With President Bronislaw Komorwski signing into law late last month an amendment to the country's harsh, decade-old drug laws, Poland has taken a step in the direction of the decriminalization of drug possession. But how much of a difference the new law will make is unclear at this point, and it won't go into effect for another six months. The new law also increases sentences for some drug distribution offenses.
It is one thing to have the law on the books, but whether prosecutors will take advantage of it remains to be seen. The experience in other European countries that have enacted similar laws suggests that they will have to be prodded.
Also unclear at this point is just what will constitute a "small" amount of drugs for personal use. That is an issue that is now being contested. In a sign of how volatile the issue is, demonstrators demanding a 30 gram figure for marijuana, the ability to grow at home, and amnesty for pot prisoners, clashed last weekend with police in Warsaw just days after the president signed the new law. Nearly 30 people were arrested on drug charges, and police were attacked with eggs and empty beer bottles.
The protest was called by the Free Hemp Initiative, and police estimated some 6,000 people attended. Demonstrators shouted slogans and waved banners with exhortations such as "Plant It, Smoke It, Legalize It!" on them. Organizers managed to cool down the crowd after the violence broke out by reminding people of their nonviolent stance.
Activists are planning to both push prosecutors to use the new law and to try to open up discussion around the personal use threshold in a bit to push further in the direction of real decriminalization.
Polish and international experts cautioned about making too much of the reform. "While this is only a small change, it is nevertheless a step in the right direction," said the International Drug Policy Consortium.
The reform "seems quite modest and even marginal," Dr Mateusz Klinowski, Chair of Legal Theory at the Jagiellonian University's Department of Law and Administration, told the Krakow Post. "Though the amendment doesn't seem to be a major breakthrough, at least it creates hope of future reforms," he added. "The first step has been taken and now it is public opinion and non-governmental organizations which have to advocate rational solutions and efficient law that will be aimed primarily at prevention and treatment, rather than at penalizing possession."
In commenting on the new law, Justice Minister Krysztof Kwiatkowski demonstrated that the old mentality or at least the old politics is still strong in the halls of power. While he confirmed that prosecutors must now investigate each drug possession case to see if it qualifies for dismissal, his rhetoric was that of prohibition.
"We have increased the criminal responsibility for those who sell death, in order to provide for more effective prosecution," he said. "Police should concentrate on the pursuit of drug dealers and not drug addicts. We should focus on providing treatment for such people."
Even this limited progress on reforming Poland's drug laws came only after years of delay. A team of experts appointed by the former justice minister had drawn up the amendments more than two years ago.
Polish politicians were also the object of a concerted civil society campaign to liberalize the drug laws. Celebrity chef Robert Maklowicz created a Facebook video, Cook Our Children a Better Future, arguing for reform, while at the same time, 71 Polish artists sent an open letter to the Sejm seeking a review of Polish drug policy.
Former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, and renowned international human rights expert Wiktor Osiatyński also joined the fray, signing a January open letter coordinated by Krytyka Polityczna, an influential group of liberal thinkers. Over 100 organizations from Poland and worldwide recently signed a petition coordinated by the Polish Drug Policy Network. A video by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union was viewed by nearly 50,000 people.
While for many advocates the reforms don't go far enough, they are at least a step in the right direction. Now it will be up to activists and civil society to continue prodding politicians to keep moving toward more civilized drug policies.