"Drugs: the end of war?” - Global Commission on Drug Policy meets

December 14, 2012

Prominent Polish politicians and celebrities have expressed their belief in the need for a move away from prohibition-based drug policies and the promotion of a science-based approach, under the umbrella of The Global Commission on Drug Policy.


Warsaw hosted a series of events promoting the liberalisation of drug policies. The Global Commission on Drug Policy (GDCP) met in the Polish capital in October to discuss the disappointing impact of the war on drugs on public health in Eastern Europe, and the prospects for change around the world. (Read more about the event here)

A day after the GDCP meeting, a conference was co-organised by the Polish national daily, “Gazeta Wyborcza”, and the Global Commission on Drug Policy. 200 guests and 20 speakers gathered in an overcrowded conference room to discuss the topic "Drugs: the end of war?”. Well-known Polish politicians, artists and experts discussed what should be changed, why the current drug law doesn't work and why it doesn't solve the problem of drug trafficking. Twelve years after a conservative Polish government introduced prohibition-based drug laws, we can safely say that the prosecution-based approach has borne fruit - of a sort.

It has neither reduced the number of people in the country who live with illicit drug addictions, nor has it reduced the level of drug trafficking, the former Polish president, Aleksander Kwaśniewskid, told the audience . At the same time, prohibition has put many more people caught with small amounts of drugs into prison, which would lead a thoughtful person to the conclusion that something must be changed, he added. This prominent statesman also presented arguments showing support for a rational, science-based drug policy approach. “Now is the time to end the war on drugs and stop punishing people because they use drugs. National drug laws should reduce drug trafficking and not wage war on people with addictions. The policy aim should be to educate users of psychoactive substances (including alcohol and nicotine),” concluded the former president.
The numerous other conference speakers included the President of Brazil, Fernando Cardoso, and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. The appearance of Aleksander Kwaśniewski on the podium was an acknowledgement of his earlier failure, as 12 years ago he signed the Law on Counteracting Drug Addiction, the strictest across Europe. Only a few months ago, he decided to become a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Polish drug law decrees that possession of any illegal psychoactive substance (any weight) is punishable with up to 3 years' imprisonment. Now, the former president claims there is a need to regulate and change the present situation. All over the world, there is a growing belief that the war on drugs has been lost. In Poland, victims of the war on drugs are estimated to include around 350,000 people arrested and convicted in the past 12 years. They were sentenced because of possession of small amount of drugs for personal use. The current law doesn’t reduce drug trafficking and destroys the lives of mostly young innocent people. At the same time, ignorance and fear of drugs tend to be the basis of social support for the drugs war.
In her introductory speech, Kora (Olga Jackowska), a famous Polish rock star, compared the effects of alcohol and marijuana. She urged authorities “to grant people the luxury of decriminalization, because the state cannot turn its back on people just because they smoke marijuana”. She emphasised that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol.
A representative of the Polish police, Mariusz Sokołowski, commented on the issue of the possession of a small amount of drug for personal use. He claimed that there is never the case that a person in possession of a small amount of an illicit substance receives a custodial sentence. Moreover, he said that police officers are obliged to apply the restrictive law, which in fact reduces drug trafficking.
Marek Balicki, a doctor and former Minister of Health, presented important statistics showing that 3 million Poles have an alcohol problem. At the same time, 90 percent of arrests on suspicion of drug possession relate to marijuana, a relatively safe substance.
Agnieszka Sienaiwska, a lawyer at the Ombudsman for Addicts program, expressed her strong opinion in the debate [do you mean 'on' the debate - or did she actually speak 'in' the debate?] opposing the amended Act on counteracting drug addiction, a Law which came into effect ten months ago in Poland and does not show any sign of working as intended.
Since that change, the prosecutor has been authorized to dismiss criminal charges, if the offender possesses only a small amount of drugs for personal use, and he (the prosecutor) finds that punishment is not necessary. But ever since its introduction, the number of legal cases is still rising.
Marek Grondas, a specialist in therapy for drug addictions, focused on the social aspects of drug abuse. For many years, he has been treating people with addictions; in his experience, young people are aware that using drugs is harmful, but that doesn't stop them from using them. The best evidence of this fact is the growing interest in 'smart drugs' in Poland. Krzysztof Kwiatkowski and Barbara Wilamowska, as representatives of the Ministry of Justice, spoke negatively about the war on drugs, but they also claimed that we have to wait for results of the above-mentioned amendment.
Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former Polish president, publicly confessed that it was a huge mistake to make calculations based only on the state's interests, and not taking into account the personal tragedies and damages caused to citizens. He apologized for his previous decision.
Later, members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy took the microphone. Former Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, argued that all drugs should be decriminalised and punishment of imprisonment must be removed. He also described the situation in his own country, where drug trade and drug production runs on a much larger scale than in Poland.
The former president of Switzerland, Ruth Dreifuss, talked about the situation in her country, which used to have a huge problem with people living with heroin addiction, under the threat of HIV. However, the Swiss do not use imprisonment as a key to the solution, preferring to help people in other ways.
The Swiss model was realized through strengthening the system of medical care, resulting in beneficial effects. Richard Branson, founder of the British Virgin Group, went further and spoke in favor of legalisation. He pointed to Portugal as an example of best practice in the field of harm reduction. Michel Kazatchkine from France, former director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria highlighted that policy should be evidence-based. For example, in Russia, where the state has stuck rigidly to enforcement policies, the number of AIDS cases has increased by 200 percent. He said that the best proof for the need for harm reduction, has been the falling number of AIDS patients in counties where harm reduction is practised. It would be a crime to ignore such evidence, Kazatchkine added.

The debate also left time for some further reflections. Among others, Professor Wictor Osiatyński, who said that in Poland, illegal psychoactive substances are treated in an extremely restrictive way by drug laws, while alcohol is legal, even though we have a huge problem with it. "I wish that our law contained an article saying that police officers can not arrest a person who is smoking marijuana - especially since many marijuana smokers, after conviction, become real addicts in prison... My daughter's husband worked as a bartender at a club where police officers never searched anyone. Why? Because it was a club for the 'high society'. The law prosecutes people from the street. The police boost their statistics in this way, because it is easier than detecting murders".
For our Polish readers, Gazeta Wyborcza has published an extensive report dedicated to the debate which can be read here