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03/15/2013 12:03 PM

Czeched Out

The Losers of Prague's Drug Liberalization

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The Czech Republic's 2010 decision to lower drug possession from a criminal to misdemeanor offense has turned the country into a mecca for drug users. The change has spawned a profitable sub-economy, but also come at a high social cost.

The problem has its roots in a rectangular tent made of black plastic that looks like an oversized mobile wardrobe. It's as tall as a man, almost completely odor-tight and provides space for four fully grown cannabis plants. The "Growshop" in the Prague city district of Zižkov sells the tent for the equivalent of €400 ($520), including a fan, ventilation ducts, a 400 Watt spotlight, fertilizer and a bag of potting soil. It's easy to set up this black contraption at home and start growing your own weed. Any 14-year-old can do it -- and that's the problem. The market is flooded with marijuana.

"Prices are falling," says Marek, a local dealer with a hairdo that looks like a wire wig. He has picked out a restaurant near the Charles Bridge, where he orders goulash with mashed potatoes and complains about declining profits. The dope-dealing business has seen better days, he says. He currently gets 1,500 crowns, or roughly €60 ($78), for 10 grams of weed. Regular customers -- who Marek prefers to calls "friends" -- buy on credit.

To avoid boring his "friends," he regularly brings them samples of new strains. "White Widow" is currently doing well, meaning that it gets you high as a kite. Marek stresses that his product is far better than what the competition offers. "My stuff is grown with love, not like the shit that the Vietnamese produce. They grow their weed in warehouses." The Vietnamese are the second problem. Marek says they only care about business, not quality, like the Czech growers do. They aren't devoted to the art of gardening, he claims.

Both Marek and his suppliers benefit from the fact that reefer has become an integral part of Czech folklore since the early 1990s, like pilsner beer and dumplings with sauce. Half of all Czechs between the ages of 15 and 34 have smoked pot at least once in their lives. According to statistics by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), the Czech Republic ranks among the top cannabis-smoking nations in Europe, right up there with Italy and Spain.

Many years ago, the police gave up issuing warnings to everyone who took a toke on a joint. Unable to stop the practice, the government decided it should at least regulate it. Since 2010, Czech authorities have no longer treated possession of narcotics or psychotropic substances in small quantities as a criminal offense, but rather as a misdemeanor subject to a maximum fine of €600. The Czech Republic -- which borders Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Austria -- now lies like a drugged-up green oasis in the midst of narcotics laws that range from fairly strict to absolutely rigid.

An official table lists the maximum legally allowed amounts: For personal use, each individual is allowed to carry up to 15 grams of marijuana, four ecstasy tablets, two grams of crystal meth, one gram of coke or one-and-a-half grams of heroin without having to fear criminal charges. Dealing drugs is still a criminal offense, but cannabis growers, cocaine smugglers and meth labs have been earning good money again since 2010.

Critics see the new laws as a capitulation, and law enforcement agencies condemn the lax legislation. The Czech interior minister is having troubles with authorities in the neighboring German states of Bavaria and Saxony, which are complaining about drugs being smuggled over the border.

Drug Tourism

Marek sees liberalization as a step in the right direction.

"I'm just a small fish," he says. Indeed, he is one of hundreds in the city who sell ganja to "friends."

It's Thursday afternoon and the expression on Marek's face reveals that he's looking forward to Friday night. Nights out on the town follow the same universal scenario of anticipation, euphoria, crash and morning-after. Revelers rarely have a dark foreboding that excessive drug use could end in disaster.

Marek, 29, was born and raised in Prague. He has been selling grass since he was 18, and he used to also sell harder drugs, such as coke and ecstasy. Today, his main job is guiding tourists through the city. He meets a lot of young people on his tours who are thrilled about the liberal drug laws in the Czech Republic.

He would never offer it, says Marek, but if someone asks him nicely, he knows where to get hold of some weed. He takes the tourists to his office, where they quickly become "friends." With this arrangement, Marek the dealer benefits from Marek the tour guide.

He steps off a street in the historic city center and ducks into a low entranceway, flits through a tunnel and ends up standing in front of his desk. Marek shares the office with his brother, Michal, who runs a hostel for backpacker tourists and is rolling a joint. "I'm not making it too strong because it's still early," he says.

Michal is two years older than Marek, married and the father of a one-and-a-half-year-old girl. His hostel is doing extremely well. He wears his hair in dreadlocks and is the opposite of his brother -- calmer, more reflective, an artist type. Michal has personally experienced his country's drug history. He has to think for a long time when asked if there is any drug that he hasn't yet smoked or swallowed.

Trouble Setting Limits

Michal and Marek are two very different brothers. Michal, the businessman, is slowly working his way up the ladder, while Marek, the dealer, is struggling to avoid sliding back down. They are both familiar with the two sides of drugs, and they know how tempting it can be to live one's life on an endless high.

Their parents were affluent, Michal says while lighting the joint. His father worked in the administration of the state-owned construction company and, after the fall of the Wall, he managed the Eastern European division of a Canadian bank. His mother decided to pursue a career as a freelance business consultant. His parents separated when Michal was 15. "They couldn't handle my brother," he says. Marek got into trouble with his teachers for selling stolen goods. After their parents separated, Marek lived with his father, while Michal moved in with a bunch of roommates and experimented with weed and, later, heroin.

The 1990s were the perfect high for Michal. Along with the tourists, artists, eccentrics and adventurers who streamed into Prague after the fall of the Iron Curtain, new drugs came to the city. Michal took them in every imaginable form: smoke, powder, pills, crystals and liquids. He organized techno parties in empty bunkers and called himself "Narco Polo," the drug explorer.

He had his most life-changing drug experience when he hiked to the top of a hill alone and ate psilocybin ("magic") mushrooms. Not even 20 years old yet, he could have kept on partying to the limit. But up there on the hill, he realized how fragile, beautiful and precious life is. Without the mushrooms, he would be dead now, Michal says. He stopped taking hard drugs and studied philosophy and history.

His little brother Marek already had a knack for business as a young boy. Before his drug phase, he sold collector cards, clothing and, later, insurance policies. "At the age of 17, I was the best salesman in the city," he claims. Marek didn't need any schooling to recognize an unfilled market niche. But the stories he tells often begin with ridiculously high profits -- and usually end with going bust.

Grandma the Grower

With all the drugs flowing into the country, the Czechs soon discovered that they had a penchant for growing their own. Michal recalls how friends and acquaintances began to plant marijuana at home. At the same time, the pot-growing business became far more professional. In early November 2012, the third international hemp trade show, Cannafest, was held on the city's largest exhibition grounds, featuring presentations on "hemp in Czech culture," stands by fertilizer suppliers, cannabis seed dealers and hydroculture companies. Many exhibitors came from the Netherlands to ensure that they don't miss out on this new growth market.

While the police raid new, increasingly huge cannabis plantations -- often operated by Vietnamese -- every few weeks, the rest of the country has private patches of weed. Even Michal and Marek's grandparents raise plants in their greenhouse that they cut and water for their two grandsons. "Grandma is an outstanding gardener," says Michal. He pulls out his mobile phone, which has photos of his last visit. The pictures show resinous buds instead of grandma. Grandpa makes skin cream from the leaves and stems, which Marek and Michal don't smoke.

Michal and Marek rhapsodize about the Prague of the 1990s as if it were a paradise in which friends shared samples of their most successful homegrown varieties. The world was wonderful -- at least that's how it seemed.

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 Zižkov, 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

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