In the year 2000, as the president of Poland, I signed one of Europe’s most conservative laws on drug possession. Any amount of illicit substances a person possessed meant they were eligible for up to three years in prison. Our hope was that this would help to liberate Poland, and especially its youths, from drugs that not only have a potential to ruin the lives of the people who abuse them but also have been propelling the spread of H.I.V. among people who inject them.
We assumed that giving the criminal justice system the power to arrest, prosecute and jail people caught with even minuscule amounts of drugs, including marijuana, would improve police effectiveness in bringing to justice persons responsible for supplying illicit drugs. We also expected that the prospect of being put behind bars would deter people from abusing illegal drugs, and thus dampen demand.
We were mistaken on both of our assumptions. Jail sentences for the possession of illicit drugs — in any amount and for any purpose — did not lead to the jailing of drug traffickers. Nor did it prove to be a deterrent to drug abuse.
What the law did do, however, was enable the police to increase their arrest numbers by hauling in droves of young people caught with small amounts of marijuana. More than a half of all arrests under the law were of people aged 24 and younger. Criminalization of drug users resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of identified cases of drug possession: from 2,815 in 2000 to 30,548 in 2008.
The vast majority of those individuals were not drug dealers. Some of them, however, were adolescents whose prospects for careers as lawyers, public officials or teachers were suddenly blighted.
The law also proved to be very expensive for taxpayers. A cost-benefit analysis by a Polish think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, showed that the statute cost about €20 million a year, with no positive effect.
Significant numbers of professionals working in the criminal justice system, including prosecutors and judges, when asked whether they believed the law worked as it was supposed to, concluded that it was not an effective tool in combating drug trafficking.
It is my hope that political and community leaders in other countries, especially in Eastern Europe, will learn from Poland’s experience in criminalizing drug possession, a move that clearly fell short of its goals. Such a policy failure should not be repeated anywhere else in the world.
For this reason, I decided to join the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an effort by former heads of state — including César Gaviria of Colombia, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ruth Dreifuss of Switzerland and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico — to advocate for reform of ineffective drug laws. I feel honored to have become the first former president of a country from Eastern Europe to join this body. I very much encourage political leaders from other regions of the world to sign on and show their support for policies that actually protect citizens.
The Global Commission offers a set of policy recommendations that should be the cornerstones of drug laws around the world. One of the main approaches that the commission supports is the decriminalization of drug use and possession of drugs for personal use.
I was one of the supporters of the effort in Poland to revise the drug possession law of 2000. It now protects users from prosecution for having small amounts of drugs for personal use and allows prosecutors to discontinue legal proceedings against drug users.
I then began to champion the idea that drug dependence ought to be treated as a disease rather than a criminal justice problem. Poland can and should improve its treatment programs for people dependent on opiates. At present, substitution treatment — with methadone — is available to only about 8 percent of Polish patients.
Despite the recommendations of the World Health Organization, and largely as a result of mistaken assumptions, methadone and other opiate substitution treatments are illegal in Russia and overregulated in Ukraine. In Poland, Russia and Ukraine, needle exchange programs are still small-scale and do not reach all those needing help. But such programs are one of the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent infection among people who inject drugs.
East European leaders should press for a halt to incarcerating people for possessing small amounts of drugs for personal use and should start treating drug addiction as a public health issue. Taking more effective action to end the H.I.V. epidemic driven by the abuse of injected drugs is vital. The spread of H.I.V. among people who inject drugs in Russia and Ukraine is a grave concern even beyond their borders, and it is also my responsibility to advocate for these much-needed policy shifts.
Political leaders these days have ample evidence as to which approaches to drug policy actually help societies function better, and rigorous scientific investigation should always form the basis of policy making. Our role as politicians is to protect our communities and improve the functioning of our states. This may mean that we have to admit to having made mistakes. Fortunately now we know how to correct them.
Aleksander Kwasniewski was president of Poland from 1995 to 2005.