Czechs debate liberalisation of the drug laws

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The International Day against Drug Addiction was observed this week and in Central Europe there was concern expressed that "recreational drug use and experimentation are becoming an integral part of youth culture". The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction says central & eastern Europe is not only still a major drug transit region - it has become a clear target for drug consumption as well. In the Czech Republic, a heated debate is underway about drug laws which allow possession of "not more than a small amount" of marijuana - though the law doesn't say just how much is a "small amount". Now there are plans to introduce a clearer and more liberal drug law.

In a bar in a Prague suburb, young people chat, have a beer - and in quite a few cases - openly smoke marijuana. Despite the vagueness of the drug law, the public smoking of cannabis is not an unusual sight in the Czech Republic. Journalist and leading drugs rights campaigner Jiri X Dolezal says it's not hard to see why.

"It doesn't surprise me, no, because it's clear that people are aware that the police have a more reasonable attitude to grass than politicians do. The current legislation is such that it has caused a huge increase in disrespect for the law."

In the heady days after the Velvet Revolution, Czech drug law was unusually liberal, something which changed with the introduction of the controversial "less than a small amount" law five years ago. The current legislation, says Jiri X Dolezal, led to a change for the worse in how people acquire marijuana.

"The Czech Republic has a strong tradition of gardening and many people used to grow their own, which is much safer. With the introduction of the repressive 1998 law, young people started buying from dealers more, which from the point of view of harm reduction is the road to hell."

Deputy Prime Minister Petr Mares, who admits to having tried cannabis, aims to change that. He has split the Czech cabinet by putting forward legislation that would set a fixed permissible amount. Possession of anything less would be a mere misdemeanour.

"What I'm trying to do is to build a barrier between those who are doing experiments with marijuana and those who are offering hard drugs. I don't like our kids to come into contact with drug dealers and I believe that, well...let them have an opportunity to raise two or three marijuana plants and smoke them. It's better than to try to buy it on the streets."

And as the Czech Republic gears up to join the European Union next May, does Deputy Prime Minister Mares believe his proposal bring would Czech law closer to standards in European Union countries?

"It will bring us closer to the UK attitude, or Belgian or German, but it will bring us farther from the Swedish attitude, for instance. But I believe that we are now part of the great discussion inside the EU and the same way as we are looking for our way, the EU as a whole is looking for the right way how to approach this problem."