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Hugs for Drugs: Polish High Schoolers Running Harm Reduction Projects

A group of students walking on the streets of Krakow Poland.

In most places, what constitutes public education is dictated by the Government, an institution that defines our laws and establishes social norms. The way schools are set up usually reflects what the state wishes to see in society. Taking that into consideration, you can imagine how hard it must be to implement harm reduction education, or open dialogue about drug use in educational environments that reject these themes. “Just Say No” abstinence messages on drugs have been the backbone of young people’s drug educations for over 40 years, prohibiting access to information on safer drug use to prevent any use. As we know, this has had limited success. Young people with little to zero knowledge about drugs’ effects will see them online, and can even buy them through social media, rarely with information on potential harms of over-use, and safer using practices.


Hugs for Drugs team – a group of students from High School no.8 in Cracow, Poland.


In Cracow, Poland, a student-led project “Hugs For Drugs” which formed in October 2022, tackles the issues of Polish stigma around drug use, aiming to educate their peers.

Hugs for Drugs was borne out of students’ determination to create a space for young people to have open conversations about drug-related issues. It was facilitated by “Zwolnieni z Teorii”, an education-focused organisation that provides tools for teenagers to develop social projects. They provide technical support for their development and implementation, awarding students with certificates to accredit their skills. Zwolnieni z Teorii’s model means that projects that are made by and for young people can happen outside of the public education system.

To contextualise the project, it is worth mentioning that drug education exists in Polish schools, where lesson plans developed by the Department of Legal Education focus on addiction and the legal risks of drug use and possession. They are framed in a way to invoke fear of drug use and its consequences, and that all drug use will lead to addiction. Biased statements are prioritised over evidence to ensure teenagers are convinced to not use, produce or sell drugs.

Examples of posts from Hugs For Drugs Instagram, exploring varied topics.


Karolina Kilian-Grudnik, a 17-year-old student from public High School no. 8 in Cracow, was one of the Hugs for Drugs founders. Inspiration came to her from her own fascination about the role of drugs in society, and a general compassion towards those suffering from addiction. From a young age, Karolina was intrigued and puzzled by the complex reality of being human, like mental health and drug use. As a young person, she noticed that some social issues are omitted from public discussions, and that people who needed the most help were often marginalised due to their drug use. She conducted a survey mostly among high school students on Facebook on drug-related knowledge and use, which she advertised on social media groups. The responses clearly showed a lack of basic knowledge on drugs, mostly among young people. This inspired Karolina to continue her work, which is when the idea for Hugs For Drugs came about. After that, it was just a matter of encouraging a few peers to help out; a team of motivated, young individuals was quickly formed and ready for action.

The project carries a compassion-driven narrative and aims to provide education on many topics, such as: harm reduction, advice for individuals with addiction, a thorough history of drugs from a social constructivist viewpoint, and other topics to destigmatise drugs and the different ways and contexts that they’re used in society. Hugs For Drugs works across many platforms: it’s primarily an Instagram account with over 1,300 followers; it’s also a weekly podcast available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts; it’s a fun yet informative TikTok account that feels relatable to young people; it’s an anonymous platform for questions, conversations, and confessions about drug use. With a growing audience of young Polish people, and through that it also reaches the parents and teachers of the teens involved in the project.

I spoke with some of the Hugs For Drugs members to find out about how the project has been received so far, and what kind of interactions it led them to have with everyone in their immediate environment.

A few members of Hugs For Drugs after one of their project meetings. From the left: Adam Kasprzycki, Antonina Matysek, Alex Mazur, Lidka Kwarciak, Karolina Grudnik.


Karolina and her project partner, Lidia Kwarciak, told me about the mixed reactions they’ve had since the project’s start, especially from adults. One teacher had massively supported the project: he teaches Ethics (a class recommended for those who are not obliged to take religious education). He helped them reach out to a local radio station to discuss their project, and joined in on their podcast as a guest.

On the other side of the spectrum are teachers from other subjects who question the safety of the drug education that the group provides. But not all are opposed, just misinformed. One teacher, upon hearing about the project, was surprised that it didn’t just convey a typical abstinence-based message but painted a broader picture of the social complexities behind drug use. That just shows how deep the prejudiced attitudes around drugs persist within people and are then upheld by educational institutions.

Due to the risks associated with being underage and talking about illegal drugs, Karolina and Lidia had to revaluate how openly they spoke about drugs and their use. They paid special attention to their wording and messages so as to not be interpreted as encouraging drug use, but rather informed choices. This balance was successful, as they created an educational tool that cuts through to adolescents and allows them to access information that could potentially be life-saving.

Hugs for Drugs represents a certain political attitude that attempts to disturb and protest the current inequalities and injustices that exist within Polish society. Being so outspoken about a controversial issue that goes against what the official institutions are saying is a risky thing to do. That’s especially the case in Poland which is known for protest repression and not caring about people and movements who oppose the current ruling party.

As teenagers, Hugs for Drugs’ members are in a unique position to speak about those issues without being able to be punished for, or be accused of having much of a political agenda, as they are just young people who want change. They experienced the negative effects of the lack of drug education themselves and are now trying to fix what has been neglected by the state and institutions.

Overall, Karolina, Lidia, and five of their school friends have achieved something that can very positively impact not only their young peers, but also the general harm reduction movement that has been growing in Poland in the past decade. With harm reduction organisations banned from classrooms, the students took charge of educating themselves and are now influencing peers, parents, and teachers to take another look at the real meaning and impact of drugs in Polish society.


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