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The Czechs Discover Dope

Ian Willoughby (ncy)January 7, 2006

An EU survey recently found that young Czechs are the leading smokers of cannabis in the bloc. Marijuana seems to have become accepted as a normal part of life in the Czech Republic.

Illegal drugs have become part of everyday life for CzechsImage: DPA

A recent report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that of Czechs aged 16 to 34, 22 percent said they had smoked cannabis in the previous year, more than in any other EU country.

In a cellar bar a stone's throw from Prague's Charles Bridge, there's a mostly young crowd. The beer and wine are flowing, and every once in a while somebody passes around a joint.

"A couple of years ago it used to be like, I'm cool I'm smoking marijuana -- nowadays it's just normal," said one girl. "Here they are pretty used to people smoking on the street so I'm not hiding. The attitude is very open-minded. Even my parents, from the older generation, they don't take it as a real danger or anything."

Unavailable under communism

But the girl's parents would have been unlikely to come across cannabis, or any other illegal drugs in communist Czechoslovakia, said former dissident Josef Rauvolf.

Demonstration für freien Haschisch in Berlin
Cannabis is the Czechs' drug of choice -- along with alcoholImage: AP

"Of course people knew about cannabis, but they mostly just knew about it," Rauvolf recalled. "Some lucky ones had access to either homegrown or smuggled (marijuana) -- well, mostly homegrown because smuggling could get you two years in prison at least. The lucky ones, they had it, but the quality was very poor. If you had it in your garden nobody could call the police, because they didn't know what it was."

The situation has changed immensely since the Velvet Revolution, said Rauvolf. And not just among the younger generation.

"The attitude to marijuana is quite liberal, even among just normal, average people. People in small villages smoke it, and they don't take it as something special. They are just having a few beers, so they have a few joints. It's not like it used to be -- intellectuals or the underground, so-called counterculture. No, it's normal people, people driving tractors or whatever."

Pleasure principle

But how has cannabis become such a normal part of life for Czechs?

"We can take it optimistically: that we are an open society and our youngsters are good enough and free enough to speak about it," explained the founder of Prague's DropIn drug clinic, Ivan Douda.

Douda said that the development may also have positive side. "If there are fewer hard drugs and more so-called soft drugs it's good news."

Some Czechs say there's a connection between their countrymen and women's passion for beer and their illegal drug consumption, that they use alcohol and drugs to help them relax.

"Maybe it's something about the national character that we prefer to smoke marijuana, because it's a drug of smiling, of music, of eating and other very pleasant things," Dr. Douda said, adding that cannabis is not all about smiling and can lead to problems similar to alcoholism.

Pragmatic approach

The legal situation in the Czech Republic is somewhat confusing: possession of an undefined "amount not bigger than a small amount" is considered only a misdemeanor. Douda praised a new bill currently before the Czech Parliament that should make things more clear.

"We will have some stratification, some drug categories, and marijuana will be on the low level," he said.