Despite Ban, Legal Highs Market Still Strong in Poland

A legal highs shop in Poland

In 2010, after a two-year bloom of legal highs businesses on Polish high streets, the government decided to crack down on this trade. However, despite their efforts, the imposed ban has had little effect.

After legally dubious raids on these shops -- conducted by the National Health Inspectorate and which resulted in the closure of around 1,200 such premises -- new legislation was created by parliament to effectively ban a number of new psychoactive substances (NPS). The research chemical tycoons, who earlier could be seen on the front pages of tabloids driving their sport cars, either went bankrupt or left the country to try to open similar businesses in European states with more liberal legislation.

The new drug law included the controversial term “drug substitute” which may refer to any substance that can be “used as a substitute for a psychoactive or psychotropic substance." Such a term is very unclear and theoretically this law can be applied to coffee or gasoline, which in the beginning legal highs fans were planning to use against the government by reporting state-owned gas stations to the police for selling illicit psychoactive substances.

Though the legislation was broad, it did target certain NPS by naming them specifically, as was the case with mephedrone, salvia divinorum or some synthetic cannabinoids. Inital results of the ban were heralded due to the closure of so many shops. However, while the trade disappeared from the streets of Polish towns and cities, it simply moved online.

One of the main reasons behind the government's attack on NPS was a rising number of hospital admissions caused by research chemicals overdoses. According to data of National Bureau for Drug Prevention (page 125), between July and December 2010 562 people required medical care after using NPS. After the new law was introduced this number dropped to 118 in 2011. However, in 2012 it shot up to 299, and in 2013 it was at roughly the same level as before the ban, with 613 medical interventions connected to legal highs between January and September 2013. These figures show that the punitive approach has achieved little, if anything.

Part of the reason for the rise in medical treatment related to NPS can be explained by the shift of the trade from retail outlets. Before 2010 they were sold in shops that all offered a similar choice of substances that usually included mephedrone, synthetic cannabinoids, salvia and beta-ketones. Nowadays both the types of substances and distribution system are changing rapidly. New drugs, which are substitutes to those that were banned or went out of fashion are introduced every couple of weeks. With mephedrone, for example, since the prohibition we have seen over five of its substitutes becoming increasingly popular, with 3-Methylmethcatonin (3-mmc) becoming the current drug of choice for most of the stimulant fans. One only need Google the name of a substance together with the name of your city and you will get websites full of advertisers offering their product 24/7, usually with delivery in half an hour.

This trend is dangerous in two ways: Firstly the drugs are more available, as you can buy them at any time of the day and night, not like before with the shops which usually closed in the evening. Secondly, with new substances appearing very often both the users and medical professionals need to constantly update their knowledge on the drugs that are being sold at that particular moment. This can be linked to the rising number of overdose cases as users don’t know their dosage and effects of their substances well and doctors don’t know how to treat their overdose effectively.

With harms caused by legal highs being higher in 2013 than in 2010, we can reasonably expect this year to set another sad record, highlighting further the futility of the government's legislation to counter NPS.

*Jan Stola is the coordinator for Youth Organisations for Drug Action (YODA), and the founder of the Students' Drug Policy Initiative.