In Poland, a ban on over a hundred new psychoactive substances coincided with a massive outbreak of poisonings related to the use of synthetic cannabinoids. The most pressing question must therefore be: Does an increase in prohibition do anything useful to protect our young people?
On July 1st, the latest amendment to the Act on Counteracting Drug Addiction came into force in Poland, with the aim of making the fight against new psychoactive substances (NPS) more effective. Under the new law, 114 such substances have acquired the official status of “drugs”, with their possession punishable by corresponding penalties. In the same month, especially in the Silesia region, we saw a massive wave of poisonings, as a result of using a synthetic cannabinoid known as “Mocarz” (Strongman). The question which therefore immediately comes to mind, is whether the methods and policies adopted by the Polish government are achieving the desired outcomes?
According to official data from the local sanitary-epidemiological station, during the weekend from the 3rd to the 5th of July 2015, in Silesia alone, there were 771 suspected cases of poisoning, and 532 hospitalisations, as a result of intoxication. The previous weekend, those numbers were 667 and 461, respectively. Some individuals had to remain in hospital because of serious conditions, while several cases had a fatal outcome. In other regions of the country, the situation was not much better. One of the patients reported that he couldn't remember what had happened, except that he had smoked “Mocarz”. His heart stopped beating, and he had to be kept on a respirator. It took two days in intensive care, for him to regain a stable condition.
This extremely dangerous substance, up to 800 (!) times more potent than natural cannabis, began to have an effect immediately after the legal change which was supposed to improve protection for young people (the message repeatedly given to the Polish media by Mariusz Kicka, deputy-head of the acute poisonings department at the Institute of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health in the city of Sosnowiec). Given the situation, it is no surprise that politicians started to panic and once again announced a “War on Legal Highs” (an expression previously coined in 2010, after the emergence (and subsequent enforced closure) of numerous “smartshops” selling legal substitutes for traditional drugs.
Looking at the results of the previous attempts (and user statistics), it needs to be stated that the publicity campaigns against NPS in Poland have been an abject failure. Poor quality, terrible actors, attempts to refer to (in)famous politicians’ statements in order to make them funny – all resulted in something that the target population of young people simply laughs at.
After the July 2015 NPS crisis, the above-embedded new video spot was released. This time, instead of trying to pretend to be young people, the Interior Ministry decided to appeal to fear. In the video, we see a young man tied to a hospital bed. His heart is beating very quickly while nurses and doctors try to calm him down. Finally, we hear the signal of the heart stop beating, and we see the slogan, “Dopalacze kradną życie” (“Legal highs steal your life”).
At the related press conference, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, accompanied by ten young kids dressed in t-shirts with campaign slogans as a “background”, said, “… Nowadays, legal highs are not fashionable, the fashion is to be free of them. Today, it's the ones who don’t use legal highs, who are the cool ones”. Is such an approach any more effective, more appealing? I have some doubts regarding the street-cred, in the eyes of the target population for this campaign, of a 60-year-old woman using youth slang – especially considering her crusade, a couple of years ago, when she was a Minister of Health, against the law banning smoking in public places.
Why do young people choose new drugs?
NPS have had a number of advantages: they are cheap, very easily accessible, and you didn't put yourself at risk of imprisonment by possessing them. In the larger cities of Poland, virtually everywhere on the streets, you could find advertisements like “3-MMC 24/7 home delivery”, followed by a phone number. After 3-MMC was included in the list of banned substances, its analogues were available the same day. An intrinsic part of being young, is living in the “here and now”, believing in your own indestructibility, and discounting any possible negative consequences of one’s actions. The dangers of using these drugs are simply ignored. Polish drug law is one of the harshest in Europe, with the threat of up to three years' imprisonment for possession of any amount of forbidden substances. No wonder that Poland won the infamous first place in the latest Global Drug Survey, when it comes to the use of research chemicals. NPS use among respondents within the last 12 month reached an “impressive” 31 percent, which is 22 percent higher then the next country in the ranking and several times higher than the world average.
While politicians and media focus mostly on synthetic cannabis, there is another aspect of the increasing popularity of NPS. They are becoming more widely used among people who inject drugs. Why is that a problem? While heroin is typically injected three or four times a day, legal highs are administered as often as 15 times a day, some harm reduction services warn. The latest report of the Polish Supreme Audit Office states that the incidence of HIV infection increased by 13 percent since last year, while estimates suggest that 70 percent of HIV-positive persons are not aware of their infection. It’s true that more and more is spent on HIV treatment and prevention. The problem is that the system is flawed, the money is not allocated efficiently, and there’s no process for measuring effectiveness. Most people diagnosed with HIV are unable to provide information about how they became infected. These two issues, combined with the decreasing number of needle exchange programs, may prove to be a time bomb which will explode with induce terrible consequences.
In the face of this complex and multidimensional problem, it might be worthwhile for the Polish government to question whether their chosen path is the best available solution. Will it achieve its goals? Numerous countries have already understood that the “War on Drugs” is already lost. Polish decision-makers, instead, seem to believe that in order to tackle the problem, we need to add a new “War on Legal Highs” to the mix. The policies implemented up to now have proved to be wholly counterproductive. It is high time to change the approach, put aside narcophobic prejudices, involve experts in the framing of law and policy, and put some trust in both science and the experience of other countries – before more lives are lost.