Poland battles synthetic pot boom

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.”

Tusk admitted that his crusade “could cause conflict between those rights guaranteed by the constitution and common decency.”

Despite the doubts over the law, very few politicians wanted to be accused of supporting drug dealers. Wlodzimierz Cimosiewciz, a member of the senate, the upper chamber of parliament, and a former prime minister, was the only senator to vote against the bill, saying: “It is a bad law, passed in an atmosphere of hysteria.”

However, swift action helped cement Tusk's law-and-order credentials before local government elections last week, which confirmed his Civic Platform party as Poland's dominant political force.

“Closing the afterburner shops is an example of naive populism,” said Janusz Palikot, a rogue member of Tusk's party who is now trying to start his own party based on a libertarian and anti-clerical program, noting that Poland's drug users will simply go underground.

Although hundreds of shops around the country have been closed, those wanting to buy afterburners can still do so by ordering them from European Union countries where they are legal.

Poland has one of the European Union's toughest drug laws, although it does not seem to have made much of a dent in usage. The law, changed in 2000, bans any amount of drugs. However, not all countries in the region take the same approach. As of Jan. 1, neighboring Czech Republic allows people to possess up to 15 grams of marijuana and 1.5 grams of heroin without facing criminal charges, one of the most liberal laws in Europe.

The Czechs have not legalized the sale of drugs — which is why a coffee shops like those in Amsterdam have not sprung up in Prague. However, ready access to soft drugs has spurred a border trade with Poland, as young people make quick hops over the border to buy.

“The Czechs are sending us entirely the wrong message,” lamented a Warsaw middle school director who is implementing a policy of mandatory urine testing for his students.