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Poland battles synthetic pot boom

Dubious law meant to counter synthetic marijuana could have broad application.

Marijuana laws
(Photo: Getty Images)

WARSAW, Poland — Faced with a media storm over legal synthetic drugs, Poland’s parliament has raced to pass a constitutionally dubious law to outlaw the substances.

The fuss began in late September, with a series of media reports about the growing number of shops springing up around the country peddling synthetic marijuana, known as Spice or K2 in the United States, where they are legal in some states.

The shops had been around for about five years, but their number boomed about a year ago. They took advantage of a legal loophole that allowed them to market their products — called “afterburners” in Polish — as “plant food” or “collector's items” that were unfit for human consumption. When approached, shop owners would say with a knowing wink that the plant food produces an exotic high in plants and has to be administered carefully.

An attempt last year to ban some of the more common ingredients used in the substances simply led to the use of new chemicals to produce the same results.

A spate of headlines about some users being killed or hurt by the designer drugs — although most of the 18 deaths and 300 hospitalizations later turned out not to be linked to the substances — prompted the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk to act.

Health inspectors swooped into more than 1,000 outlets around the country in early October, shuttering them on accusations of endangering public health, although the legality of actually closing the stores was questionable. The owners are threatening legal action, which could be very costly to the state.

In a barn-burner of a speech to parliament, Tusk promised rapid action, saying: “We will resolve this issue with lightning speed, in a determined, not to say brutal, way. There will be no mercy for those who want to turn the lives of promising young people into the hell of addiction.”

Poland's normally slothful politicians, who have spent more than three years pondering timid steps to reduce the level of red tape throttling businesses, leaped into action, racing legislation through both houses of parliament and onto the president's desk within two weeks.

The result, signed into law earlier this month by President Bronislaw Komorowski, bans all psychoactive substances or substances that could be used as such even if their distributors are not aware of such uses. A health inspector can shut down a shop selling such a substance for 18 months, and issue an immediate fine of 20,000 zlotys to 1 million zlotys ($7,100-$350,000).

(Read about neighboring Czech Republic's comparatively lenient drug laws.)

Constitutional scholars worry that the law violates the right to due process by immediately levying fines, and casts such a wide net that gas stations and paint shops could also be theoretically covered as those substances can also be abused.

In a comment, the Helsinki Foundation, a human rights group, noted the unusual haste in passing the law, and pointed out its numerous flaws, such as draconian sanctions that “violated widely accepted democratic norms.”