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'Bootleg' poppy crop in Poland yields dangerous harvest of drug addiction

The poppies make for a brave sight in the Polish countryside this time of year. There are the common wild ones, of a vivid red, and the cultivated ones, with cream white petals slashed with purple, taking on a special beauty under the summer sun.

But the beauty conceals what is fast becoming a major social problem - a mushrooming ''bootleg'' operation catering to a growing number of drug addicts, especially among the young. An unprepared government has been unable to meet the challenge posed by the drug problem, but new laws to stem the drug trade could be in effect by the time this year's poppies are harvested.

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On a long drive through the south, almost every field of standing grain seemed to have its corner of at least 40 or 50 square yards of cultivated poppies.

The official, legal harvest is 10 million kilograms annually. It is bought up by the pharmaceutical industry for medical purposes.

There is also the ''unofficial'' harvest of the poppy stems. The weekly Polityka recently reported that some 10,000 drug producers and pushers exploit this other harvest. Although most of them are known to the authorities, the police are helpless because there is no legislation for dealing with them.

On the illicit market, a kilogram of stems - from which a highly damaging narcotic can be brewed - fetches many times the price paid by the medical industry.

No one seems to know how many drug addicts there are in Poland. The most conservative estimate - cited in June by the youth newspaper Sztandar Mlodych - says 150,000. Almost all users are said to be between 13 and 30 years of age.

What is known is that last year at least 80 young people died from drug abuse. This year the tally is already 120. Moreover, despite an alarming leap in the number of addicts, Poland has only five small treatment centers.

Now the government has stepped in with an ordinance requiring registration with the authorities of any poppy plot exceeding 50 square meters (about 66 square yards). It also announced that it will take over this year's entire harvest, stems included. Evaders court stiff fines and even imprisonment.

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Yet social workers say this is not strict enough. ''You can grow an awful lot of poppy on much less than 50 meters,'' one said.

The next step is a law due by October to combat drug abuse and illegal sales and place strict controls on production. It is being drafted by the health, education, and other ministries in liaison with a team of scientists and social workers.

There is some concern that the first draft is not strict enough. The government newspaper Rzeczpospolita has highlighted legislation in the United States, which, depending on the state, calls for up to 15 years' imprisonment for illegal sales and up to 30 years for selling to a juvenile. Other Western countries were cited as examples of what is urgently needed here in Poland.

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