The Czech Republic's policy on drug use - Is it working?


Drugs were practically unheard of in this part of the world during the communist era. A closed border and a tightly controlled society meant that there was little room for people to indulge in perceived vices such as drugs. All that has changed, however, since the Velvet Revolution and the Czech Republic now has tens of thousands of registered drug addicts. One of the country's biggest challenges in this area has been to formulate a response to a growing drug problem. This has been especially difficult considering that the government has had to formulate a consistent policy on drugs from complete scratch. In this week's Talking Point, we look at how drug abuse has developed in the Czech Republic in the last 15 years and what steps the government has taken to deal with the problem.

It's hot on the dance floor at a well known nightspot just a few minute's walk from Prague's Old Town Square. Many of the dancer's have heavily dilated pupils and are grinding their jaws in an agitated manner, which suggests that they may be having more than just a few drinks as part of their evening's entertainment.

Outside, there are small groups of people standing on the street smoking marijuana cigarettes or joints as they're commonly known. Most of them are quite happy to tell me what else they have been taking:

"A little bit of speed and a little bit of cocaine. I've also had a little bit of marijuana and some drinks." Are you not worried about the effects this might be having on you? "There are things involving worse effects, such as being employed!"

Would you be under the influence of any other substance besides alcohol tonight? "Of course." Do you think Prague has a fairly tolerant attitude towards this kind of recreational drug use? "I came here from Manchester four years ago, because I was doing a lot of drugs there and decided I needed to get away from all that. I thought I'd come here for a respite. But I sure came to the wrong place didn't I..."

Do you use recreational drugs? "I like every kind of drug, especially marijuana, which I think is the best." Do you take anything else? "I've had cocaine a few times, but I think marijuana is better." Do you think Prague is a drug-friendly city? "I think everyone is coming to Prague just for the drugs. Maybe not the old people who are here for cheap beer, but all the young people are coming for the marijuana and the cheap drugs." And do you always smoke marijuana in the street? "Everywhere in Prague." Have you ever encountered the police when you've been doing this. Did they say anything? "Yes, one time, I was standing outside smoking a joint and a policeman walked by and asked me what I was doing. 'Smoking marijuana,' I told him. He took the joint off me and told me to smoke around the corner in future, as there were too many tourists on that particular street."

As Viktor Mravcik from the National Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction explains, such apparent widespread drug use is just one change the country has had to get used to over the last 15 years since the fall of Communism:

Ivan Douda
"After the Velvet Revolution we could observe a really huge spread in drug use in the Czech Republic. This was caused by the democratic changes and the opening of borders. New drugs came to our country, especially heroin and marijuana."

Ivan Douda was one of the founders of the first drop-in centre for drug addicts to open in the Czech Republic after the fall of communism. He says that the phenomenon of drug use has spread rapidly throughout Czech society with the advent of democracy:

"Fifteen years ago in what was then Czechoslovakia, we were a little bit innocent about drugs. Traditionally we had mainly homemade drugs manufactured from medical pills and a little bit of marijuana and perhaps some solvents. Then after the so-called Velvet Revolution, the situation changed and harder drugs arrived here very quickly. The drugs business also started because previously money had played no role in the drugs scene here. Within five to ten years a drugs market was established here, which is very similar to what exists in the West."

At the National Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Viktor Mravcik has had the task of quantifying the scale of the problem:

"There are about 30,000 regular long-term users of hard drugs. A big proportion of Czech society, perhaps 500,000 people, comprises recreational or regular users of marijuana. There is a big proportion of people who occasionally use ecstasy. As far as availability is concerned it is estimated that roughly 12 tonnes of marijuana and 3 tonnes of heroin are consumed here annually. A huge proportion of drugs are not seized and are on the market. Quite simply, there are plenty of drugs available to people that want them. "

The rapid arrival of drugs in the Czech Republic has meant that over the last decade the government has had to also rapidly come up with a coherent policy in response to the problem.

Although it has been refined by successive administrations, the state's official approach to the issue has consistently been one of pragmatic tolerance, as opposed to adopting the harshly repressive approach of other countries such as the USA.

This has included introducing previously unheard of heroin-substitution and harm-reduction programmes for addicts. Police resources have also been continually directed towards tackling the distribution of drugs as opposed to targeting drug users.

Now, says Viktor Mravcik, such progressive measures are finally having a positive effect:

"This phenomenon was new in the 1990s. We observed the peak about four or five years ago. Since that time things have been stabilizing, problem drug use is decreasing, etc. This is partly due to state policy response to the problem, which introduced things such as substitution treatments for heroin addicts. The times are changing and I think the Czech Republic is in a good way as far as its drugs policy is concerned."

Ivan Douda also agrees that since peaking in the 1990s, the situation as regards hard drug abuse has taken a turn for the better:

"Something is changing a little bit. In the last two to three years, the situation with hard drugs and opiates has changed a little bit. It's more stabilized. There's even less people using these. But some drugs are more fashionable. In the last 5 -10 years, there has been a quite strong group of young people who are using not so dangerous drugs like ecstasy, marijuana and some hallucinogens. They are using these on a recreational basis, which is something of a new trend in terms of drugs here."

Although this switch from hard to soft drugs among young people is a good thing in that it means fewer people will be subjected to the horrors of addiction, people indulging in drug use can still be harmful. Regular amphetamine use can be physically debilitating, for instance, and even the relatively harmless marijuana can trigger serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

Ivan Douda says he hopes the state will continue to adopt a practical enlightened approach to ensure that these problems are properly tackled:

"I think the future of drug policy in this state is that in five to ten years marijuana will be decriminalized and I'm hopeful that these recreational drugs will be much more tolerated, because big groups of people will have experience of them and the anxiety about them will be less. I hope we will all know a lot more about the situation and that the policy will be much more pragmatic."