Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Czech pot smokers exhale with relief over new drug law

PRAGUE — Czech pot smokers have breathed a sigh of relief after the
government clarified a law on drug use, turning the country into one of
Europe's safest havens for casual drug users.

Under the more transparent and liberal law in effect since January,
people found in possession of up to 15 grammes (half an ounce) of
marijuana or growing up to five cannabis plants no longer risk prison or
a criminal record, but can only be fined if caught.

"Our legislation says that possession and growing of marijuana for
personal use is not a crime," said journalist Jiri Dolezal, slowly
savouring a joint he just rolled with admirable expertise.

Now, "if the police find you carrying less than 15 grammes, you don't
risk anything except a fine of up to 15,000 korunas (580 euros, 800

Dolezal has led a tireless campaign to relax the laws on "soft" drug use
in the pages of Reflex, the respected magazine where he works.

The weekly even organises an annual contest for the best photo of
marijuana grown by its readers, the Reflex Cannabis Cup, in this
ex-communist country where one-third of all adults and half of youths
under 24 years confess to having tried cannabis at least once.

The new law replaced an ambiguous one that made it a penalty to be in
possession of "a larger than small amount" of marijuana.

"It will reduce contacts between youths and dealers who, sooner or
later, offer them hard drugs," asserted Dolezal, puffing on what in
colloquial Czech is called "brko" for "quill", or "spek" for "bacon

But Karel Nespor, a doctor who heads the addiction treatment centre at
Prague-Bohnice psychiatric hospital, is concerned about impact the eased
law may have on health.

"One study found that the risk of heart attack is four times higher in
the hour after someone smokes a marijuana joint," he recently told the
Czech daily Dnes .

"Marijuana use also risks provoking 'cravings' for the drug," he said.

Adopted after years of wrangling, the new drug law also allows people to
possess less than 1.5 grammes of heroin, a gramme of cocaine, up to five
grammes of hashish, and five LSD blotter papers, pills, capsules or

Czechs can also legally grow up to five cannabis or coca plants or cacti
containing mescaline, and possess up to 40 magic mushrooms.

If growers comply with the legal limits, possession is treated as a
minor offence, while the possession of bigger amounts may result in up
to six months in prison for hemp and up to a year for magic mushrooms,
plus a fine.

In neighbouring Poland and Slovakia, people possessing any amount of
marijuana risk ending up behind bars.

"Czech society is secular and more free, I would say," said psychologist
Ivan Douda, who specialises in treating addicts. "Our laws are more
tolerant and more pragmatic. We are closer to the Dutch legislation."

Cannabis use is technically illegal in the Netherlands, though the
consumption and possession of under five grammes was decriminalised in
1976 . That amount is sold legally in one of 700 or so licensed Dutch
"coffee" shops. Cannabis cultivation and mass retail remain illegal, and
magic mushrooms were banned in 2008.

Douda, however, warned that the new law would not resolve all drug

In recent years, he has traveled around the country, meeting students to
raise awareness about the risks of using not only cannabis but also
other drugs including tobacco and alcohol.

"Alcohol is an underestimated drug, while marijuana is overestimated and
too severely criminalised," he said.

Neither Dolezal nor Douda feel the more relaxed drug law will transform
their country into "an Amsterdam of the East".

"There is a difference between the approach in Amsterdam, which is more
tolerant towards dealers, and that of Czech authorities, who are easier
on the users," said Dolezal.

The psychologist conceded it was inevitable that cannabis lovers from
neighbouring countries would come from time to time in search of "a more
liberal environment."

Recently, Czech police discovered that a fast-food kiosk in Cesky
Tesin/Cieszyn, a town on the Czech-Polish border, was selling Polish
clients marijuana along with their French fries.

"Regulars were offered French fries as a bonus," joked local police
spokeswoman Zlatuse Viackova.

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