Monday, 7 September 2009

Of drugs and men

Last Wednesday, we had a discussion panel in the Krytyka Polityczna on possible changes in Polish drug policy. With three MPs representing major political forces: Joanna Mucha (Civic Platform), Bolesław Piecha (Law and Justice), and Marek Balicki (independent left-wing MP, former Minister of Health) as well as our special guest, Ethan Nadelmann from the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, we debated if it is desirable to change drug policy in Poland, and what sort of reform we actually need. Ethan pointed to two sorts of harm that good drug policy should aim to minimize: harm caused by the use of drugs and harm caused by drug policy itself. So, one good thing is that we broadened the scope of issues discussed, to the standard question of how drugs as a social problem should be addressed adding a fresh one: how drug policy as a source of social problems can be reformed.

But, frankly, is drug policy reform in Poland possible?

The climate on the political scene does not seem open for change. Earlier this year, the Sejm added BZP and 17 other substances used as recreational drugs to the list of prohibited drugs. Only 5 MPs voted against (another 2 abstained). The policy is widely popular. Both in the political elite and in the masses the dominant feeling is that we need more, not less, repression. The majority seems to desire not a departure from, but a continuation of the trend started in 2000, when Jerzy Buzek's government criminalized the possession of even smallest amounts of illegal drugs. At that time, repressive drug policy was part and parcel of general backlash in politics, but it provoked some resistance. Now, it is considered by many the only reasonable option.

On the other hand, the public discourse has been slowly changing. The consensus over the repressive status quo begins to weaken. In Spring, when we published our book Polityka narkotykowa (Drug Policy: A Reader), the climate of opinion was almost entirely hostile to drug reform, even among liberal journalists. Everyone seemed to be basically happy with the status quo. Critical voices focused on the need to make the repressive policy more strictly enforced. But something has changed since. Inspired and supported by Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch from Global Drug Policy Program, we published the book, we organized about 30 public discussion panels in towns and cities, we started to gain allies... Mainstream media began to be interested in the topic, and a few dozen of press articles appeared during last six months. Not all of them are in favour of drug reform, to be sure, but at least there is discussion.

How much effort will it take to convince the wider public? How long will it take to get with the idea of change into the Sejm? We cannot expect to have a progressive law passed soon, but I hope there will be, after next elections, a political force in the Sejm strong enough to make drug reform recognized as a reasonable idea. Even a small change in the climate of opinion would be a great achievement. Thus we would undo at least part of Buzek's heavy legacy.

Adam Ostolski
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