New drugs law fuels confusion over cannabis growing and possession

Amid a lot of confusion about what was taking place, Czech law on the possession and growing of drugs changed at the start of the year. The change was more of a far reaching clarification than a fundamental overhaul. Just over 100 days into the new drugs regime, this edition of Panorama tries to gauge what the new law meant for the most popular Czech drug, cannabis or marihuana, and what has been the effect.

The new law on drugs that came into effect on January 1 attempted to clarify what was a hitherto hazy situation. Under the old law, all types of possession and drugs use were criminal offences. Under the new, possession or growing, for example, of cannabis or marihuana, became an administrative offence, liable to a fine, if a small amount was at issue. The small amount was also defined for the first time, for example growing up to five marihuana plants still counted as a small amount but more than that passed the boundary and became a criminal offence.

The immediate reaction in the Czech Republic and beyond was that a very partial decriminalisation equalled legalisation. That could not have been further from the truth as Robert Veverka the vice president of the Czech campaign to legalise cannabis,, points out:

“There was no legalisation, no decriminalisation, nothing like that which was usually presented by the media and widely spread. It was said that there was a certain legalisation of marihuana in the Czech Republic and it is now Amsterdam in Prague and things like that. We could see things like that in the newspapers and see on the television and hear on the radio at the beginning of the year.”

Funnily enough, the confusion over the new drugs law seemed to go pretty far. The perceived relaxation of the rules was even blamed for the increase in German border checks on Czech drivers crossing the frontier. German authorities, especially those in Bavaria, feared the reported laxer Czech rules would result in a surge of drugs crossing the border.

Czechs have already been marked out as the biggest marihuana users in Europe with a 2007 survey saying that 45 percent of the population had used it, the highest total on the continent.

Actually, Mr Veverka believes the new law has tidied up the situation for the Czech police and has made it easier for them to clamp down on soft drugs than before.

“I think personally that the environment is more hostile than it used to be as it is easier for the police to go after recreational users or minor marihuana growers. While before if they caught you with a bit of weed in your hand they would just let you go I think because it would be too difficult, too complicated, too expensive to start a whole criminal procedure. Well, now, they just fine you and that is just really easy. I believe it is going to motivate the police to do more work like that because it will just be way easier for them. Now the criminal code makes it easier for the police to understand what is a small amount and what is a big amount. It is really easy for them to punish people who just have a small amount of illegal substances.”

Campaigners to legalise marihuana use actually fear a heavy police clampdown when they stage a march in Prague on May 8. Mr. Veverka says there is little doubt that small amounts of marihuana will be in evidence.

The Czech police special anti-drugs squad say the situation was confused at the start of the year. They say they are still compiling the facts on how the situation on the ground has changed and if the 3,500 fines for drugs offences under the old rules in 2009 appears to be going up or not. The fines, it should be pointed out, can still be fairly stiff, up to 15,000 crowns or just over 800 US dollars. That is more than half an average Czech monthly wage packet. Mr. Veverka says fines for first offences should probably amount to around a couple of thousand crowns.

But on the ground in the Czech Republic the message seems to have got across that punishments for marihuana or cannabis possession and growing have been relaxed. That has led to an increase in business according to Lubomír Hanzl, the assistant at one chain of shops in the centre of the country.

“People are not so much afraid now about criminalisation of cannabis and other things surrounding it. It is more important what people think about this law. The law does not change so much as people think it does.”

The small grow planet chain was started two years ago based on two shops and an Internet business. Mr. Hanzl says there has been a steady rise in customers, mostly young people but also older people seeking to grow for cannabis for medical reasons. Step into one of the shops and the range and complexity of the technology is quite surprising. Little wonder then that most customers, according to Mr. Hanzl, prefer to go to the shops to get some advice on how best to proceed.

Across the country, grow shops appear to be popping up everywhere. Mr Hanzl estimates that there are around 30 to 50 shops now. That means about one on average in every fairly large town.’s Robert Veverka says there is a good reason for the take off of the grow shops.

“Because of prohibition it is really hard to cultivate marihuana openly, let’s say, in the backyard, on the balcony or on the rooftop. It is really easy and the most secure thing to grow indoors ― to make a closet in one room in your apartment and change it into a small plantation. There are special stores where you can buy equipment to grow indoors. But it is not specified that if you grow go to buy certain equipment in a grow shop that you are going to grow marihuana. You can grow whatever you feel like, you can grow strawberries, or cacti, or all kinds of stuff.”

Little need to say that most of the time everyday fruit and vegetables are not the target of this high tech cultivation technology.