By Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch (director of the Global Drug Policy Program at the Open Society Institute)
It was two decades ago this summer that communist rule began to implode from Tallinn in the Baltic to Tirana in the Adriatic, ushering in free elections, market reforms and expanded civil liberties. Since then, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have come a long way. Many are now members of the EU. My homeland, Poland, has a steady economy and a thriving media.
Yet Poland, like many of the other new democracies in our region, remains stuck in the past when it comes to the humane treatment of drug users. Indeed, throughout the former Soviet bloc, there is a disturbing trend in using outdated, conservative and heavy-handed policies to address drug abuse.
For example, Gdansk — the birthplace of the Solidarity movement — does not have a single methadone treatment center. People must travel for three hours to get the medicine that is proven to control cravings and reduce the harms of drug use. They are the lucky ones. Only 5 percent of opiate users in Poland have access to methadone at all, compared with 40 percent in Germany.
Instead of focusing on treatment that works, the Polish government chooses to give priority to long-term rehabilitation centers located in the depths of the countryside that have little, if anything, to do with evidence-based medicine. Poland also chooses to treat possession of even the smallest quantities of drugs as criminal, as evidenced by the fact that 60 percent of people sentenced for drug possession in Poland are marijuana smokers.
Addressing drug use through criminalization and rehabilitation centers does nothing to curb demand, however, and usage rates have failed to decline. By driving users underground, criminalization contributes to a deepening public-health crisis.
This pattern persists across Central and Eastern Europe, where governments have also opted to imprison drug users. In Hungary, for example, the penal code calls for two years imprisonment for personal possession by a drug-dependent person. In neighboring Slovakia, the penalty for personal possession is, as in Poland, up to three years.
This approach is not only inhumane, but also economically untenable — leaders in these countries should be encouraged to redirect scarce law enforcement, court and prison resources toward more pressing causes. Simply put, governments can no longer afford to drain precious time and money that could be better spent elsewhere by locking up people for drug-related offenses.
If Poland and its neighbors are to chart a new way forward, at least three things must happen. First, these countries should look to the West for alternative and more humane drug policies. A report released recently by the UK’s Drug Policy Commission correctly calls for a “smarter” drug policy that focuses on addressing associated violence rather than simply making arrests.
Officials in Central and Eastern Europe should pay heed to recent comments by the UK’s Home Office, which said that “harm reduction underpins every element of our approach to tackling this complex issue.”
Portugal recently went a step further in voting to decriminalize recreational drugs, including heroin and cocaine — a move that has led to a significant decline in drug-related deaths and a fall in new HIV infections.
Second, lawmakers should listen to their constituents — a recent public awareness campaign by Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading Polish daily newspaper, collected more than 23,000 signatures in five days for a petition calling for changes to the current drug law. The changes, modeled after Germany’s progressive policies, would stop punishing people for possessing small amounts of drugs for their own use and bring about stricter penalties for dealers and more effective treatment for drug-dependent people.
In a step forward, a debate in the Polish parliament on the proposed drug law is set to start next month. Young people should not start their working lives with criminal records because of personal possession.
Finally, at the European level, EU policymakers can help by encouraging member states to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs. By freeing up resources devoted to enforcing policies against low-level users, countries can better tackle serious drug-supply issues and provide people with the effective treatment that they need and deserve.