Cannabis - now a normal part of life in the Czech Republic

A recently released Europe-wide survey found that young people in the Czech Republic are the leading smokers of cannabis in the whole of the European Union. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain drugs were largely unheard of in Czech society, and were very much an underground phenomenon. Today, however, marijuana in particular seems to have become accepted as a normal part of life in the Czech Republic.

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

In a cellar bar a stone's throw from Prague's Charles Bridge, I spoke to some young Czechs. For them, marijuana seems to be a normal part of life.

Girl: "A couple of years ago it used to be like, I'm cool I'm smoking marijuana - nowadays it's just normal. Here they are pretty used to people smoking on the street so I'm not hiding. I don't smoke in clubs because the owners can have problems, but on the street people don't care."

Boy: "I don't smoke, I used to, but my friends smoke, some of them lots."

Girl: "The attitude is very open-minded. Even my parents, from the older generation, they don't take it as a real danger or anything."

But the chances are that that girl's parents would have been unlikely to come across cannabis, or any other drugs, when they themselves were young. Translator and writer Josef Rauvolf remembers what it was like in communist Czechoslovakia.

"Of course people knew about cannabis, but they mostly just knew about it. Some lucky ones had access to either home-grown or smuggled - well, mostly home-grown 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."

But, says Josef Rauvolf, things have changed hugely since the Velvet Revolution. And not just among the younger generation.

"The attitude to marijuana is quite liberal, even among just normal, average people. People in small villages they smoke it, and they don't take it as something special, something extra. 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."

Viktor Mravcik is the director of state agency the National Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. He says another change in the last decade and a half is that cannabis has become a business.

"The market and distribution of marijuana has changed. In the past it was given for free or it was very cheap. It wasn't commercialised. There wasn't a market for it, let's say at the beginning of the '90s. Now it is commercialised and very rarely will you just be given marijuana - it's simply a product on the black market."

Mr Mravcik's own institute monitors drug use in the Czech Republic, so the figures for Europe-wide consumption released last month come as no surprise to him. But he says they could give a misleading impression.

"I have to say the Czech Republic is not the only one at the top, there is a group of four or five countries - including for example the UK - with very similar numbers. And we have to see this marijuana issue in the broader context of other psychoactive substances, even...or especially legal ones.

"Czech society is traditionally tolerant of the use of alcohol, especially alcohol, and also tobacco. The context of marijuana use should be seen more broadly."

And he says, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction survey focuses on the percentage of people smoked the drug at least once in the previous year. It does not take into account other factors.

"It doesn't say anything about intensive marijuana use, about more frequent use and so on. Maybe Czechs are more curious, they would like to try different things in their lives."

Hidden on an Old Town side street just a few minutes from Charles Bridge is Prague's Drop-In drug clinic. Its founder, Dr Ivan Douda, accepts that cannabis use is common in this country, but he also questions the data.

"Statistics are a bit of a problem when it comes to drugs. We can take it optimistically, that we are an open society and our youngsters are good enough and free enough to speak about it. Second, it could be good news for us, because we have to take it as a complex.

Na zdraví!
"It means if there are less hard drugs and more so-called soft drugs it's good news for us. And I think there are not such big differences between European countries - I mean five or six European countries, and these differences are not big."

Some people have told me that the Czechs are top beer drinkers in the world and may be a connection - they like to relax.

"(laughs) Yes, 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.

"I remember 10, twelve years ago there was a demonstration by skinheads, it was a really aggressive conflict with some anarchists. And about 200 metres from this big aggressive conflict there was a demonstration for marijuana using. They were singing, dancing, in a good mood..."

"I think the tendency is that marijuana will be very similar to alcohol, maybe alcohol is much more dangerous in some features. It means that we have some new drug in society."

Given that marijuana use is more widespread now than it was 20 years ago, have you seen in your field any negative consequences of Czechs smoking grass?

"You know, it is a drug. Even if we say it's a soft drug it is a drug and it has some risks. Some people are very sensitive to this drug. It's very similar to alcohol, some people are very sensitive to alcohol.

"So we have to give youngsters some good information and show them, these are the risks and you are a responsible person, and you have to know that if you have...bad luck you can be similar to alcoholics or people who are using hard drugs."

As for the legal situation in the Czech Republic, it's somewhat confusing: with possession of an undefined "amount not bigger than a small amount" considered just a misdemeanor.

Ivan Douda welcomes a new law currently before the Czech Parliament which should make things clearer.

"We will have some stratification, some drug categories, and marijuana will be on the low level. I think that the policy is more pragmatic than it was 10 years ago. But 20 years ago it was most pragmatic about drugs, because the Bolsheviks were not worried about drugs - it was not a problem of society."