Advocacy efforts of Polish and international civil society organizations finally bore fruit when new drug legislation came into effect in December 2011 in Poland, allowing prosecutors not to criminally charge people for the mere possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use.
It appeared that Polish lawmakers finally understood that harsh drug laws do not prevent drug use and that the focus of law enforcement should be on dangerous criminals. While the change was significant, many worried that it was not substantial enough as it was still unclear what would qualify as personal possession. Unfortunately, efforts to offer greater specificity were unsuccessful. The attempts of the Polish Drug Policy Network to introduce a threshold limits table that would have clearly defined “small quantities” did not get through parliament.
So the decision of whether to punish a person arrested for possession remains in the hands of prosecutors.
We are now confronted with a public test case for the 2011 amendment. In June, police officers found 2.83 grams of cannabis during a search of an apartment belonging to Kora (Olga Jackowska), the lead singer of Maanam, one of the oldest and most popular rock bands in Poland. Even though in most European countries this amount would be considered small, the prosecutor is pressing criminal charges, which could result in a three year prison sentence. Asked why she didn’t dismiss the case, the prosecutor answered that it wouldn’t have been justified by law.
This incident is a step back for drug policy reform in Poland. Kora is one of the few public figures who has openly admitted to having smoked cannabis and argued that current laws should be changed.
In May, the former president of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski joined the Global Commission on Drug Policy. In an op-ed for the New York Times he recognized that the harsh law he signed in 2000 was not only inefficient and extremely costly but also proved to have dramatic consequences for the careers of thousands of young people. This week, in a front-page interview with Newsweek Poland, Kwasniewski expresses his support for Kora and calls for an evidence-based discussion about drugs, the harms associated with them and the role of law enforcement. Recalling his own experience as president and a drug law he termed a “policy failure,” Kwasniewski eloquently argues for the depenalization of cannabis possession for personal use, adding that he hopes the profile of Kora’s case will reveal the current law’s absurdity.
In an act of solidarity with people charged with cannabis possession in Poland (Kora among them), GDPP grantee Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), published an open letter signed by 44 Polish artists in which the signatories appealed to readers and Polish policymakers for greater tolerance and personal freedoms. “There is no reason for a person with a spliff to be taken away from his or her current duties, dragged in front of the court and put behind bars,” they write.
We remember the optimism that Polish drug policy reform advocates shared last year after having won the parliament battle. The 2011 changes to the law meant that the debate was finally opened.
Recent developments around Kora’s case appear to be a major backlash. Since she was searched only a few days after she spoke out publically about her cannabis use, there is concern that aggressive prosecution is meant to send a signal that further debate is to be discouraged. The seems likely, since a cannabis activist who went on record about his cannabis use only a few months ago was also searched and spent three months in jail.
An open debate is a cornerstone of democracy. By stifling this process, Polish authorities revert to its history, one that we overcame 20 years ago.