No. XIV (1987)

Ideas on counteracting alcohol and drug addiction in Poland between the two world wars

Published 1987-04-08


  • alcoholism,
  • drug addiction,
  • cocainism,
  • sobriety,
  • alcohology,
  • counteraction,
  • alcohol,
  • legislation,
  • treatment

How to Cite

Nelken, J. (1987). Ideas on counteracting alcohol and drug addiction in Poland between the two world wars. Archives of Criminology, (XIV), 201–225.


The birth of the independent Poland in 1918 activated a social movement against alcoholism and drug addiction. In 1919, the Polish Society for Fighting Alcoholism ,,Trzeźwość'' ("Sobriety'') was established which operated nationwide and which in the period between the two wars became the main factor of fighting alcoholism. In the light of the Statute of "Trzeźwość" and resolutions of the Polish anti-alcoholic congresses, as well as the postulates of psychiatrists, the ideas of how to fight alcoholism included three spheres: a. anti-alcoholic legislation and its practical enforcement; b. anti-alcoholic propaganda and education; c. treatment of alcoholics.

            In 1919, a draft was submitted to the Diet that proposed a total prohibition of production and sale of alcoholic beverages. It was referred to a Diet commission which subsequently changed its contents. Then. The Diet passed an Act of 23 April 1920 on restrictions in sale of alcoholic beverages. The Act, based on a concept of partial prohibition. Introduced considerable restrictions in sale of beverages containing over 2.5 per cent of pure alcohol, and a total prohibition of sale of beverages with over 45 per cent alcohol. Moreover, the sale of alcohol was prohibited to workers on paydays and holidays, as well as at markets, fairs, church fairs, pilgrimages, on trains and at railway stations. According to the Act, each rural or urban commune could introduce on its territory a total prohibition of sale of alcoholic beverages by voting. The Act limited the number of places where alcohol could be sold or served to one per 2,500 of the population all over the country. A licence issued by administrative authorities was required to sell or serve alcohol. The statutory instrument to this Act created commissions for fighting alcoholism of the 1st and 2nd instances which were to supervise the compliance to the Act of 1920 and to impose penalties provided for the infringement of its provisions. The commissions consisted of representatives of the State administration and social organizations engaged in fighting alcoholism. Moreover, the Act of 2l January 1922 introduced a penalty of fine or arrest for being drunk in public. A person who brought another person to the state of intoxication was also liable to these penalties.

            The complete execution of the anti-alcoholic Act met with obstacles: for instance, alcohol was secretly served on the days of prohibition (e.g. during fairs). The Act of 31 July 1924 established the Polish Spirit Monopoly (P.M.S.). The production of spirit and pure vodka thus became a State monopoly' Production and sale of the P.M.S. beverages increased gradually as it constituted an important source of the State revenue. For this reason. a new anti-alcoholic Act of 21 March 1931 was passed which greatly reduced the restrictions in the sale of alcohol as compared with former regulations. A further reduction in these restrictions resulted from Acts of 1932 and 1934. The P.M.S. Board of Directors argued that a growth in production was necessary to suppress illegal distilling of alcohol the products of which were imperfectly rectified and threatened the health of the population. Instead according to the conception of "Trzeźwość’’ and other social organizations engaged in fighting alcoholism. illegal distilling of alcohol should be detected and suppresed by the police while it was in the interest of the health and morals of the population to curtail greatly the sale of alcohol and for this reason it was necessary to reintroduce the anti-alcoholic Act of 1920 However, in consideration of the State's fiscal interests. the Act was not reintroduced and the other Acts that extended the production and sale of the P.M.S. products were only replaced after World War II.

            According to the ideas of ,,Trzeźwość'' and other organizations fighting alcoholism, anti-alcoholic propaganda and education should be made by professionals and have a wide range, since it is impossible to fight alcoholism without informing the population of the harmful effects of alcohol. Guidelines for this activity were worked out at the Polish anti-alcoholic congresses of which there were seven in the period between the wars.

            Besides, in 1937 the 21st International Anti-Alcoholic Congress took place in Warsaw during which the Polish draft of an international anti-alcoholic convention was Supported. The draft provided a considerable limitation of alcohol sale, a regulation of penal liability for offences and transgressions committed in the state of intoxication, and lectures on alcohology in schools. The states signatories to the convention would be called upon to pass acts consistent with the content of the convention. The work on this draft was stopped by the outbreak of the war.

            The resolutions of the Polish anti-alcoholic congresses demanded lectures on alcohology in all types of schools, at teachers courses and at specialist courses for employees of various departments, the Ministry in of Communication particular. The range of alcohology taught at schools should be conformed to the type of school and the general knowledge or students. The postulate of teaching alcohology in schools was partly realized and courses were organized for railway employees by the Abstainer Railwaymen League. At the State School of  Hygiene in Warsaw a several days course in alcohology was organized every year in which 200--300 persons participated, mainly teachers, physicians and clergymen of various denominations. Besides, ,,Trzeźwość'' organized travelling exhibitions that made tours of towns to show the harmful effects of alcoholism. The Abstainer Railwaymen League organized, an exhibition in a railway carriage which was visited by many thousands of persons at railway stations in different parts of the country. A lecturer on alcohology was employed to have talks during the exhibition. In early February every year a nationwide Sobriety Propagation Week was organized. Various publications were also brought out which demonstrated the harmful effects of alcohol and the ways of fighting alcoholism, both scientific and those for general use.

Treatment  of alcoholics was postulated; it was carried out in closed hospital wards or in out-patient clinics. The former was more effective; however it was less frequently applied as compared with the out-patient treatment since there were no provisions which would  legalize compulsory treatment of alcoholics and drug addicts and it was easier to obtain the patient's consent to treatment in a clinic than in a hospital. Compulsory treatment was only possible if the court applied medical security measures in cases of offences connected with abuse of alcohol or drugs. (Art. 82 of the Penal code of 1932). The mental hygiene, movement, initiated in Poland in the early thirties, resulted in a growth in the number of clinics engaged in prevention and treatment, that is in a development of treatment of alcoholics in specialized anti-alcoholic clinics. The necessity of taking the children of alcoholics under educational and medical indicated. An important part is this field fell to social nurses attached to the clinics whose task was among other things to bring the alcoholics children to the clinic and see to their medical treatment if necessary. The organization of special schools for mentally deficient and morally neglected children, whose parents were frequently alcoholics, was also initiated.

            Psychiatrists demanded an elaboration and introduction of an act on compulsory treatment of alcoholics and drug addicts, organization of special wards for notorious alcoholics in mental hospitals, prolongation of treatment from 6 to 12 months (which was considered particularly necessary in the case of chronic alcoholism), a joint alcoholism and psychiatric treatment if required, in the case of alcohol psychosis in particular, and check-up of the cured alcoholics and drug addicts.

            In Poland drug addiction has never reached the proportions of alcoholism. Its most frequent forms were morphinism and cocainism. Its fighting was facilitated by the passing of an Act of June 23, 1923 which prohibited production, processing, export. import. storage of and any trade in all drugs. For infringement of the Act, penalties of fine and up to 5 years deprivation of liberty were provided. However, there was no act to legalize compulsory treatment of drug addicts. They could only be treated in closed hospital wards since in the case of drug addiction, out-patient treatment was considered to be ineffective. In 1931, the Polish Committee for Drugs and Prevention of Drug Addiction was set up as, an advisory body attached to the Minister of Health and Social Welfare, which consisted mainly of physicians and chemists. In order to fight drug addiction effectively, increased detection of export and sale of drugs was postulated as well as supervision of prescriptions and of obtaining drugs on prescription at chemist's. Chemists were compelled to keep a special book of in- and out-goings of drugs which could only be sold on prescription for therapeutical purposes. Attenton was drawn to the necessity of an instruction, to be passed by the Minister of Internal Affairs, according to which the production of doctors seals and forms would only be possible on presentation of the identity card, since drug addicts used to order seals and forms bearing names of famous practitioners. Medical check-up of released prisoners who had been cured of drug addiction when serving their sentences was also postulated.

            In consequence of the spread of ether drinking in the Upper Silesia in 1936, a wide-range operation was carried out which consisted in a vigorous fight against smuggling and sale of ether (which was mainly smuggled from Germany) and in informing the population as to the harmful effects of ether drinking.


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