YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Changing Lifestyles : Poland Fights an Influx of Illegal Drugs From Abroad : The collapse of communism has loosened enforcement and caused a crisis in social values. More than 25% of teen-agers admit using drugs, says one study.


GLOSKOW, Poland — Edyta Starosta's athletic build and smiling face belie the fact that she's a speed freak.

Now six weeks into rehabilitation at the Monar drug treatment center in this village south of Warsaw, the 20-year-old says her experiences with illegal drugs terrified her.

She started with marijuana two years ago and moved on to amphetamines at the beginning of this year because "I needed something stronger." But, she says, "it turns out there wasn't anything good in it." She enjoyed the buzz the speed gave her in the beginning, but soon began having suicidal thoughts, hallucinations and memory loss.

"It was just terrifying," she recalls, and she admits the pull of the drugs is still strong. "I know if I left here now, I would begin taking them again."

Edyta and tens of thousands of other young Poles have begun using illegal drugs since communism collapsed here in 1989 and the country's borders became more porous. The adoption of Western ways, relaxed penalties and changing European drug-traffic patterns have all contributed to the outbreak.

"There is a very visible drug boom going on in Poland," says Marek Kotanski, founder of the 23 Monar centers and a pioneer in drug treatment in the days when the Communist government insisted Poland had no drug problem. "It's a very threatening phenomenon."

As a drug user and dealer, Jarek Skopowski, 23, has witnessed the boom firsthand. "In Poland and especially in Warsaw more and more people are addicted," he says. "There's a terrible invasion of amphetamines and their price has fallen drastically. There's a renaissance of LSD being brought from Holland."

Every illegal drug is available in Poland. The only one that's not popular, Skopowski says, is cocaine--simply because it's too expensive. Studies show that while about 7% of Polish teen-agers admitted using drugs in the 1970s and 1980s, the figure is now more than 25%.

Police blame the drug boom on increased availability and lower prices, but sociologists say the reasons run much deeper.

Janus Sieroslawski, who has studied drug use in Poland, points to "the consequences of the process of profound changes" unleashed since 1989 when Poland shed 44 years of communism, began building capitalism and democracy and adopted Western lifestyles.

Poles have experienced "a crisis of norms and values, weakening of social control, unemployment (and) psychological stress" since the 1989 upheaval. These factors, Sieroslawski said, encourage many to escape into "pharmacologically induced oblivion."

Poles have long appeared to have a self-destructive streak. They have been notorious abusers of alcohol, and with the adoption of Western ways, glamorously packaged bottles of foreign booze are flooding the Polish market.

But drug-treatment pioneer Kotanski thinks Western influences are too facile an explanation.

He points instead to change-of-system stresses. "With the economic transformation, every family is in a constant chase for money," he said. "There is great frustration because of the discrepancy between great expectations and the reality. We are still unprepared for quick changes."

Certainly Polish customs officials were unprepared for the influx of drugs after war broke out in the former Yugoslav federation in June, 1991, cutting off traditional trucking routes to Western Europe from Turkey, Asia and Africa.

Lax laws and inexperienced customs officers made Eastern Europe a paradise for drug smugglers. Because Communist border security had been so tight, and punishment for criminal offenses so harsh, practically no one smuggled drugs into the region before 1989.

Longtime isolation from the West also meant there was little, if any, cooperation with more sophisticated police forces and customs authorities in Western Europe. In addition, most East European countries emerged from the Communist era without any laws against possession and use of drugs.

"A policeman stops a drug dealer with eight kilograms (17.6 pounds) of amphetamines on him, as happened last year in Szczecin, and can't do anything," complained Bogdan Zielinski, Poland's top narcotics police officer. "We arrested him, but then had to release him and apologize. Such a situation would not have taken place anywhere else in the world."

Police are further hamstrung in their attempts to fight drug trafficking because undercover operations, drug buys and sting operations are all illegal, although the Polish government is moving to change the law.

Of all the East European countries, Poland emerged as a favorite transit route for drug smuggling because of its seaports. A series of recent drug seizures confirm Poland's heightened role in world drug-smuggling:

* In January, Polish customs officers seized 1,140 pounds of cocaine worth $45 million in a ship's cargo of bananas.

Los Angeles Times Articles