Public discussion of harm reduction in Poland – especially the country’s attitude to injecting drug users – is stuck in the 1990s. Read what needs to be done, in terms of the realities described by Polish drug policy experts, to save lives and lower the costs of treating users.
Around the world, the discussion surrounding the need to broaden access to harm-reduction programs is reaching ever greater numbers of people. In Western countries, this approach is a priority in dealing with drug use. Flagship harm-reduction programs, such as needle and syringe exchanges, substitution therapy, and safe injection rooms, are used in the majority of European countries, in order to prevent transmission of blood-borne diseases, improve the health of people living with addiction to psychoactive substance, increase safety in cities, and reduce related criminal behavior.
The experience of those countries, linked to public demand for safer streets, and a growing number of people seeking treatment, is what made them pursue harm reduction, including the reduction of crime associated with drug-use. The best example is the Swiss model, where a pilot program introduced medicinal heroin treatment for people with opiate addiction. Just a few years later, a significant improvement in the health of the patients was evident; criminal behavior by addicts plunged (from 90 percent to 10 percent), while the operation of the clinics cost the state significantly less than the costs related to treatment with ineffective methods, or isolation of heroin users in prisons.
On the Day of Solidarity with people living with addictions (June the 26th), the Polish Drug Policy Network (PDPN), together with its partner organisations, the Harm Reduction Foundation and Krytyka Polityczna, arranged the screening of a film about the situation of injecting drug users in Warsaw. A public debate followed the screening, during which the guests and speakers sought to address questions concerning the successes and failures of Poland’s drug strategy. The event took place in the Palace of Culture and Science in the centre of Warsaw. The room was packed with more than 50 attendees, most of them young people. PDPN head Agnieszka Sieniawska opened the event, introducing the Room for Change campaign and the “Support, Don’t Punish” global day of action. She spoke about how and why, at city level, drug consumption rooms are effective alternatives to punitive drug policies, and why the creation of such facilities represents a good investment for the whole of society.
Watch the Polish Drug Policy Network & Drugreporters joint video on the Polish situation:
The movie was filmed by Paweł Libera, in Warsaw’s Praga district. This economically-disadvantaged area is the section of the city most affected by open/street drug use. Screening the film provided a great opportunity to discuss the wider issues. Representatives of NGOs running harm reduction programs in Warsaw, a substitution treatment patient from Gdańsk, and a representatives of the City of Warsaw, who all took questions from the audience, shared their insights.
The Room for Change campaign, which was part of this event, was broadly promoted, both in the media and in advertisements on Warsaw public transport, bringing information about the campaign to Warsaw’s approximately two million residents.
The participants in the debate were:
Dr. Janusz Sierosławski – sociologist, Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology
Magdalena Bartnik – representative of the Harm Reduction Foundation
Magdalena Dąbkowska – national consultant for the Global Drug Policy Program/ Open Society Foundation
Jacek Charmast – president of the JUMP 93 substitution patients association
Mateusz Lisewski – a patient from the methadone program in Gdańsk
Tomasz Harasimowicz – chair of the Social Dialogue Committee, City of Warsaw, director of the MONAR Addiction Treatment Clinic
Moderator: Jakub Janiszewski, TOK FM radio journalist
The number of people addicted to opiates in Poland is estimated to be between 15,000 and 19,000, primarily injecting heroin. These numbers are in all likelihood vastly underestimated, considering the broad margin of error in the research. There is also a lack of data on new trends in methods of using substances. Epidemiological research has not yet provided reliable data concerning, for example, the injection of designer drugs, stimulants or steroids.
The lack of reliable data in this field reflects the position which the addiction treatment system occupies in the harm reduction field in Poland. Injecting users are a largely unresearched population; their access to services is severely limited, and programs are underfinanced. There is a need to rebuild the assistance system, so that active users of psychoactive substances will be covered by health care. As things stand, these users are invisible, living outside the system, without recourse to the infection-prevention programs which work by ensuring broad access to clean needles and syringes, and safe injection rooms. In Poland, public discussion on harm reduction is stuck in the 1990s.
One thing is certain: Poles inject drugs. During the debate, we sought to address the question of where and how they do it. Looking for an answer to this question revealed a range of other problems in the Polish approach to dealing with the phenomenon of drug use. It turned out that, contrary to popular perception, drug markets aren’t places that disappeared long ago – a fact best illustrated by the PDPN & HCLUs film, created especially for the Room for Change campaign.
Agnieszka Sieniawska, Polish Drug Policy Network