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Czech cannabis smokers exhale with relief over new drug law

PRAGUE — Czech pot smokers have breathed a sigh of relief after the government clarified a law on drug use, turning the country into one of Europe’s safest havens for casual drug users.

Under the more transparent and liberal law in effect since January, people found in possession of up to 15 grammes (half an ounce) of marijuana or growing up to five cannabis plants no longer risk prison or a criminal record, but can only be fined if caught. “Our legislation says that possession and growing of marijuana for personal use is not a crime,” said journalist Jiri Dolezal, slowly savouring a joint he just rolled with admirable expertise.

Now, “if the police find you carrying less than 15 grammes, you don’t risk anything except a fine of up to 15,000 korunas (580 euros, 800 dollars).”

Dolezal has led a tireless campaign to relax the laws on “soft” drug use in the pages of Reflex, the respected magazine where he works.

The weekly even organises an annual contest for the best photo of marijuana grown by its readers, the Reflex Cannabis Cup, in this ex-communist country where one-third of all adults and half of youths under 24 years confess to having tried cannabis at least once.

The new law replaced an ambiguous one that made it a penalty to be in possession of “a larger than small amount” of marijuana.

“It will reduce contacts between youths and dealers who, sooner or later, offer them hard drugs,” asserted Dolezal, puffing on what in colloquial Czech is called “brko” for “quill”, or “spek” for “bacon fat”.

But Karel Nespor, a doctor who heads the addiction treatment centre at Prague-Bohnice psychiatric hospital, is concerned about impact the eased law may have on health.

“One study found that the risk of heart attack is four times higher in the hour after someone smokes a marijuana joint,” he recently told the Czech daily Dnes .

“Marijuana use also risks provoking ‘cravings’ for the drug,” he said.

Adopted after years of wrangling, the new drug law also allows people to possess less than 1.5 grammes of heroin, a gramme of cocaine, up to five grammes of hashish, and five LSD blotter papers, pills, capsules or crystals.

Czechs can also legally grow up to five cannabis or coca plants or cacti containing mescaline, and possess up to 40 magic mushrooms.

If growers comply with the legal limits, possession is treated as a minor offence, while the possession of bigger amounts may result in up to six months in prison for hemp and up to a year for magic mushrooms, plus a fine.

In neighbouring Poland and Slovakia, people possessing any amount of marijuana risk ending up behind bars.

“Czech society is secular and more free, I would say,” said psychologist Ivan Douda, who specialises in treating addicts. “Our laws are more tolerant and more pragmatic. We are closer to the Dutch legislation.”

Cannabis use is technically illegal in the Netherlands, though the consumption and possession of under five grammes was decriminalised in 1976 . That amount is sold legally in one of 700 or so licensed Dutch “coffee” shops. Cannabis cultivation and mass retail remain illegal, and magic mushrooms were banned in 2008.

Douda, however, warned that the new law would not resolve all drug problems.

In recent years, he has traveled around the country, meeting students to raise awareness about the risks of using not only cannabis but also other drugs including tobacco and alcohol.

“Alcohol is an underestimated drug, while marijuana is overestimated and too severely criminalised,” he said.

Neither Dolezal nor Douda feel the more relaxed drug law will transform their country into “an Amsterdam of the East”.

“There is a difference between the approach in Amsterdam, which is more tolerant towards dealers, and that of Czech authorities, who are easier on the users,” said Dolezal.

The psychologist conceded it was inevitable that cannabis lovers from neighbouring countries would come from time to time in search of “a more liberal environment.”

Recently, Czech police discovered that a fast-food kiosk in Cesky Tesin/Cieszyn, a town on the Czech-Polish border, was selling Polish clients marijuana along with their French fries.

“Regulars were offered French fries as a bonus,” joked local police spokeswoman Zlatuse Viackova.

By By Jan Marcha