Since Poland legalised the use of medical cannabis in 2017, it has been suffering from supply issues. The current number of Polish medical cannabis patients far exceeds the amount of imported cannabis from the likes of Bedrocan. The health community is also lacking education on matters related to prescribing cannabis and identifying eligible sicknesses.
Stepping back, Poland, like many European countries, is facing the symptoms of overcoming cultural taboos.
Getting to the root of Polish cannabis
Marijuana is nothing new to the Eastern European country. Like many nations around the world, Poland has been cultivating the cannabis plant for millennia. It was even used recreationally and medicinally up until the 20th century.
In 1912, many of the globe’s most formidable powers, including the United States, China, France and Russia, came together for the First International Opium Conference in The Hague, Holland. The collection of countries in attendance eventually formulated a treaty of sorts to confront growing pessimism around the opium trade. The Convention was put in place and controlled in 1915 and 1919 respectively.
Critically, it also included the cultivation of coca, the substrate for cocaine, and cannabis. It placed a relatively lenient ban on exporting these three products rather than an outright ban. This particular clause drew the ire from China, the United States and Egypt — these three countries sought hard-line prohibition.
The Convention was eventually revised in 1925 and made illegal ‘various preparations’ of the cannabis plant. Its explicit focus was to reduce the plant to its medicinal and scientific purposes, according to the revision. Poland was one of the signatories of this updated version of the Convention.
Nearly 25 years later, the People’s Republic of Poland took a much firmer stance on cannabis and labelled it as a narcotic. This position was firmed up again in 1997.
At that time, the government made possession of cannabis, even small amounts, illegal. Polish citizens would have to wait more than a decade before talks of lowering the penalties for cannabis possession would arrive. But, in 2011, these discussions finally began in earnest.
Passed in May 2011, an amendment effectively told authorities to punish cannabis users on a case-by-case basis. This meant that charges could be dropped if the user was only holding a small amount, if it was the first offence or if the person was drug-dependent. Under the previous law, similar uses could see jail times of up to three years.
The move wasn’t enough for over 6,000 demonstrators in Warsaw, however. Following the amendment, the Free Hemp Initiative led a demonstration in the country’s capital calling for clarity on what a ‘small amount’ meant. Along with demanding a 30-gram cap on personal cannabis use, the crowd also demanded amnesty for those serving sentences as well as the right to grow up to the three cannabis plants on private property.
Others, like Dr. Mateusz Klinowski, Chair of Legal Theory at the Jagiellonian University’s Department of Law and Administration, felt the amendment was a positive, albeit conservative step towards further reform.
Klinowski told the Krakow Post at the time:
‘The first step has been taken and now it is public opinion and non-governmental organisations which have to advocate rational solutions and efficient law that will be aimed primarily at prevention and treatment, rather than at penalising possession.’
Enter advocates, politicians and rappers stage left
For all its nuance, the story of Polish cannabis is very similar to many other countries around the world.
Draconian laws that grouped marijuana with narcotics like heroin and opioids were inevitably alleviated. And for every country that has experienced this shift, there are just as many advocates who worked behind the scenes to make that shift a reality.
In Poland, the primary advocacy groups that helped turn medical cannabis activism into law have been a mixed bag. Take for instance Kukiz’15, a right-leaning political association, and Polish rapper and politician, Piotr Krzysztof Liroy-Marzec.
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Kukiz’15 was initially formed around ‘anti-establishment’ sentiments prior to presidential elections in 2015. They helped syndicate disparate far-right and centre-right political groups. Like so many other extreme right-wing agendas, Kukiz’15 formed its ideology around Euroscepticism and socially conservative values.
The group’s fearless leader, and former punk rocker, Pawel Kukiz managed to come in third place in the elections too. Shortly after the elections, however, the group rescinded many of its more extreme positions.
Its role in the legalisation of medical cannabis in Poland is subtle, albeit important for understanding how the law came to be. In February 2016, Kukiz drafted a proposal that would allow patients to grow cannabis for personal use after they obtained a relevant permit.
Here is where Liroy-Marzec, the rapper turned independent politician, played a critical role. As a long-time advocate himself, the MP modified this initial proposal, along with several other authors, before presenting it to the Polish lower house of parliament, or Poznaj Sejm.
The amended bill indicated that the raw product would be imported from abroad and only pharmacies would process and sell cannabis to patients with a medical prescription.
A year later, this particular piece of legislation was passed in the summer of 2017. Three months after, the ruling became law and Poland had access to a burgeoning medical cannabis market.
Marijuana can now enter the country and be processed at local pharmacies as long as the import has first been registered with the Office for Registration of Medical Products. At the time, a spokesperson estimated a total of ‘300,000 patients [that] could qualify for medical marijuana treatment’ and 15,000 eligible pharmacies.
Conditional ailments include symptoms of multiple sclerosis, side effects associated with chemotherapy, and epilepsy. According to the Polish Pharmaceutical Chamber (PPC), treating these maladies for a month will cost the typical patient roughly €500.
It is this high cost, as well as the inaccessibility, that has taken centre stage since legalisation.
Lowering the cost of medicine
Although Liroy-Marzec was an architect of the original legislation, he is actively working to implement further changes.
Specifically, he hopes to make the domestic cultivation of cannabis legal. Currently, many cannabis patients in Poland are either outpriced from paying for treatment or medical marijuana simply isn’t available to them.
Training medical professionals about the realities of how to prescribe the plant has also been an uphill battle.
In the case of Dorota Gudaniec and her son Max, it’s critical they find a solution quickly. This is because Max suffers from debilitating epilepsy, which evolved into Lennox-Gastault Syndrome. To help soothe these symptoms, Max was placed into an induced coma while doctors looked for ways to help the five-year-old boy.
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Inevitably, Dorota stumbled upon the potential for cannabis to help her son. Doctors condemned the plant, recommending she drop the idea entirely. ‘At that time, Dr. Bachański was the only doctor who knew about administering cannabis’, she said. ‘Other doctors either knew nothing or warned me of long-term effects, drug addiction or criminal liability.’
Dr. Bachański is a paediatrician focused on epilepsy in children. He was also one of the first doctors to begin advocating for the controlled use of cannabis for treating patients.
Criminal liability also refers to routing around the bottlenecked cannabis supply chain in Poland. All over Europe, those suffering from cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis have been self-medicating with cannabis bought on the black market.
‘If a patient is lucky enough to find a competent doctor, access is extremely limited. At the moment, there is one preparation available at a very high price. Patients continue to hit the black market and this is a terribly sad and worrying situation.’
Thus, the entirety of the medical cannabis space in Poland rests on the shoulders of companies like Bedrocan, and, in the latest, Spectrum Cannabis. Spectrum is part of Canopy Growth’s family of businesses and is focused on meeting pharmacies’ demand for high-grade cannabis flowers in the UK and Poland.
Though it may be big business for importers in the short term, advocates like Liroy-Marzec are working to make domestic cannabis cultivation legal. This would lower prices, reduce patients’ need to enter the black market and ultimately help serve the wider Polish medical marijuana community.
There’s just one problem.
Conservative opposition sees the domestic cultivation of cannabis as a step too close to full-blown recreational cannabis. They may have a point, too. Reflecting on the beginnings of recreational cannabis in both the U.S. and Canada, it always began with a highly-regulated medical market.
And, just like in North America, preventing patients from receiving healthful medicines due to fears of cultural degradation isn’t legitimate either. A windfall is inevitable, it’s only a question of when.