Czeched Out The Losers of Prague's Drug Liberalization
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 Zikov 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.
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.
- Part 1: The Losers of Prague's Drug Liberalization
- Part 2: Profits and Risks