punished. Such an event risks undermining and reversing all the treatment. It also sends out a message to people with drug dependencies: Why enter treatment if you're going to end up in jail anyway?

The efforts by artists and young people are part of an ongoing campaign.  Former Polish president Aleksander Kwa?niewski, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, and renowned international human rights expert Wiktor Osiaty?ski were among the intellectuals who expressed support for the liberalization of Poland's drugs policies in an open letter coordinated by Krytyka Polityczna, an influential group of liberal thinkers, in January 2011. Over 100 organizations from Poland and worldwide recently signed a petition coordinated by the Polish Drug Policy Network. Support within Poland, as well as from the international community, is quickly growing.

Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's most-read daily newspaper, is also joining in by running s a high-profile campaign entitled My, Narcopolacy ("We, the Narcopoles"). Using a logo reminiscent of Poland’s Solidarity movement from the 1980s, its website boldly states "Addiction, just as nationality, unites the Poles."

The bill now awaits voting in the Senate, before being signed by the president. But for many advocates of evidence-based drug policies, amendments to the current law do not go far enough. Among the criticisms is the failure to clearly define what constitutes a small amount of illicit substances.

The main challenge in Poland, as in many other countries, is still to remove the taboo surrounding drugs. The Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Portugal are all excellent examples of how an evidence-based debate can bring about a win-win situation for all people involved—law enforcement, public health, and the government, and most importantly, the drug user and their families.

Marta Gaszy?ska, chairperson of the Polish Drug Policy Network, said in Gazeta Wyborcza, "Amending the law is a good solution. I was dependent on heroin for many years. Luckily I was taking it when we had much more liberal laws. Thanks to that, I'm alive, I can undergo treatment, and right now, like other people, I can have a career and a private life."