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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prague's Pot Prognosis

My friend Jana Chytra and I got to talking about drugs the other night. I'd just read in the papers that the new Czech anti-drug law was really making a difference, and when we ran into each other at a local pub, I mentioned to her how pleased I was that the country had finally taken a stand against one of the great evils of our age.

Imagine my surprise when she told me she was opposed to the new law. "You can't be serious, Jana," I said, almost dropping my beer in shock. "Until the beginning of this year, the Czech Republic had no law against the use or possession of drugs. Every other teenage kid was growing pot in his basement. Now the police can put a stop to it. You can't really be against that."

"I certainly am," she said. "Do you know what the new law says?"

"Well, basically, yes," I said. "It says possession of drugs is illegal."

"Not exactly," she said. "It says that possession of any but a small amount of drugs is illegal."

"All right, fine, any but a small amount. So what's the difference?" I asked.

"I'll tell you," she said. "The law doesn't define what 'a small amount' is. That means it's up to the police to decide. Now, given what you know about the police in the Czech Republic, do you want them to have broad discretionary powers over when to arrest people for possession and when to let them off?"

She had a point. There are many things I love about the Czech Republic, but the quality of the police force is not among them. And yet that one little loophole wasn't a good enough reason to be against the entire law, I thought, and said so.

"It was a good enough reason for President Vaclav Havel to be against it," she said. "When Parliament sent him the bill for approval at the end of 1998, he vetoed it. Parliament overturned his veto because the MPs were scared about being seen as soft on drugs."

"Well, Havel would be against an anti-drug law, wouldn't he?" I asked. "I mean, the way he hangs out with Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones, his wild dissident days in the '60s and '70s ... face it, you know that guy has inhaled."

"But Havel said he wasn't opposed to a new drug law as such - he just said he was against this particular law because of that flaw. He said this new law would punish victims rather than offenders," Jana said.

"But time has proven Havel wrong," I said. "Between the time the law came into effect on Jan. 1 and the end of August, there were 4,038 drug-related arrests. In all of 1998, under the old law, there were 5,234. In other words, we're on pace to have nearly a thousand more drug arrests this year than last year," I said triumphantly.

"Yes, and do you know who they're arresting?" Jana asked accusingly. "High-school girls who grow marijuana in their backyards and smoke on weekends with their friends."

She described the case of Lenka Kamisova, a 16-year-old from Pilsen who was sentenced to eight months in prison for growing pot and smoking it with friends in a disco. She's now serving a two-year suspended sentence. I hadn't heard about that one. But I was sure there was more than Jana was telling me.

"A two-year suspended sentence for possession?" I asked tentatively.

"No," Jana said. "They charged her with being a producer and a distributor as well."

"A-ha! Those activities were illegal under the old law, too, so she would have been busted last year just the same," I said, finishing my beer.

"I doubt it." Jana replied. "The original arrest was for possession. Under the old law, they never would have arrested her in the first place."

"All right, so one kid was busted," I said. "There are going to be some problems with any law."

Jana mildly informed me that at least two other teenage boys have been arrested under similar circumstances.

"Fine, so three kids. But overall, the experts agree that the new law is an improvement," I said.

"Experts? What experts?" Jana asked.

"The head of the Police National Anti-Drug Center, for example," I said.

"Yes, well, he would be in favor of a law that gave him greater powers to arrest people, wouldn't he? But you know that the former head of the government's drug policy coordination team was opposed to the new law.

He resigned after it was passed against his recommendation," Jana pointed out.

"Fine, I have one expert on my side and you have one on yours," I said.

"Actually, most Czech drug professionals were and are against the law," she said. "People who work in rehab centers are afraid that criminalizing possession discourages drug users from coming in for voluntary rehabilitation.

I sighed and decided to drop the subject. Jana's pretty smart, but I sometimes think she's prejudiced against new ideas simply because they're American, and I was afraid that's what was happening here. After all, the new Czech policy is, in theory, more similar to American law, which has certainly been effective in curtailing drug-related crime. But there was no point in telling Jana that. Sometimes there's just no point in arguing with her.

Richard Allen Greene is former managing editor of The Prague Post. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.