‘Cannabis Stunt’ overshadowed a more complex debate about Drug Policy Reform in Poland

11 February 2012, 13 February 2012, by Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch

Janusz Palikot’s intentions of lighting a joint in the Polish Parliament in late January drew a flurry of media attention to his campaign to decriminalize possession of cannabis. Having realized that lighting up could land him in jail and potentially oust him from parliament, he resorted to burning a hemp incense stick instead.

Palikot’s stance on decriminalization is commendable. Absent from the coverage of his press conference at parliament was his support for the recommendations of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and the Letter of 44, a group of Polish public figures supporting the liberalization of drug laws. Both campaigns advocate for evidence-based drug policies that protect the human rights of drug users, investment in harm reduction and treatment, and the avoidance of costly and counterproductive incarceration for minor drug offences.

It is questionable whether Palikot’s symbolic gesture was a sensible stunt as it played into the hands of a media that is eager to demonize the decriminalization campaign. The symbol overshadowed a more complex debate around the decriminalization of cannabis and other illicit drugs

Drug laws in Poland remain punitive, despite a recent small step towards liberalization. A new law introduced in December 2011 empowers public prosecutors to avoid bringing people to court on drug possession charges in three circumstances: if the quantity is small, if it is a first-time drug offense, or if the person has a drug dependency. In practice however, leniency is rarely applied. The law also raised the maximum penalty for possessing a large quantity of illicit drugs from 10 to 12 years.

Having embraced harm reduction measures in the 1990s in response to the prevalence of HIV amongst injecting drug users, in 2000 the Polish Government resorted to applying punitive sanctions to drug users under considerable public pressure. Following these changes, drug possession cases rose by 1,500% over a ten-year period, but the number of convictions decreased. Around 80 million Polish zloty (20 million euro) has been spent each year on criminalizing drug possession. Meanwhile, many social, health, and education services remain seriously underfunded.

Polish media, with few exceptions, is not interested in the detail of the decriminalization debate. A similar trend was notable in the international coverage of Palikot’s symbolic gesture. In his defense, would the media have even picked up on his campaign had he not pulled the stunt?

Is it therefore the media that is at fault by failing to pay enough attention to the broader, substantive issues?

Several countries in Europe and beyond have taken a stance that challenges this simplistic, moralized viewpoint, even when the policies are not necessarily popular with the public.

Take neighboring Czech Republic for example. A forthcoming report from the Open Society Foundations praises Czech drug policies, which are based on scientific evidence, and the results of thorough evaluation and monitoring. Possession of small quantities of drugs is decriminalized and health professionals, police and non-governmental organizations are all involved in the policymaking process. Police prioritize large–scale trafficking over small drug offences, which is cost-effective. Harm reduction measures, such as needle exchange programs and access to medication-assisted therapy, have kept HIV transmission rates low amongst injecting drug users.

Unsurprisingly, the Polish media reactions to Czech drug policies have been simplistic and moralized. But so much could be learnt from its southern neighbor. The potential success of decriminalization and a public health-based approach to drug use is story that is not being told. In this instance, it was overshadowed by the frenzied media reaction to Palikot’s stunt and it remains to be seen whether this will prompt a broader debate around the benefits of decriminalization in Poland.

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