Prague – Pavel pulls on his marijuana joint in Prague without the slightest concern that the police could intervene and arrest him for possession of illicit drugs. “Since the start of the year, I am allowed have up to 15 grams of grass in my pocket,” says Pavel as he sits in Chapeau Rouge, a bar that has been well known for years among tourists and locals alike as an unofficial Coffee Shop where soft drugs for private use can be purchased.
However, it is only since new laws introduced by the Czech government on January 1 came into effect that possession of drugs for personal use is no longer a criminal offence in the Central European country.
Under the new legislation, a person can, for example, have up to 15g of marijuana, 1g of cocaine, 1.5g of heroin, 4 ecstasy tablets, 5 LSD tablets and 2g of amphetamines.
The amounts have been chosen as they represent what the courts define as for “personal use,” explains Justice Minister Daniela Kovarova.
On paper, the new rules mean the Czech Republic now has one of the most liberal drug laws in Europe.
“This was long overdue,” said Pavel, who isn’t contradicted by anyone in the Chapeau Rouge at least, where along with more than a dozen other bars such as Reggae-Bar and Ujezd, soft drugs have been tolerated for years, regardless of their proximity to police stations.
“First buy a drink and then ask again,” the Chapeau Rouge barman tells a new guest who wants to know where he can buy “something to smoke.” Meanwhile, the dealer waits by the toilets.
Before the new legislation, the common perception was that small amounts of drugs would be tolerated but no-one knew what actually constituted a “small amount.”
The small deals continued undisturbed in well-known bars until annual “legalise marijuana” demonstrations in early May began attracting thousands of demonstrators.
European Union statistics certainly seem to back up the decision of the Czech Republic to take a new line regarding possession of drugs.
According to the 2009 report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EBDD), 44 per cent of Czechs between the age of 15 and 24 have tried illegal drugs at least once – the highest percentage in Europe.
A drug peculiar to the Czech drug scene is a methamphetamine known as “Ice” or “Crystal,” which is stronger than normal amphetamines and which is now being exported more and more to the rest of Europe, writes the EBDD.
Czech newspapers report how neighbours Austria and Germany are worried that the new law regarding possession for personal use will lead to more smuggling.
Austrian Interior Minister Maria Fekter has already expressed “serious concern” about the issue while Germany is planning more controls on its border with the Czech Republic, the Lidove noviny newspaper reported.
However, in this traditionally liberal country barely anyone is protesting as, according to the politicians at least, drug-dealing still remains a criminal offence.
Drug advice centres, meanwhile, have given mixed reactions to the new laws.
“Naturally, the decriminalisation is a positive step,” says Jiri Richter of the Sananim organization, but he also points out that the state still isn’t doing enough in the areas of prevention and assistance.
The Drop In organization also has an issue with the levels of support from government, saying the level of assistance for drug addicts is well below the norm for Western Europe.
Meanwhile in Chapeau Rouge, Pavel and his friends are already onto their next joint.
“It hasn’t changed things much for us,” he says. “We used to grow our own cannabis plants before.”
Czech citizens can now grow up to five cannabis plants and the government is expecting its first report on how the new legislation is affecting the drugs scene by the autumn.