Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz

Fellowship Title:

The Crisis of Polish Drug Abuse

Zofia Smardz
February 8, 1987

Fellowship Year

GLOSKOW, Poland–At the end of a dusty road just beyond this tired northern town sits a rambling white stucco house with faint architectural pretensions to grandeur. Like most things in Poland, the house and its surrounding five acres of farmland have seen better days: the peeling stucco walls could use a fresh coat of paint; most of the land has been overtaken by bushes and brambles, and long-unused pieces of farm equipment lie rusting and tangled in weeds. The place has only been saved from total ruin by a ragtag battalion of tenants who renovated the interior of the house and now share its cell-like rooms, run a communal kitchen, do some vegetable gardening and dairy farming on a small swath of land, and keep a tiny flock of sheep and a half-dozen hogs in the big brown barn out back.

Tending the Sheep at Gloskow.
Tending the Sheep at Gloskow.

Young, self-sufficient and resolute, unfailingly polite and affectionate with one another, they call to mind a hippies commune of the American ’60s, where love, peace and harmony with nature prevail. But a second glance jars this pretty picture. Most of the residents wear normal T-shirts and blue jeans, but eight or ten are set apart by strikingly different garb: they sport baggy gray trousers and workshirts with the look of a prison uniform, and all of them, male and female, have closely-shaven heads.

In the vegetable garden, one of these young men works his hoe in fits and starts, stopping every now and then to glance nervously about him. His eyes are red-rimmed and watery; his hands, when he lifts them to wipe his lip or brow, shake uncontrollably. Pinned to his chest is a white square of paper on which someone has written in large block letters: “I am a drug addict.” The Polish word, literally “narcomaniac,” has a medievally brutal ring.

“It’s my first day here,” the young man says, looking anxious, his eyes darting about. “It’s my first day without drugs in eight years. I don’t know if I’ll make it, but I have to try. I’m 23 and I’m lost. I have nothing to show for my life.”

This is no happy commune, but a rehabilitation center for Polish drug addicts. The 35 young men and women who live here have come not in search of a peaceful idyll, but on a desperate quest for help. Their lives, they say, have spun out of control as their hunger for “kompot”, a crude and highly impure form of heroin, overwhelms all other concerns. “When you’re taking,” says 20-year-old Magda, another resident of the center, “nothing else is important. You’ll do anything–lie, cheat, steal–to get your hands on more drugs.”

It was never supposed to happen in a Communist country, but drug abuse has come to Poland with a vengeance. Not just a minor problem of a fringe group, it has spread to near-crisis proportions among Poles of the younger generations. Estimates of the numbers of young Poles experimenting with drugs range from 200,000 officially to 600,000 unofficially in a total population of 37 million. Hardcore addicts are said to number about 120,000, and the number of drug-related deaths has reached as high as 100 a year. By contrast, the U.S. has about 500,000 heroin addicts and 5.8 million cocaine users, according to The National Institutes on Drug Abuse.

In almost all cases, kompot, or Polish brown sugar, is the drug of choice. Reputed to be three to four times more potent than heroin available in the West, it is easily made on a kitchen stove from the straw and husks of wild poppies, which have traditionally grown abundant and free in Poland’s vast fields. While some drug abuse, mainly of pharmaceuticals, LSD and marijuana, existed in Poland as far back as the ’60s, the development of kompot by a medical student in Gdansk in 1975, and its cheapness and availability, opened up a tragic vista to a whole generation of bored, frustrated and depressed young people.

Nowadays, drug-taking is so common an act in the major cities that society turns as blind an eye to it as it has for years to the alcoholism that plagues older generations. On Nowy Swiat (New World) Street in downtown Warsaw, dealers openly offer their goods to eager buyers right under the noses of indifferent passersby. Not far away, young boys shoot up in broad daylight in the hedges that encircle the city’s monumental Palace of Culture. One day last summer, a speeding ambulance pulled up on the sidewalk beside one such hedge, and workers jumped out to drag out the body of an overdose victim as a crowd gathered to watch.

The reputation of Polish heroin has spread beyond the country’s frontiers: in the West, the heroin-making process developed by the medical student is popularly known as the “Polish method,” and drug users and dealers who flock to Warsaw for bargains have dubbed the East European capital “little Nepal.” “You can buy a gram for a dollar here, and you’re fixed for days,” says Michal, 22, a Warsaw drug-user who has twice tried to kick the habit, but has come back to it both times because, as he puts it, “There’s no point to life, but at least when you’re taking, you don’t worry about that.”

In this country of 36 million, the rate of “taking” has sounded an alarm loud enough to catch the attention of the regime, which can no longer deny the existence of this scourge of the capitalist West within Poland’s socialist boarders. The government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski has gradually, though reluctantly, granted official recognition to the country’s drug problem. Articles on the issue appear regularly in the official newspapers; programs discussing the dangers of drug abuse have aired on state-run television. And in 1981, the regime officially approved the activities of an organization called MONAR, or the Youth Movement for Combating Drug Abuse.

The movement was founded by Marek Kotanski, a voluble, balding 46-year-old who comes across in person as a bit of a self-promoting savior of Polish youth, but is generally recognized as a folk hero for his efforts on behalf of drug-users. He was working as a psychologist in a state-run hospital in 1978 when, Kotanski says, he realized the time was ripe for a center devoted exclusively to the treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts. He saw the care available in Polish hospitals and detoxification centers as inadequate to the task, purely medical in nature and both unwilling and unsuited to considering the many psychological and sociological factors that contribute to the profile of the typical drug-user. “I saw young people who were desperately addicted and dying, with no place to turn, no specialized care,” says Kotanski. “It was clear to me they needed help.” Taking a handful of co-workers and patients with him, he quit his job at the hospital and moved to the abandoned farmstead in Gloskow, 50 miles outside Warsaw, and the first treatment center of MONAR was born.

Today, Kotanski’s group, which receives financial support from the Ministry of Health ($1.3 million last year), is the chief source of support, assistance and treatment for Poland’s young drug addicts. It runs 15 treatment and counseling centers around the country, most located in rural areas, so that residents engage in physical labor as therapy and pitch in on the smooth operation of the self-governing centers. Four centers are specially devoted to the care of juvenile drug addicts, aged 11 to 15, who start down the road of abuse by sniffing glue and gasoline fumes. These centers are structured to provide “more warmth” than the centers for young adults, Kotanski says, where warmth alternates with “a rigorous teaching that one must get used to life and accept it for what it is.”

Modeled on Western drug rehabilitation programs such as Synanon or Phoenix House, MONAR’s treatment is based on the principle of resocialization, working addicts slowly back into the mainstream of life and helping them realize they can make a contribution to society. It requires residence in a treatment center for 15 months to two years; in the last few months, residents may hold jobs outside the center in nearby communities. After graduating from the program, former residents continue to benefit from the external MONAR support system, which aids them in finding work, continuing their studies, and generally readjusting to the drab realities of everyday life.

The organization claims a success rate of 40 percent–meaning people who stay off drugs–among the several hundred graduates of its treatment program. This controversial figure is disputed by other psychologists and sociologists as unrealistically high. Even his critics, however, admit that Kotanski has done more than anyone to draw attention to and work to relieve a serious and growing problem, and to have won the admiration not only of his patients but of most Polish youth along the way.

On a hot sunny morning in mid-July, Kotanski drops in with some visitors at Gloskow for his once-a-month supervisory look at how the center is running. (All the other centers receive similar visits once a month.) He is greeted effusively at the door by the staff counselors and half-a-dozen residents, who address him by his first name and hug and kiss him, then run off to prepare him lunch. He leads his visitors through the stucco house. The walls of the foyer are plastered with posters bearing warnings like “Don’t use” or “To be or to take,” or advertising the MONAR-inspired anti-drug film “I am Against,” that still runs in Polish cinemas and won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1984.

In a small room at the back, two young girls in gray work uniforms and short hair that is just beginning to grow back from a close shave welcome Kotanski more tentatively. They are recent arrivals, at the center for only two months, and are still in the “novice” stage, in which they are required to wear special clothing and are given no rights, but are expected to perform various duties without question.

Kotanski embraces the taller girl, 18-year-old Ivona, and asks her how she is. She stands stiffly in his embrace and answers his questions in sullen monosyllables. “This girl is a real criminal,” Kotanski says jokingly, and the other residents who have gathered in the doorway laugh. Ivona makes a face.

“She’s been known to steal, and she didn’t want to come here, to break her addiction to drugs. But I think maybe she’s beginning to see the light.

“Do you like it here?” he asks the girl, and she replies without looking at him, “I don’t know.”

“Do you think you will stay with us?” He asks. She stares at the floor and shrugs.

Later, Kotanski explains that Ivona has already run away from the center once–anyone is free to leave whenever he or she wishes to–but came back a week later when her parents turned her away from home. She was hardly the first runaway: MONAR imposes a harsh regimen on its inmates. Residents are allowed no visitors and no sexual relations for the first six months, and there is no smoking or drinking for that period. If anyone is caught using drugs, at any time during residency, that person is automatically expelled from the center.

The philosophy behind Kotanski’s psychological approach to treatment can also be harsh. The special clothing and shaved heads imposed on early inmates are intended as a “leveling” and “cleansing” device, and the cards some residents are required to wear on their chests, labeling them addicts or cheats or liars, are designed to remind them of the character flaws that brought them to the center in the first place.

After lunch, Kotanski gathers the center’s residents in the living room for a group psychotherapy session. Prominently displayed on one wall are a series of black-rimmed death notices; the names on them are those of former residents who lost their battle with drugs.

Kotanski selects Filip, 26 and a second-year resident, as the subject of the day’s discussion and solicits comments from the others on his progress. Filip, who acts as the center’s photographer and entertainment organizer, has clearly antagonized a number of the residents. They open fire with complaints about his laziness and his tendency to shirk work and to fob his more mundane responsibilities off on his fellows. When Kotanski asks why this is, there is a brief silence. Then 22year-old Mirka volunteers: “Because he’s self-centered and egotistical. Because-he’s a bad person.” Filip, offered the chance to defend himself, can think of nothing to say except, “I didn’t realize and I’m trying hard.” Kotanski orders him to clean the farmhouse toilets for a week as an exercise in humility.

Such severe and acerbic therapy is necessary, Kotanski says, to strip away the layers of self-delusion and ties that have protected the drug-user for years from the truth about himself and the reasons for his addiction. “You have to break down their characters first to reveal the flaws and weaknesses that make them vulnerable to drug addiction,” he says. “Then you rebuild them in a new way, so that they understand and recognize those flaws and how to incorporate them into a stronger personality.”

All MONAR’s efforts and all its successes, however, are only a drop in the bucket of what is needed to turn the drug tide in Poland. The regime offers MONAR financial assistance, but when pressed on certain matters, it can speak fluently with a forked tongue. The government agreed to go along when MONAR pressed for a requirement that farmers who grow poppies in their fields register with the state, but the move did little to curtail the flower’s ubiquity. Then, last year, the organization launched a campaign to ban poppies from Poland entirely, except on the few state-run collective farms. That way, Kotanski and his supporters argued, there would still be enough poppy-seed supplies to satisfy the needs of Polish pharmacists and of pastry-makers, whose poppy-seed cakes and rolls are an extremely popular traditional favorite. For this stand, however, Kotanski was accused in the government newspaper Rzeczywistosc of being a CIA agent and a stooge of imperialist forces intent on ruining the Polish economy. Furthermore, the government has never initiated its own campaign against drug abuse, cracking down on the dealers and buyers who flaunt their activities so publicly.

The regime’s reluctance to take any of these steps may reflect its realization that drug abuse in Poland can only be tackled effectively by tackling the social problems that make it such an attractive escape. “People don’t become drug addicts just because there are drugs,” says Jerzy Zurawski, a Warsaw sociologist. “It has causes in society. And in Poland, those causes go deep–the hopelessness of life, the sense of discrepancy between declared values and what young people actually see going on around them, the lies, bribery and corruption.”

This theory is borne out by what is happening in other East European countries, where similar pressures are also leading to growing drug abuse. Hungary admitted it had a “grave problem” with drug abuse in 1984, when official press reporters on the matter began to appear. Official estimates put the number of drug-users at 30,000 in a population of 10.6 million, and reports indicate that young people are turning to drugs as early as age 10 to 14. Increasingly, hard drugs are taking over from the tranquilizers and sleeping pills mixed with alcohol that provided the common high in the ’70s. Today, young Hungarian addicts obtain heroin, cocaine, and LSD from hospitals, pharmacies and drug factories by stealing, forging prescriptions, or simply buying the narcotics from staff and employees looking to supplement their wages.

In 1983, Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 human rights movement revealed the existence of drug abuse in that country in an open letter that reported on a secret official conference on drug abuse that had been held in Prague. The conference estimated that there were “tens of thousands” of addicts, up to 50 percent of them males aged 15 to 19. From a large variety of medicines obtainable without prescription, sold as pain-killers and sedatives, young people make what they call “pernik,” or “gingerbread,” and inject it intravenously. Their attraction to drugs, wrote Charter 77, is due to “the discontent, alienation and disaffection of the younger generation, youthful rebellion, experimentation and peer pressure–much the same as in the West, but aggravated in Czechoslovakia by the drabness, monotony and regimentation of life by the regime.”

In Poland, the overwhelming drabness and monotony of life seem to be a major factor in the incidence of drug abuse, which picks its victims randomly from all classes and backgrounds. Anton, 27, was a bright high school student with the university in his future when he started doing drugs at 17. He did it, he says, “for sport, because life was pretty dull otherwise.” His first drugs were codeine and morphine, but by the time he entered the Polytechnic University in Wroclaw, he was onto Kompot and doing “all sorts of crazy things” to keep his habit going. “I sold all my books to get money, I deceived people, I was rotten through and through,” he says now, relating his story at the Gloskow center. He has been there for a year now, on this third attempt to kick drugs.

In Wroclaw, he became friends with people in a small theater group, where drugs were a natural part of the scene, “because we thought they made us more creative,” Anton says. But fundamentally, he believes the impulses that drove him to drugs stemmed from the nature of life in Poland. “When I was taking, I thought the drugs made my life seem richer,” he says. “The fact is, in Poland it’s very hard not to be a bad person. You learn very young to do bad things to make your life better, or at least seem better. Drugs for me were an escape from all that, but of course they were a bad thing, too.” He shrugs. “But I know why people escape. You look around you and you think, ‘Why stick around here?’ “

It’s a question ever more young Poles seem to be asking. Drug abuse is not the only escape route to oblivion they have found. Alcoholism among young people is also widespread and steadily increasing; the suicide rate, especially among teenagers, is slowly edging upward. When a 15-year-old girl and 16year-old boy in Warsaw joined hands and leaped to their deaths from the roof of a high-rise apartment building last spring, the incident stirred up strong emotions among the city populace and became the centerpiece of a TV documentary–produced by MONAR–on suicide among young Poles.

The general malaise of Poland’s young generations is a matter of concern to Kotanski and his organization. The psychologist talks about expanding MONAR’s framework and turning it into a broad-based youth movement involved in a wide range of youth affairs and activities and providing young Poles with an outlet for their interests and energies. He has lectured extensively on this ideal in Polish grammar and high schools, and recently launched a school-based anti-smoking, anti-drinking and anti-drug campaign which he calls the “Movement of Pure Hearts.” “I realize there’s an inertia in young people’s lives,” he says. “They have no goals or aspirations. It’s as though they were burned out from the inside. It’s hard, in this society, to convince people that they could have a different outlook on life, but one can try. It’s a matter of changing attitudes, of teaching young people openness, sincerity, courage, and the need to give of themselves to others.”

Kotanski gets high marks for his sentiments, but even his most ardent followers are not convinced his goals can be achieved unless major changes take place in Polish government and society. Monika and Marek, both 25, were heroin addicts for six years before they entered MONAR and kicked their habit with Kotanski’s help. Now neither of them has touched drugs for seven months, and both of them work at MONAR’s headquarters in downtown Warsaw.

One day, they welcome a visitor into their tiny two-room apartment for tea and conversation. In the minuscule living room, Monika draws aside a curtain to reveal the apartment’s kitchen–a stove-top and miniature refrigerator–and puts on the water for tea. “I used to make the heroin right on this stove,” she says and sighs. She stares at the range and admits that not a day goes by that she doesn’t wish she could have some kompot again. “Not just because it made me feel good, but because life is so unutterably bleak, so awful.”

Marek nods. “This country really doesn’t offer people anything at all anymore. There’s no chance for apartments, for jobs, there’s nothing to buy. Young people have no diversion, no place to go for release. The great joy in life here is being able to buy some kielbasa or toilet paper.”

There is silence for a moment. Then Marek gets up and puts a cassette in the portable tape recorder on the table. Music with a martial beat fills the apartment; the song is a popular underground ballad about a young man who was killed in the 1970 food riots in Gdansk, run over by an army tank. “But I suppose we should count our blessings,” says Marek, sarcasm oiling his voice. “I saw a picture once of this guy in the song right after he was killed. You could see the marks of the tank’s tires on his body. When I start thinking I want more out of life, I remember that picture and I remember that they’ll take care of you one way or another. If they don’t do it by beating you down so that you take drugs or kill yourself, then they’ll do it with tanks.”

©1987 Zofia Smardz

Zofia Smardz, reporter on leave from  Newsweek, is reporting on the young generations of contemporary Eastern Europe.

Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz