Drug Policy and the Polish Criminal Justice System

“We just do not have the time for that” – that sentence has echoed in my mind since the last conference. What does it concern? Drug policy. Who doesn’t have time for it? The Polish justice system. Polish Drug Policy Network organised a training which aimed to create a platform between judges, prosecutors, and addiction therapy specialists. Adam Stasiak summarises the lessons learnt.

“We just do not have the time for that” – that sentence has echoed in my mind since the last conference. What does it concern? Drug policy. Who doesn’t have time for it? The Polish justice system. This is one of the main unexpected conclusions we came to during training, organised by the Polish Drug Policy Network, on the application of the amended laws on counteracting drug addiction, conducted for judicial staff and addiction treatment specialists. The training, which is set to take place in all 16 Polish voivodeships, aims to create a platform between three groups of professionals – judges, prosecutors, and addiction therapy specialists.

Polish drug policy is some of the most restrictive in Europe. Article 62 of the Polish Act on Counteracting Drug Addiction prohibits the possession of narcotic drugs or any psychotropic substance, punishable with up to 3 years in prison. This exact article is the most commonly used law in the range of possible drug laws – in 2016 there were 9382 convictions from this provision, while acts of lesser significance from article 62 par. 3 amounted to 2236 convictions. These results are almost identical to those of 2011, when amendments to the drug law introduced a special mechanism enabling the discontinuation of criminal proceedings in case of an insignificant quantity of an illegal drug possessed for personal use. Currently one in ten crimes committed is drug related.

So what is the situation ultimately? On the one side we have a strict drug law aimed at punishing drug dealers, and on the other mechanisms, which are supposedly adjusted to occasional users and people who have drug dependence. Although we strive for constant progress in the realm of drug policy, we must admit that on paper it seems that the system functions relatively well. We must remember that it is not the provisions but the practice that is most important, and which plays a crucial role in the implementation of drug policies. Especially in the field of criminal law where the police, prosecutors, and judges have such great authority and ample opportunity to interfere with our human rights and fundamental freedoms. The statistics from the Ministry of Justice indicate that the justice staff is not making enough use of mechanisms such as discontinuing proceedings, collecting information on drug use by addiction therapists, or suspending proceedings for the time of the treatment, rehabilitation, or participation in a prevention or treatment program.

So where is the core of the problem? While preparing for the training we identified some of the most important obstacles that hinder the implementation of the mentioned provisions. That is how two thematic blocks – therapeutic and judicial – were formed. The first one emphasises the constant need for new knowledge regarding drugs, issues related to therapy, and to the role of therapists in criminal proceedings as well as harm reduction. The aim was for the judicial staff, who obviously can’t be experts on illegal substances and drug addiction, to gain as much knowledge as possible on this topic. The main goal of our training however was the interaction between the justice system and the addiction therapists, therefore two entities between whom there is a clear lack of dialogue, yet which have the same goal – counteracting drug abuse. The second block – judicial – concentrates on the specific nature of drug related crimes and on other possible schemes of action for the judicial bodies rather than penal sanctions. Thereby we wanted to emphasise the current, existing mechanisms for such crimes, which have been enacted by the legislator, but are not commonly or at all used during proceedings.

In accordance with our expectations, we found that there is a high demand for dialogue between the judicial system and addiction therapists, who did not hesitate to start asking the prosecutors and judges questions as soon as we began. “How is it possible that this year in our district there have been 100 cases related to drug crimes and so far only once has the court invoked the article on collecting information by therapists and contacted me?” – almost the same question was repeated by every therapist present at the training. The lawyers however concentrated on the literal interpretation of the provisions and tried to determine what proceedings are demanded from them, what they are allowed to do, and what is beyond their authority. Interestingly, the judges and prosecutors, outside their commanding roles, listened, noted, asked, and really tried to understand not only the provisions, but the issue of drug use and drug dependence itself. During such training, especially involving people with authority, it is often difficult to mobilise the group and to encourage them to share their experiences. The workshop character of the course was proved to work excellently. Many times our lecturers had to cut interesting discussions short in order to make sure they could fit everything in. We also had the chance to talk about the newest developments in harm reduction around the world in countries such as Denmark or Switzerland – our participants learned more about safe injection rooms and substitution therapy, the first nonexistent and even prohibited in Poland, and the second fledgling. We were quite impressed with the whole group, almost everyone agreed with the main paradigm of harm reduction – to rehabilitate rather than to punish.

During one of the breaks, a discussion began on the application of suspending the proceedings for the time of treatment, rehabilitation, or participation in a prevention or treatment program and that is when we learned that the prosecutors do not use this mechanism because it would increase the amount of suspended proceedings in their yearly statistics. I was shocked, it seemed surreal in comparison to all the principles of the rule of law and a democratic, just society that I had been taught all throughout law school. What came as a greater shock was the general understanding of all the other prosecutors and even more, the judges. As the discussion continued, one of the judges went on to explain why people committing crimes related to drugs are never treated individually – and therefore never determined to be addicted or harmful drug users – by saying something very honest: “we just do not have the time for that”. How many people and cases have been neglected due to statistics and the lack of time in the judicial system? This appears to be an endless structural problem that is way beyond our reach.

One thing is certain though. Drug users and people with drug dependence are exceptionally exposed to the callous bureaucracy because additionally they have to deal with the stigma associated with drug use. Therefore, it is crucial to continue education in the field of drugs, addiction, and harm reduction. The training turned out to be very educational for our participants as well as for ourselves. We have fulfilled our goals and intentions but also learned about new obstacles which we have to reflect upon and address. I keep asking myself though, how can we win with the lack of time?

Adam Stasiak

Lawyer, works in the Polish Drug Policy Network where he also acts in the Volunteer Center aiding imprisoned drug users