Czeched Out The Losers of Prague's Drug Liberalization
Part 2: Profits and Risks
During the evening, Marek is out on the town with "friends." The next morning, he collapses into the armchair of his office and waits for the speech center of his brain to warm up. The first tourists wander into his office and ask about opera tickets. After they leave, Marek pulls his Roger Federer cap lower over his face and says that he regularly sells grass to some 15 or 20 people, and "I make real good money with some of them." His profit margin is around 70 percent, though a bit less with good friends. He records his profits in his second mobile phone but, as a precaution, he has removed its SIM card.
Marek won't reveal what he makes, but it's possible to make a rough estimate. If 20 customers purchase 10 grams from him twice a month for 1,500 crowns, this gives him monthly sales of 60,000 crowns. At a profit margin of some 50 percent, that leaves him 30,000 crowns a month, or approximately 1,200. That's not bad for a side job -- but he bears the risk.
"Huh?" Marek says. "What risk?"
From time to time, he is stopped in his car by the police and has to take a drug test. He doesn't always pass the test with flying colors. He has tried everything except meth and heroin. Aside from that, he hasn't had any problems with the authorities. What does he have to fear? After all, he says, he's just selling grass.
Most of the tourists Marek meets are more interested in purchasing Bohemian crystal and touring a brewery than in buying dope.
Unlike Amsterdam, Prague doesn't have any "coffee shops" in which a dozen kinds of marijuana and hashish are listed on laminated menus. Instead, people looking to buy drugs in Prague need contacts or the gumption to ask bartenders if they can help them score a few grams.
Hell-Bent on Self-Destruction
Hard drugs are purchased on the black market. The Czech Republic is notorious for its drug kitchens, which have specialized in producing crystal meth, sold here under the names pervitin and piko. More meth is manufactured in the Czech Republic than in any other European country. In 2010, police raided 307 production facilities, most of them home-based meth labs run by amateurs. The quality of the goods depends primarily on how much money and effort the meth cooks invest.
Jana has tried much of what the cooks produce. She is 29, works at the reception of a hostel for backpack tourists in the historic city center, and is one of Marek's "friends." Her favorite drugs are meth and ketamine, she says. While meth rockets you to the moon, ketamine helps you with re-entry.
Ketamine was first synthesized in the US in 1962. Today, it's commonly used in veterinary medicine as an anesthetic. In Prague, the drug is sold in tablets, in powder form or as a liquid -- and it feels like concrete in your veins. It's a state just short of self-disintegration. People who take ketamine rave about near-death experiences. Jana says: "I like to destroy myself."
She comes from Slovenia, moved to Prague at the age of 19, and keeps her head above water with odd jobs. Every weekend, she hits the techno parties, where DJs play music that sounds like the jet engine of a Boeing. For Jana, drugs are part of the party. She seems hell-bent on self-destruction. There is no Plan B.
It's Friday night and she is running along the streets north of the center of town and tearing leaves from bushes. She throws the leaves aside. We have been standing at a streetcar stop for all of about five seconds when she asks: "Are we still waiting here?" Meth numbs the senses, including that of time.
Jana enters bars, then quickly decides that it's not her scene and dashes out again. Within a short period of time, three dealers have asked her if she wants to buy some weed. At the end of a breathless marathon through the Prague nightlife, she disappears behind the bathroom door of a techno club and doesn't resurface for quite some time.
Benefits and Drawbacks
Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas has pledged to reduce the amount of meth tolerated by the authorities. Czech police say that it's currently the most dangerous substance in the country. The number of long-term users soared by one-third between 2008 and 2011. Since liberalization, the Czech drug market has become so popular worldwide that the authors of the acclaimed US TV series "Breaking Bad" decided to place some of the action here. In the new season, Walter White, the central character in the series, decides to send some of his blue crystals to the Czech Republic and makes so much money that he can hardly believe it.
In addition to meth, in the discos on Prague's Wenzel's Square and in the bars of the artists' district Zikov, just about everything is available that stimulates the brain, enhances alertness, stirs the libido, causes addiction, takes the edge off, numbs the senses and kneads the consciousness like dough. There is cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, heroin, ketamine, a range of hallucinogenic mushrooms, loads of grass and hashish, and, above all, amphetamines in every imaginable form, mix and concentration. "You can get everything here," says Michal.
The European drug monitoring center EMCDDA estimates that nearly 20 metric tons of cannabis are smoked in the Czech Republic every year, 5 million ecstasy pills are swallowed, 1 million LSD trips taken and five metric tons of crystal meth vaporized. In bars, five minutes don't pass before someone whispers: "Hey! You wanna buy something?" Prague has also surpassed the West when it comes to drug logistics.
The liberal drug policy has benefited consumers and the state, which no longer has to devote a great deal of time and energy to pursuing every minor infraction. But the new policy has not made genuine progress in the fight against the illegal production of drugs.
The Higher You Get, the Harder You Fall
Marek, the dealer, rolls himself a fifth joint after completing two three-hour city sightseeing tours. He is sitting in the backroom of a bar and seems all wound up. His absolute favorite drug is coke, he says. Between his legs lies a backpack that he always carries with him. It contains a Tupperware container filled with weed and a precision scale.
Next to Marek sits another "friend," René from Brazil. René has been living in Prague for 12 years. First, he fell in love with a Czech woman, then with methamphetamine. "The Czech meth is the best on the planet," says René, "I know that because I've tried meth from California. But the Czech stuff is better."
He asks Marek if he wants to drink a schnapps with him. Marek blinks through the blue cloud of smoke from his joint and shouts: "Are you crazy? I still have to do some driving!"
Unable to get a grip on his money problems, Marek started playing online poker. When he plays, he's on coke. That doesn't necessarily help him save money. The street price for a gram of coke in Prague is 100. It consists of roughly 20 percent cocaine and, at best, the rest is lidocaine, a local anesthetic, or levamisole, a medication used to treat parasite worm infections.
While René raves about Czech crystals, the joint helps Marek gradually unwind. It's Sunday evening, and the weekend is over. Marek has survived yet another drug binge. During a recent raid, the police arrested two of his friends who were dealing ecstasy and meth. They are now awaiting trial. But he's not afraid of the police, Marek claims. "If they arrested me, they would also have to arrest half a million people in Prague who are doing the same thing," he quips. Still, he is looking for an opportunity to establish a more solid business, like his brother's.
This life of drugs, this self-destruction, will have to end someday -- even Marek knows that. It's the golden law of the night: The more intense the rush, the more destructive the drug. Many of Marek's and Michal's former "friends" are stumbling around Prague today as drug zombies. Some of them have died from drug abuse.
Michal hopes that Marek will manage to put this chapter behind him, but it currently doesn't look like he's about to stop dealing dope. Michal hopes that the Czech government will someday allow coffee shops. It would be a welcome legalization program for his brother, the dealer. Michal says he wouldn't be surprised if Marek then became the entrepreneur who opens Prague's first coffee shop.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
- Part 1: The Losers of Prague's Drug Liberalization
- Part 2: Profits and Risks