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Poland keeps fighting marijuana users and not drug dealers, while available treatment is mostly based on isolation, i.e. very outdated. These are the conclusions of the latest Report of the Polish Addiction Ombudsman (a social institution set up by the Polish Drug Policy Network and the JUMP 93 Association).
The Report shows that Poland implements anachronistic and ineffective drug policy, aimed mostly at repressions and not prevention or harm reduction, contrary to the recommendations of international organizations working in the field.
The activities of Police and prosecutors are mostly focused at prosecuting for possession. According to the estimates of the Institute of Public Affairs, before 2011 eighty million Polish zlotys were spent annually for that purpose.
Out of 97 randomly selected persons seeking the assistance of the Addiction Ombudsman, 81 were arrested for possession of marijuana. Almost all of them possessed less than 3 grams, i.e. an amount considered a ‘consumer dose’ in the Czech legislation. Only five people were arrested for possession of amphetamine, and three for possession of heroin.
Mostly university and high school students are arrested. Their troubles begin when one evening police raids a club or a park. Most often they are detained, taken to a police station where they spend up to 48 hours. Then they are invited to voluntarily accept punishment, mostly a suspended sentence of 6-8 months’ imprisonment with two-four years’ probation. And a fine. More than half of them agrees to this as they do not know the law and are unaware of the fact that criminal proceedings maybe discontinued when a person possesses a ‘minor’ quantity of illegal substance for personal use and the punishment appears to be pointless .
The law (Article 62a of the Act on Counteracting Drug Addiction) came into force in December 2011. Since then prosecutors have used it only in 11 percent of cases analyzed for the purposes of the Report ( according to the prosecutor’s office, until June 2013 the article had been applied in 1.3 thousand cases).
Prosecutors also did not apply another amendment introduced in 2011,i.e. having an examination in order to verify whether the detained person is addicted and should be referred for treatment.
Agnieszka Sieniawska, the author of the Report, stresses that the new regulations, aimed at more rational implementation of drug enforcement policy, do not work as they should, while police and prosecutors just stick to their old habits.
The Report shows that 16 percent of analyzed cases that involved small quantities of illicit drugs were discontinued by the courts (based on art. 62a). In 32 percent of the cases proceedings were discontinued and two-three years’ probation was given with additional fine in the amount of 500 – 800 zlotys and payment of proceedings’ costs. 27 percent of cases were dropped unconditionally.
In total, 86 percent of cases analyzed during the Report preparation were discontinued. Although part of discontinuations still result in a criminal record which can have serious consequences for the individual’s ability to secure employment in the future. Besides, what could have been resolved “on the spot” and at a very low cost (thanks to Art. 62a) instead sat in motion a several-month-long, expensive and stigmatizing process of prosecution and adjudication.
Other clients of the Addiction Ombudsman got suspended sentences , which means that in case of recidivism they will go to jail, most often, just for a single joint.
The Report recommends introducing a four-pillars ‘Swiss approach’:
* Harm reduction ;
* Involvement in the justice system ;
* Treatment , including the treatment with substances substituting illicit drugs
The Report also suggests legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. As well as clarifying what ‘insignificant amount’ for personal use is, making thus discontinuation of proceedings a much easier decision to take.
The second part of the Report , written by Jacek Charmast, describes available therapies, mostly based on a late70s-model, i.e. detoxification in the hospital followed by a stay in a closed treatment center. Although today’s picture of addiction, i.e. a variety of substances, dependence on multiple substances, is totally different from the one from 35 years ago, when people were mostly addicted to Polish ‘compot’ (a crude preparation of heroin made from poppy straw). And regardless changed approach to treatment of medical doctors and addiction therapists. It is been acknowledged that in case of many addicts the model of isolation forced by abstinence is not working. They are unable to stay till the end of the treatment program at the center (only 13% finish the treatment cycle in Monar centers), and even if they do stay, later they return to the addiction, as they have not learnt to cope with addiction while being ‘free’ (for 73 % of Polish centers’ patients their current treatment program is a subsequent attempt at treatment).
In some cases addiction is so strong that patients cannot be completely cured. Hence, the substitution treatment programs, when illicit drugs are substituted with other substances, making family life and work possible. It can be compared to insulin therapy for diabetics: it does not cure the disease, but allows to have life as close to normal as possible.
Meanwhile in Poland over 60 percent of Public Health Insurance money is spent for treatment in closed centers. In six regions the figure amounts to 80 percent , and in three more to as much as 90 percent. Thus, every third European drug addict treated in a closed center is a Pole. Because the European model is primarily based on outpatient therapy programs, psychological and social support both to drug addict and his family. Basically, it is about learning how to cope with the addiction in real life. According to the European Drug Report 2012, in Europe 400 thousand people are treated in outpatients programs, while 50 thousand in closed centers (including 14 thousand in Poland).
“In Poland social narcophobia fuels long-term isolation”, the Report says . This is the result of lobbying activities undertaken by closed treatment centers (established in the 80s and 90s), which need patients in order to continue their activities. Counseling and support programs, initially working with the patient, most often refer them to closed treatment centers.
The stay in such a center lasts between one and two years. Out of 77 centers in Poland, 41 run a program that lasts longer than a year, and 21 run a program that lasts two years. National Healthcare Fund still signs contracts for two-year programs, although the National Bureau for Drug Prevention describes stays exceeding one year as pointless. In 2012 16.3 million was allocated for outpatient treatment, 62.4 million for treatment in closed centers, 19 million for substitution (i.e. drug replacement) treatment, and 2.3 million for re-integration (mainly, hostels).
The Report states that the Polish model of drug addiction treatment is one-sided , and thus violates the rights of a patient who cannot get help adequate to his needs and in line with medical standards. The system prefers those with strong dependence, and does not provide support to young occasional users.
The Report outlines the following recommendations:
* Freezing spending on closed treatment centers and shortening treatment time in them ;
* Doubling spending on outpatient medicine;
* Each outpatient facility should also run a substitution therapy program ;
* Hostels should be established only in large cities, with better employment and study opportunities.
The Report of the Polish Addiction Ombudsman also suggests legalizing marijuana for medical purposes as well as clarifying what ‘insignificant amount’ for personal use means.
Gazeta Wyborcza, issue 194, of Aug. 21,2013/Country, p. 3
„How many Poles die every year due to alcohol consumption? 10 thousand. And how many due to marijuana consumption? Zero. Mr Balicki talks about the “rational” law.
– The state forgets about the dramatic effects of alcohol consumption, but at the same time is very consequent in punishing users of marijuana. This is absurd, tells to TOK FM the former Health Minister Marek Balicki, commenting thus the withering Report of the Polish Addiction Ombudsman.
Poland keeps fighting marijuana users and not drug dealers, while available treatment is similar to the one available 35 years ago, i.e. mostly based on isolation. These are the conclusions of the latest Report of the Polish Addiction Ombudsman, as described by “Gazeta Wyborcza”. Conclusions of the Report were commented on Radio TOK FM by Marek Balicki, a former Health Minister and Director of the Wolski Hospital in Warsaw.
„The state forgets about the dramatic effects of alcohol consumption”.
– The basic question is whether the state can apply such disproportionate measures in case of marijuana? Let’s talk about the alcohol, which is a legal psychoactive substance. Alcohol directly contributes to 10 thousand deaths per year (‘directly’ meaning detrimental effect on health , the data does not include accidents or drowning under influence). And how many deaths are there right after smoking marijuana? Zero, says Marek Balicki for the Program “Połaczenie”.
– The state forgets about the dramatic effects of alcohol consumption, but at the same time is very consequent in punishing users of marijuana. This is absurd, concludes the former Health Minister.
Jail for 1 gram
– Why does police search young people in order to find small amounts of drugs, intended for personal consumption? Does it solve any issues? No. Severe punishment for possession of small amounts of soft drugs neither make people take less, nor impacts the drug dealers. It does not serve any good purpose. It creates additional problems in the lives of young people, i.e. difficulties when getting a job with a criminal record.
He also reminds: We know really drastic examples of the application of the law. Among others, the situations have been described when someone was put in jail after being caught twice in possession of less than 1 gram of marijuana.
“The state wants greater control. What for?”
– The criminalisation of possession of drugs for personal use is a reflection of the state’s desire to increase state control over its citizens. Is it really rational? Is it in line with the standards of human rights protection? Does it produce results? Now we know that it does not, stresses Mr Balicki .
The withering report
The report of the Polish Addiction Ombudsman, a social institution set up by the Polish Drug Policy Network and the JUMP 93 Association, shows that Poland implements anachronistic and ineffective drug policy, aimed mostly at repressions and not prevention or harm reduction, contrary to the recommendations of international organizations working in the field.
The activities of the police and prosecutors are mostly focused at prosecuting for possession. According to the estimates of the Institute of Public Affairs, before 2011 eighty million Polish zlotys were spent annually for that purpose.
Experts in addiction policies are unanimous in stating that alcohol, tobacco and crack present the greatest healthcare and social threat. Meanwhile, these are the marihuana users that are most effectively prosecuted in Poland.
The Polish Drug Policy Network started cooperation with seven experts in drug policy and human rights in order to accelerate changes aimed at rationalization and humanization of drug laws and the reform of addiction treatment system. The expert group comprises Ewa Woydyłło, Psy.D, a psychologist and addiction therapist, Prof. Jerzy Vetulani, a neurobiologist, and Marek Balicki, a psychiatrist and former Health Minister.
Besides, among the Board members are Piotr Kładoczny (L.D), a lawyer with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Prof. Krzysztof Krajewski, Head of the Department of Criminology at the Jagiellonian University, and journalists Ewa Wanat and Piotr Pacewicz. Together they form a PDPN Programming Board, an advisory body to the Polish Drug Policy Network.
During its first meeting the Board discussed most pressing issues, both of legal and medical nature. According to Prof. Krzysztof Krajewski, after the amendment in 2011 of the Act on Counteracting Drug Addiction, further changes in drug laws should be considered, including the reclassification of cannabis possession into a misdemeanor (following the example of Czech drug laws).
Piotr Kładoczny suggested that Poland, following the example of other European countries, should introduce drug amount reference tables that would define “minor” or “significant” amounts of drugs. Such action would facilitate the work of the Police. Thanks to such reference tables a student with 1 gram of marijuana would not be considered a potential offender. The change will result not only in saving money otherwise to be spent on prosecution, but most importantly in non-criminalization of young people, stressed Mr. Kładoczny.
Board members also highlighted the necessity to change the treatment approach: various treatment options should be available. There is a need for psychological and educational programs, but abstinence cannot be the sole treatment aim. It is not necessarily required in case of occasional users, while it may be unattainable in case of some addicted patients. Our model of dependency treatment is outdated and should be changed, added Ms. Woydyłło.
When discussing healthcare reforms, one should not forget about medical usage of marijuana. It may be used in case of such conditions as multiple sclerosis, and as a cancer pain-medication. The use of marijuana for medical purposes is becoming a world standard, said Marek Balicki. In turn, Prof. Jerzy Vetulani drew attention to the phenomenon of Polish ‘narcophobia’. Many public debates on illicit drugs are dominated by emotions and prejudices. Meanwhile, marijuana, similarly to morphine, finds its place in medicine and one just cannot pretend that it does not help patients. It is shameful that the state prohibits access to this drug, meanwhile authorizing legal sale of cigarettes and alcohol.
The Programming Board will meet regularly and, using the knowledge and experience of its members, will support further actions aimed at the reform of the Polish drug policy.
Why the current drug law does not make sense: Agnieszka Sieniawska explains.
Joanna Cieśla: Which of the stories of your clients do you remember the best?
Agnieszka Sieniawska: Perhaps, it is the story of a young man who came to our legal counselling unit and brought an indictment for possession of 400 grams of marijuana. I thought: “That’s a lot, maybe he is a drug dealer?”. Then I went through the document and found out that the prosecutor had indicated the gross weight, together with the packaging. That package was a backpack, wherein the cannabis was 0.3 g!
The cases associated with health problems are also moving. A girl, Polish, bred marijuana as she used it for treatment of post-traumatic stress in California. There medical marijuana programs operate legally. She had a certificate. The judge did not consider it and sentenced her to pay a fine and the judgement costs – a total of 9 thousand zlotys.
A guy with the Leśniowski-Crohn disease wrote to us. It is a rare disorder of the intestine, associated with an acute diarrhea. His mother takes him to the Czech Republic, so he can legally smoke a joint. It allows him to reduce the dose of steroids used. But perhaps the most shocking for me was a case of a man who was sentenced to one year of imprisonment, suspended for four years for possession of 0.2 grams of marijuana. In the fourth year, the police found again 0.2 g on him. The Court sentenced him again for 6 months of imprisonment, suspended for two years, but then the first penalty came into force. The court rejected our request for postponement, arguing that this case will set an example for our client’s peers. He was 38 years old.
Did he go to jail?
He got a cell with 16 other people, could use the phone once a week. He was anguished, had attacks of anxiety, mentally he could not do any longer. He was a Rastafarian. He felt hurt by the system of justice, as he was not a criminal and still believed that he had not committed any crime. His mother learned from me about the fact that he was in prison because he was ashamed to inform both her and his girlfriend. After three months, the court considered our request for commutation of the sentence on electronic monitoring. When half a year past, or half of the punishment period, we applied for canceling the rest of it based on the argument that our client met all the conditions and complied with the legal terms. The court rejected the request just because the client did not feel guilty for committing a crime.
Why did he smoke, since he knew that it could get him into trouble? Why do people smoke at all?
Why do people drink alcohol, if they know that alcohol is unhealthy? People used to always intoxicate themselves and will always do. The backpack boy was detained with a small amount of drugs a year after. He wanted to be a steward: he had received the university degree, undergone appropriate training. However, because of a conviction for possession of cannabis crumbs the plan collapsed, because in case of this job the employer required a clean criminal record. The system of justice and the public opinion do not take note of what therapists say repeatedly: the mere use of narcotic drugs is not a problem. People use substances as a consequence of having various other problems. No need to look for a public enemy in drugs.
But people get addicted.
10 percent of people who use substances to feel differently, get addicted to their use. It is a different question whether this proportion is large. However, in order to protect those who might become addicted, we have created a system which exposes all the others to very serious consequences and violates the Constitution. Denying a person right to choose with what to intoxicate him or herself, if his or her conduct does not endanger the health and safety of others, is contrary to the constitutional imperative to respect the basic freedoms and rights. You are going to the office or to a meeting, and someone suddenly stops you, searches your handbag, looks into your purse.
Moreover, the system itself has a lot of inconsistency. It convicts people for a gram of marijuana in their pockets on the basis of Article # 62 of the Act on Counteracting Drug Addiction, although the law states that possession of drugs is not when someone just has a psychoactive substance, but when it can be proved that he or she intends to share it with others, for example, to sell. By law, the mere possession of a joint in general should not be punished. In Poland, however, there is a principle of judicial independence and the rule of free interpretation of the evidence. You can appeal against the judgments in the court to eventually reach the Supreme Court, but usually our clients do not want to fight. They rarely decide to appeal, feel weak. Moreover, such fight is associated with additional costs.
Are there a lot of such cases?
In 2011, 37 thousand persons were convicted for possession of illicit substances, including 35 thousand convicted for possessing small quantities. Last year, after the introduction of the Article # 62a, allowing to discontinue the criminal proceedings, the prosecutors and the judges dealt with 18.5 thousand cases. The prosecutors discontinued every tenth case on the basis of Article # 62a. I also received data of the Parliamentary Analysis Bureau, which showed that in November 2012 in prisons there were 2.8 thousand people convicted for possession of drugs. Its cost exceeded 12 million zlotys. Only two out of a hundred were on electronic monitoring instead of the prison sentence.
Also we examined the cases of our clients. Last year 346 persons from all over Poland turned to us. We randomly chose 97 cases on possession of illicit substances, which ended last year. More than 80 percent of them were related to marijuana possession, of which over 80 percent involved the amount of up to 3 grams. In almost every second case, judgments were convicting. Most commonly, judgments implied suspended imprisonment, a fine, and supervision of a probation officer. Plus, the entry in the register of criminal records, limiting not only the possibility of finding a job, but also, for example, receiving an entry visa.
Do these cases have any standard scenario?
Usually, the detention occurs during a routine monitoring of streets or roads, during walks, in the parks. In the evening. The policemen usually stop a person based on his/her appearance, age, and the kind of the place.
Every policeman can just search anyone on the street?
The policeman should have the reason to do it. For example, a serious suspicion of committing a crime. Appearance itself is not a sufficient reason. But people do not protest and let the search because the authority says so. They extract the wallet, show the contents of their pockets and bags. If policemen find illegal substances, they seize them and take the person to the police detention unit. There they draw a detention report. In all such reports I saw it is written: “The suspect had – for example – 0.5 g of marijuana. There is a risk that the suspect will destroy the evidence and try to flee, therefore he is to be arrested”. It is also groundless. When the police finds drugs, it already has the evidence, so the suspect cannot cover the tracks. Despite this, the police applies 48 hour detention as a standard procedure.
Because drugs are a convenient enemy for the authorities. This enemy can be presented as a menacing, inhuman, frightening – and thus can help to impose their will on society. Only such an explanation convinces me.
What happens at the time of the detention?
Typically, the house is being searched, which itself is an absurd. What is more, the police searches the place of the registration of the suspect, for example, his/her parents’ house in Mielec, while the suspect studies and lives in Warsaw. And it is a double absurd.
They search assuming that someone who is carrying 0.5 grams of marijuana can have a whole storage at home?
The police uses this argument: such procedures allow to identify dealers. This is naive. The real dealers do not store drugs at home. Nowhere in the world the drug-related crime units use similar tools. They use operational methods, often work undercover inside the criminal groups.
In the report you cite the testimony of a man who was beaten by the police during the interrogation. Does it happen often?
At the beginning I thought it was an isolated incident, and now I see that in the course of the police interrogation the power is being notoriously abused. The police beats, threatens, trying to obtain information which is useless from the point of view of fighting the organized crime, but brings statistical effects . For example, they ask who else from among the suspect’s acquaintances smokes. This knowledge will serve the purpose to detain more people possessing a small amount of illicit substances and improve the statistical performance of detection. Eventually, the policemen convince the detainee to voluntarily submit to the penalty: the person has been already identified so the policemen want to finish and forget about the case. Prosecutors would offer from six months to a year’s imprisonment , suspended for a period of two to four years. The detainee would agree and leave the detention unit, but already with the criminal records.
Can I refuse to be searched?
Already at the time of detention we have a lot of mechanisms that protect us against the convicting machine. You can definitely ask what are the reasons for detention: it cannot simply be suspicion of possessing psychoactive substances.
If the police officer finds, say, a joint of marijuana, you should ask for respecting your rights. The detainee has the right to make a phone call on demand, for example, to contact parents and the lawyer. Our hotline is operating 24 hours and we can help you during the detention.
After the drugs are found you should demand to be released. If the policemen refuse and write in the report that there is a risk of fleeing, you should demand to contact the prosecutor. You can refuse to testify. Usually, detainees are frightened and able to say things which may harm them later, so you better act calmly, refuse to testify, and testify later during the interrogation by the prosecutor. If the prosecutor does not discontinue the criminal proceedings at once, nevertheless he/she must appoint an expert to examine whether the suspect is addicted or is a problematic user of psychoactive substances. In none of the cases we studied the expert had been appointed.
Intuitively we behave in a different way: if I submit, I will be treated better.
In this case it does not work. If the officer notices that you do not submit easily, the sooner he lets you go. This is what happens in reality, unfortunately.
You work in the organization funded by the state budget and instruct people how to resist the police.
Well, there is a certain contradiction here: the position of the government is adamant as far as the changes in drug policy in Poland are concerned. On the other hand, the government is funding our program and the activity of the Ombudsman for the rights of drug addicted people in order to alleviate the negative consequences of the barbaric law. Although you can simply change the law. Aleksander Kwaśniewski signed a law introducing a penalty of up to three years in prison for possession of any amount of illegal substances, and recently he apologized for having done so. I believe it was right.
But in 2008, the Deputy Prime Minister Grzegorz Schetyna established departments to combat drug crime in all municipal police offices.
During the first semester of operation, two-thirds of the detected crimes concerned possessing of small amounts of drugs or sharing. Only 35 percent were related to serious crimes: trafficking, smuggling, and manufacturing!
Do the changes introduced last year to facilitate the discontinuation of the criminal proceedings in case of small amount of drugs, move in the right direction?
The new rules were created based on the German model, there it took 30 years after the law adoption to shape a good practice. But to improve the application of the Article #62a, it is enough to make a small step: adopt a drug amount reference tables so to define which amount of an illegal substance can be considered “minor”.
Is it feasible?
Not in this Parliament. The draft amendment which stipulated this change was submitted by a group of 13 members of the Palikot Movement and three members of the Civic Platform. Janusz Palikot trivializes the problem, reduces and transforms it into a performance. Civic Platform resistance to it is astonishing. The draft lays in the drawer of the Parliament Speaker. I rely on Aleksander Kwaśniewski: if he engages in politics he may bring about the change of the drug law, preceded by a thorough debate.
Does the draft amendment also include the possibility of medical use of marijuana?
Yes, it does. Although the procedure to authorize THC for medical use is conducted separately. Sativex, a drug that contains THC and another substance deriving from marijuana, was included in the list of registered medicines. But in the case of many diseases cannabis only works when it is smoked. Besides, if pharmaceutical companies are given this market , they may lobby that THC can be permitted only in medicinal products. But cannabis can be grown in the garden. Of course, it is a substance that changes perception and its use has negative consequences, for example, can cause anxiety. But we need to start talking about it normally. Currently what we see is hysteria, performances, breaking peoples’ biographies, and improving the statistics of productivity.
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