Between Disco Polo and Narco-Poles: an overview of Polish music, drugs, and harm reduction 

Guest blog by Julia Fraczak

Poland, situated in Eastern Europe (some would argue Central Europe but let’s stick to Eastern Europe so as to not anger the Poles), well known for its hearty cuisine, love of vodka, and beautiful old towns, is the topic of my next blog post. I would dare say Poland is an underrated country in many respects but, being Polish myself, I am biased as to such a statement. My nationality and culture are exactly what inspired this next blog post. I thought to myself, what would people like to read about? And then an even better question came to mind: what would I like to WRITE about? I landed on a way to incorporate my homeland into this project. I sincerely hope that you will enjoy finding out about the Polish drug scene as much as I enjoyed writing about it. Let us dive into the Polish party scene before we talk about current drug use, policy, and harm reduction.

Music scene in Poland

I am going to start presenting a run through of the Polish music scene. Disco Polo is the most notable genre of party music (if we take away the influence of British and American artists). According to statistics, Pop music is the #1 choice (66% of participants chose Pop as their top genre) and Disco Polo is at #9 (29%), showing disco polo’s popularity even amid generally favoured genres. The genre gained most of its popularity in the 90s. By 1994, disco polo was at its peak. The early noughties saw a decline in disco polo, with the genre bouncing back onto the charts in the 2010’s. The electronic sounding blend of convivial folk music and Italo disco put Poland’s music world in a spin, leading with rural vibes and bringing about controversies from urban areas of the country. Disco Polo expresses the divide between urban and rural culture in Poland. While the urban elites criticise the genre as a nod to traditionalism and conservative values, rural people continue to play, enjoy, and appreciate the genre in party contexts. It is the sort of cringey, corny music that makes you happy. Urban elites do not openly criticise Disco Polo, but their disdain is implied. They claim the genre to only be interesting as a ‘’sociological phenomenon’’. Leszek Koczanowicz highlights in his essay ‘’Post-communism and Pop music’’, the presence of post-transformation patriotism and nationalism aspects in Disco Polo. According to Koczanowicz, the Disco Polo rhetoric augmented a nationalist and nobility-oriented image of Poles as a beacon of Old Polish traditions. Urban elites criticise this as they want Poland to step away from conservative old traditions and modernize. A survey found that the percentage of people who dislike disco polo increases with increasing education levels. Urban areas, therefore, are less likely to play disco polo in their venues to tailor to the dislike of the genre amongst, on average, more educated clientele. The genre is said to be used for political gain by conservative parties, igniting a demographic and cultural conflict between the urban elites and rural masses. From my own experience with Warsaw nightlife, I can say that the music is often in the 2000-2010 era, remixed with a few newer songs and beats. It is a great atmosphere to party in and brings about a lively response from the crowd. 

Drug use in Poland

Growing up in the UK instead of Poland, I was mainly exposed to the UK drug market and habits, encountering people who have used mainly Class B drugs (cannabis, amphetamines, and ketamine), and, occasionally, reaching for LSD, cocaine, or ecstasy. It got me thinking about what sort of drug market I would have been exposed to had I grown up in Poland. 

Cannabis seems to be the most popular recreational drug option in Poland, alongside methamphetamines. The consumption and possession of CBD and products with a higher than 0.2% THC content is illegal (unless provided in controlled medical treatments), as is the recreational use of cannabis. Cannabis users will seek the black market to buy the drug, accounting for more than 60% of all consumers. Most illicit drug use is recorded amongst adults aged 25-34 (with numbers steadily rising in the 15-24 group too). According to statistics, men (15%) are more frequent users compared to women (4%). Moreover, the typical drug user in Poland is described as male, heterosexual, in an informal relationship, with a secondary education level, and working full-time. The Country Drug Report for Poland in 2019 showed a rough estimate of opioid users to be 14’664 within a 26 million population (15-64 years). The percentages of drug use are relatively low, with amphetamine, MDMA, and cocaine users accounting for 0.4%, 0.9% and 0.4% respectively. These numbers, however, are national estimates, so inaccuracy and underestimation is likely. 

A brief history of Polish drug policy

With one of the most restrictive anti-drug laws in Europe, Poland’s current drug policies are insufficient in providing treatment and protection to drug users. The 2011-2016 National Programme had as a main aim to reduce drug use, combat the emergence of substitute substances, as well as resolve related health and social problems. This 5-year plan, ultimately implemented in 2016, had the following objectives: prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, harm reduction, social reintegration, supply reduction, international cooperation, and research and monitoring. Abstinence is seen as the characteristic form of harm reduction of responsible drug users, which of course, is antithetical to true harm reduction principles. Due to Poland’s socialist history, and being under the control of the Soviet Union, the political system in the country was tossed and turned over the years. After the integration of Poland into the European Union in 2004, Poland has had to adapt and mimic Western policies and institutions. It did so rapidly, without previous discussions or run-throughs like other Western European countries had done. This was deemed the ‘’industrial mix’’ phenomenon by sociologist Jadwiga Staniszkis. The constant political shifting led to structural violence towards drug users, with prevention efforts constantly emphasising the importance of personal responsibility. The assumption emerged that every citizen has the knowledge and capability to lead a drug-free life. Furthermore, this idea of abstinence was pursued by MONAR, a youth movement organisation against drug use that implemented abstinence-based drug services around the country. The criminalisation of drug possession in 1997 followed MONAR’s lead, with the government deciding to stay with a punitive approach towards drug use since

Harm reduction in Poland

So far, I have mentioned nightlife/ recreational drug use and harm reduction very little. It is important to understand that, thanks to Poland’s conservative nature, recreational drug use is heavily stigmatised. Any Polish person you ask will tell you that Poles are susceptible to addiction; therefore, the main concern is fighting addiction. Recreational drug use, since it is of course illegal, is seen as “non-existent”, which is of course not true. Between 250 and 300 people die of an overdose every year . With the limited funds and pressured healthcare, the aim is to keep addiction and overdose numbers as low as possible. It is so interesting to see the differences in treatment of different people who use the same drugs according to their social standing and status. In the Polish press, ‘’Elite Junkies’’ and celebrity addicts typically refer to fallen celebrities or rich people addicted to heroin and cocaine. In contrast, ‘’junkie’’ refers to the figure of the “abject drug addict”, stereotypically from pathological families and seen as a threat to society. Both terms are stigmatising to drug users but there is a marked class difference. 

With addiction being such a large concern in the country, focus is more on prevention than harm reduction. Current so-called ‘’harm reduction’’ resources/ treatments are particularly rigorous and not responsive enough to users’ needs. Some examples include:

·      Substitution programmes involving more than 6 months of controlled treatment. These include random urine tests, no psychoactive substances of any kind and daily reports to the centre for methadone collection (only issued on prescription). A patient cannot access substitution without enrolling in a programme first. Patients have commented that there is a lack of trust towards them from the programme. 

·      Though the demand for needle and syringe programmes (NSP) has decreased over the years, there are still 51 NSP centres across the country. The programme is closely linked to the prevention of HIV and AIDS, with a mobile unit operating in Warsaw, offering a rapid finger test for HIV, hepatitis C and syphilis.

·      Restricted overdose prevention is also seen as harm reduction. Unlike most Western countries in Europe, Poland does not make naloxone easily accessible to users. Naloxone is only available in emergency medical care and treatment programmes. It is not available through GPs, pharmacies, or health clinics. Some fought against this a few years ago but the efforts fell through. Many consider naloxone to be a catalyst to overdose rather than a lifesaving medication, as the myth exists that people would overdose on purpose if naloxone was easily available.

Such a narcophobic approach to substance use, and the current political climate, deters users from seeking help. 

Seeing the government’s punitive approach, NGOs started taking matters into their own hands. The #afterPartyFES project provides information points at music events, making harm reduction materials and consultations accessible to event participants, while others provide drug checking points and reagent kits around festivals and nightlife sites. ‘’My, Narkopolacy’’ (‘’Us, the Narco-poles’’) campaign, initiated by the Open Society Foundation and Gazeta Wyborcza (Polish daily) in 2009, calls for decriminalisation of drug possession and de-stigmatisation of drug users. Additionally, to reduce the amount of young people “falling into addiction”, the Ministry of Education required schools to develop and implement a prevention policy, allowing those at risk access to mental health support. In response to this 2022 requirement, students at a Kraków high school developed a project called ‘’Hugs for Drugs’’. This student-led project tackles issues of stigma surrounding drug use and provides an educational safe space for young people to learn about safer drug use.

Through researching and writing this blog post, I can confidently say that I have learned a lot about my own country. In a way, I am disappointed by the lack of available resources for drug users and the constant stigma that accompanies users daily. Poland’s approach towards recreational drug use leaves a lot to be desired and requires serious improvement. With safer drug use, and drug use in general, being such a taboo topic, it comes as no surprise that discussions about nightlife and harm reduction are close to non-existent in Poland. While other European countries continue developing and innovating, it seems as though Poland lingers in a backwards mentality. It was such an experience writing this blog post and I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading it. Maybe this will inspire you to research your own country’s stance on drug use and harm reduction.

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