Warsaw — ``It just looked like any other plant,'' Ryszard said. ``I couldn't believe it when the high school teacher told me that his students had grown it -- and that it was marijuana.''
With Poland's political situation deadlocked, its economy floundering, these days many Poles are indulging in drugs -- and in the nation's traditional problem of alcohol.
Like Ryszard, the government and the Roman Catholic Church are worried. Both have launched major reform programs. The church even declared this August ``abstinence month,'' only to find that an alienated population was apparently uninterested.
``Americans always have been made to feel guilty when they drink, but Poles have been taught to feel no guilt because historically both the church and government were permissive,'' said Jacek Moskalewicz of the Warsaw Psychoneurological Institute.
Pressures run counter to the anti-alcohol campaign. In 1983, alcohol rationing (imposed in June 1981) was ended. Alcohol sales bring the government large amounts of much-needed revenue. At the same time, because the authorities remain fearful of free debate after the style of the now-banned Solidarity trade union, ``there is less discussion in all fields, including alcohol,'' Dr. Moskalewicz says.
Church and members of the opposition suggest an even more sinister motive. ``It's easier to control a drunk population than a sober one,'' said one opposition activist.
Whatever the real reason, the result is a lack of political will in attacking the problem.
Meanwhile, alcoholism continues to mount. The official press condemns the increasing number of workers coming to their jobs drunk. In all, Moskalewicz estimates that 1 million Poles, out of a population of 36 million, are alcoholics.
Drugs represent a similar national crisis. Instead of affecting the entire population, though, their ravages focus on Poland's increasingly dissatisfied youth. One Western analyst says about two-thirds of Polish drug users are less than 21 years old.
Unlike the alcohol problem, the drug problem appeared relatively recently. It first surfaced in the 1960s, along with the youth protest movement. Then it was limited to the hippie subculture in the large cities, Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, and Szczecin. In 1975, government statistics showed that a mere 624 reported addicts were receiving treatment.
In southern Poland, poppies had been grown for centuries. Poppy seeds play an important role in Polish cuisine, and are bought by the government to make morphine. They also made good homemade opium, and even a potent homemade heroin -- makiwara in Polish.
What had earlier been a marijuana problem has now turned into a hard-drug problem, a problem that soon spread to the countryside as well as the cities. Official government estimates put the number of hard-drug users at 300,000, with the number of addicts receiving treatment at only 3,165. The Western expert estimates 500,000 users and 35,000 addicts.
``A dangerous drug subculture is developing among our teenagers,'' admits Moskalewicz, ``and it's spreading throughout the country.''
Last January the government updated the old 1951 law on narcotics. The new legislation created a commission to educate the population. It also created a fund to treat victims. And most important, it restricted the area that could be used for poppy cultivation and for opium sales. So far, the measures have not had much effect.
Just as with the alcohol campaign, the government lacks a strong popular support for its efforts. Moskalewicz says Polish youth have become increasingly apathetic and desperate since the martial-law period (1981-83). A generation gap is growing, they explain, as witnessed by Ryszard's surprise at finding out that youth now produce their own drugs.
``We have a hard time understanding how that could happen to our children,'' he says. ``It's difficult to cope.''