Central Europe’s Misguided War on Drugs

WARSAW – It was two decades ago this summer that communist rule began to implode from Tallinn in the Baltic to Tirana in the Adriatic, ushering in free elections, market reforms, and expanded civil liberties. Since then, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have come a long way. Many are now members of the European Union. My homeland, Poland, has a steady economy and a thriving media.

Yet Poland, like many of the other new democracies in our region, remains stuck in the past when it comes to the humane treatment of drug users. Indeed, throughout the former Soviet bloc, there is a disturbing trend in using outdated, conservative, and heavy-handed policies to address drug abuse.

For example, Gdansk – the birthplace of the Solidarity movement – does not have a single methadone treatment center. People must travel for three hours to get the medicine that is proven to control cravings and reduce the harms of drug use. And they are the lucky ones. Only 5% of opiate users in Poland have access to methadone at all, compared to 40% in Germany.

Instead of focusing on treatment that works, the Polish government chooses to give priority to long-term rehabilitation centers located in the depths of the countryside that have little, if anything, to do with evidence-based medicine. Poland also chooses to treat possession of even the smallest quantities of drugs as criminal, as evidenced by the fact that 60% of people sentenced for drug possession in Poland are marijuana smokers.