A user story, statistics, and legal background of police arrests for possession of small amount in Poland by Adam Stasiak.
It was a warm, pleasant evening. The wind was blowing the leaves in an endless whispering. To light up the joint Michael had to cover it with his hands. Little did he know about the horrifying chain of events set off by his actions.
“So what do we got here?” – three huge men dressed in black jumped out of the bushes encircling him. They grinned when showing off their police badges and demanding him to show his belongings. “Ha! Here it is!” – one of the pack triumphantly held half a gram of marijuana in the air. Michael was handcuffed and walked to the police car.
At the police station another squad took over the young criminal. He was made to take off his clothes and squat, to prove he was not hiding anything ‘down there’. Now he was ready to join others in the cell, a cell full of young people caught for possession of drugs. After a few hours his time came. “Boy, do not worry,” the policeman assured him, “if you cooperate it will be all over in an hour and you will go home. Just tell us – where did you get it?” Michael said nothing. “Well, maybe a night in a cell will help you out.” He could not do it. He really wanted to, but he couldn’t. It was his friend who had helped him get the drug.
Handcuffed again, two other policeman took him to the detention centre. Pants down, squatting, a homophobic comment about his hair – standard procedure again. Locked in this cell he surprised himself – he was in despair, but relieved that the aggressive police were gone for a few hours. In the morning he joined others in the journey back to the police station. Handcuffed to 2 scary looking guys, a student like him looked grotesque. “Oh, you are in for drugs?” said one of his fellow inmates, an experienced doorman detained for assaulting an irritating customer. “That is a pity, I wanted to offer you a beer after this journey, but I am sure they will keep you longer.”
Back at the police station they insisted that he signed a voluntary submission to penalty. “You never know what happens at the court house, if you sign this now it is better for you, all would be over now, case closed,” they urged him. So he did – tired, confused, and scared, he just wanted it all to end. After 30 hours, Michael went home and called his parents. They did what many parents with money would do, and hired a lawyer who withdrew the voluntary submission to penalty and replaced it with a submission for the case to be discontinued. And so it was – as if the thing never happened.
In 2017 the polish police completed over 35,000 proceedings under the Act on Counteracting Drug Addiction. Over 30,000 of them were based on article 62 par. 1 (possession of illegal substances) and par. 3 (cases of lesser significance of possession), which means that 85% of all cases were related to the possession of drugs, excluding possession of larger quantities. As I mentioned in my previous article, data implies that most of the cases dealt with by the police are cases of possession of small amounts (below 3g), even if qualified from the main article 62 par. 1.
(Graphic made by Social Drug Policy Initiative based on statistics acquired from the Police.)
So, let’s look at our story again. It was a long introduction, but the process of arresting one person takes a lot of time and effort. Who are the main actors in this short story based on one of thousands of stories like this? We have Michael, a harmless youngster whose main fault is that he experiments with marijuana, a substance deemed illegal. We have the police, but notice it is not only the 3 men that grabbed him from the park. In total, 11 police officers were involved in his arrest. Absurd? You should feel that way. There is clearly something wrong with how our police deal with drugs. When you take a closer look, their logic unravels, so why do they concentrate so much on someone who doesn’t really pose any threat to society?
Because it is easy! The police is a one of a kind institution which is said to be created to serve society, protect the people, and maintain security and public order. The police forces are evaluated and therefore rewarded based on their effectiveness. And what does effectiveness stand for? Statistics. In 2017 the detection rate of all reported crimes amounted to 71.7 %. When it comes to detecting the most popular crimes (the ones affecting statistics the most), the detection rate of theft of property was 32%, destruction of property 33%, and finally burglary 36%. Drug related crimes in 2017 amounted to almost 10% of all crimes detected by the police with an outstanding detection rate result of 96.7% . Obviously, the detection will be the highest when it comes to drug related crimes, because possession makes up the vast majority of them. So how do they do it?
This is what we learned from a leaked official order from the Police Commissioner in Wałbrzych: Prevention units and criminal police should be tasked to detect possession of illegal substances. If it happens that a single day they do not meet the goal, a memo has to be written explaining what actions did they take to fulfil their task. Such memo has to be delivered by 7:30 to the duty officer of the main local police station. So, the mechanism is simple, (1) go out, (2) find some “suspicious” looking youngsters, (3) search them, (4) find drugs, (5) your job for today is done. If they do not have anything on them, repeat number 2 and 3 until you succeed. If you do not succeed, you might get into trouble.
(Leaked official order from the Police Commissioner)
Here we are. One young man, a night in a cell, 11 police officers involved. A lot of time and taxpayers money. Yet nothing came out of it. The cases of small quantities of illegal substances are now often dropped on the basis of article 62a which enables discontinuation of criminal proceedings in the case of an insignificant quantity of an illegal drug possessed for personal use. It was a tough battle to have this provision in force. We should be satisfied that more and more prosecutors and judges make use of it, but also remember that we cannot stand down whilst there is still even one person detained for an act which is harmless to others. We must do more than changing the law, we have to change the minds of people enforcing it.
Unfortunately, we expect worse to come. Since the 21st of August the possession of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) is illegal. With Poland being a leader in consumption of NPS even more people will fall under the authority of the justice system. The ruling party will want to prove the effectiveness of the new act, and what better way than to show people big numbers. Some time ago Mark Twain repeated after Benjamin Disraeli that “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Keeping that in mind we should all urge our states to reconsider the role of success measurements in their legal systems as a way to strengthen the human rights of their citizens.
Adam Stasiak, Polish Drug Policy Network