The price of freedom
With the collapse of Communism and the opening of borders to the West, the Czech Republic has joined other Central and East European countries as both a transit route and an end destination for the region's growing drug trade. While the country is not a significant producer or cultivator of illicit drugs, it has increasingly become a link in the transport of drugs from the Balkans, the Middle East, South America and South Asia to West European markets.
Approximately one-fifth of the drugs passing through Czech territory are consumed domestically. This consumption includes not only drugs used by Czech nationals, but also by Western "drug tourists." These tourists come in search of the lower-priced drugs to be found on the Czech market. Among local users, some Czech authorities have estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 people are addicted to hard drugs. An additional 30,000 to 80,000 people, out of the country's population of ten million, are suspected of being chronic drug users.
The number of users has been steadily rising since the collapse of Communism. In a disturbing trend, teenagers aged 15 to 19 have grown to become the largest group of drug users in the Czech Republic. According to Ivan Douda, a psychologist and founder of Prague's Drop In Center, the upward trend in drug abuse by young people is to be expected. Douda said, "This is probably going to sound banal, but we are confronted on a daily basis with the fact that the heightened drama in this country regarding drugs is a sort of price for the freedom we have gained. Our people, especially young people, were not ready for this freedom and the responsibility that comes with it. Drugs offer a feeling of freedom and relaxation." (Bransten 2000)
A wide range of both soft and hard drugs can be found in the Czech Republic as a result of the ongoing drug trade. Marijuana and hashish have been the drugs of choice for many young people, as well as first time users. Pervitin, an inexpensive amphetamine produced in Czech labs also remains popular. This drug was formerly available on the black market under Communism and continues to be used today. The use of heroin has increased in the Czech Republic in recent years, however, levels of cocaine abuse remains low. (Sananim 1999)
New laws, new problems
Drug legislation in the Czech Republic has changed along with changes in both the drug trade and domestic consumption. In 1993, the Czech Republic implemented a drug code legalizing the possession and use of drugs, while outlawing both drug production and distribution. Enforcement of this law became problematic, however, as it was difficult to distinguish between dealers and users. In an attempt to crack down on the growing drug industry, the Czech Parliament moved to amend the law in 1998 in order to make the possession of "more than a small amount" of drugs a criminal offense. Controversy surrounded this new code as soon as it was introduced.
President Havel not only spoke out against the proposed amendment, but vetoed the new drug legislation in order to protest its ambiguous wording. Critics of the proposed amendment argued that it did not explicitly state what was meant by a "small amount" of drugs, nor did it distinguish between the possession of different types of drugs such as marijuana and heroin. This lack of precision in defining the amount and/or type of drugs was expected to make the enforcement of the new law arbitrary. Despite objections, however, the Czech Parliament overrode the presidential veto and the new drug law went into effect in January 1999.
As predicted, enforcement of the Czech Republic's new drug law has been difficult. According to Jiří Komorous, chief of the anti-drug unit of the Prague police, the lack of agreement in Parliament as to what quantity of drug possession amounts to a punishable offense has affected the ability of the police to crack down on users. Komorous said, "It caused trouble for the police, so they issued an inner rule where they defined the small amount as 0.3 grams for both heroin and marijuana." (Smalley 2000)
Although the police set an internal standard, their decision was not legally binding. Judges remained free to use their own discretion in deciding how much was considered a "small amount" of drugs and what type of possession should be deserving of punishment. Lack of clear legal guidelines has led to inconsistent sentencing. According to Josef Radimecký, a manager of the Czech government's inter-ministerial Anti-Drug Commission, judges in one case handed down an eight-year sentence to a marijuana distributor when, in another case, a pervitin dealer received only one and a half year of jail time. (Bransten 2000)
The introduction of the new law caused concern not only for law enforcement officials and members of the judiciary, but also for non-governmental organizations working with long-term drug users. Fear of punishment, they argued, could drive clients away from the very drug rehabilitation centers designed to help them.
In the face of growing criticism concerning the new law, the Czech Supreme State Attorney's Office set limits on both the amounts and types of drugs one could possess without facing prosecution. This list was distributed to both state attorneys and the police as of May 2000, although the information was not made immediately available to the public (ČTK 2000). As a result of this action, greater equity in prosecuting drug crimes is expected.
In addition to reconsidering domestic drug laws, the Czech Republic has worked with the international community to try to combat and punish drug-related activities. In 1998, the Czech Republic signed a pre-entry pact with the European Union to coordinate efforts in dealing with organized crime. The Czech Republic also adopted all of the United Nations agreements on drugs. These agreements require member states to criminalize and punish drug possession. Those who support the recent amendment to the Czech Republic's drug code argue that the change was necessary in order to bring the country's drug law in line with standards set by the international community.
The Czech Republic has fared better than many other post-Communist countries in dealing with its drug problems and related activities. For example, unlike many East European states, the Czech Republic has been able to limit the rate of HIV infection among its needle-using addict population. According to Vladimír Polanecký, the national drug epidemiology coordinator, out of 442 people in the Czech Republic infected with HIV, only 18 are drug addicts. (Smalley 2000)
Part of the country's success in limiting the number of people infected with HIV has been attributed to needle exchange programs that were implemented in the late 1980s. Concern about the rising numbers of HIV positive drug users remains, however. This is particularly true as the age of drug users falls, since addicts under the age of 19 are more likely to share needles with fellow users.
The Czech Republic has also benefited from the efforts of a number of non-governmental organizations. These organizations offer a wide range of support services to users trying to break the cycle of drug abuse. In addition, a number of these organizations are working with the government to introduce a system of alternative punishments. This would reduce the demands on the already crowded prisons, and take active steps to address the issue of drug abuse directly. A first time offender, for example, could escape jail time and instead be offered the help needed in order to successfully deal with the addiction and reintegrate back into society.
The Czech government is also actively working to inform the general public about the dangers of drug use. Recognizing that younger and younger people were starting to use drugs, the government introduced a project in 1998 to provide drug prevention classes in every school throughout the country. The project continues to provide drug education and stresses to students the importance of personal responsibility.
Although the Czech Republic has begun to deal with issues raised by its growing drug industry, much remains to be done both internally and externally. As the number of users continues to rise, the Czech Republic must find new and better ways to fight its domestic drug problems. In addition, greater efforts must be made to crack down on the flow of drugs across its territory.
Tiffany G Petros, 19 February 2001
- Bransten, Jeremy. 1 December 2000. "Europe: Drugs—Czechs Catch Up With the West (Part 5)." Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
- ČTK National News Wire. 27 June 2000. "State Defines Legal Amounts for Drugs, Keeps Them Secret."
- Sananim, NGO. 2000
- Smalley, Suzanne. 3 May 2000. "Of Joints and Jail: Critics Decry Ambiguous Law." The Prague Post.
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