PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Methamphetamine use is relatively low in Europe, but the Czech Republic far surpasses its neighbors for the number of clandestine meth labs within its borders.
Last year, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) joined Europol to study methamphetamines in Europe. The data is provisional, and not every country provided data. But the results so far are unambiguous.
Of the 483 meth labs discovered on the continent in 2008, all but 26 of them were in this small country of 10.3 million people.
Germany, which has eight times as many people, reported just 11 labs. Third on the list was the Czech's eastern neighbor and former federation partner, Slovakia, with just four labs exposed in 2008. The prevalence of such labs — and consumption — in the country of 5.2 million, though, is thought to be much more pervasive.
“The Czech Republic is the biggest European methamphetamine producer in small clandestine laboratories,” said Jakub Frydrych, director of the Czech police's anti-drug division. “The size of this problem in Slovakia is linked with the fact that they are smaller than we are, but they have the same problems, basically as we have."
Methamphetamine is a synthetic stimulant that can be produced at home in so-called kitchen-laboratories. Police fear these production facilities are proliferating.
“Czech police seize about 300-400 clandestine labs a year. These are mainly smaller labs but it can be considered as a success,” said Frydrych.
Perhaps, but no one knows how many more labs are out there.
Called speed or meth in the United States, methamphetamine is commonly referred to in the Czech Republic as Pervitin, which was the drug's first brand name when it began to be legally manufactured by a German pharmaceutical company prior to World War II.
As an effective stimulant, it was used by German soldiers during the war. After the war, it began to be widely prescribed for a variety of maladies “including depression, attention deficit disorder, alcoholism, obesity and anorexia,” according to the Europol study.
By the 1960s, however, behavioral problems such as paranoia, hallucinations and violence became increasingly common side effects of the drug and it was outlawed.
Sometimes referred to as a poor man's cocaine, Frydrych says methamphetamine — which can be injected, snorted, smoked or taken orally — costs about one-third what cocaine does. One gram of methamphetamine costs 800-1,000 crowns (about $50) on the streets of Prague; whereas cocaine costs 2,200-3,000 crowns (about $140), according to Frydrych, who said price depends on how pure the drug is. He said he based the aforemented prices on a 60-percent purity level.
No one can say for sure why the Czechs and Slovaks seem to have such a disproportionate appetite for methamphetamine, which has become a popular dance club drug, but Frydrych believes the country is still testing the bounds of personal freedom after the fall of communism.
“Even 20 years after the revolution, in our country, we are still testing democracy,” he said. “This is a reason why we are still testing such phenomena like drugs. The right to use drugs in our country is quite often linked with elementary personal freedom.”
Sananim, an NGO founded in 1990, is one of the country's largest drug treatment organizations and provides “prevention, treatment and resocialization of non-alcoholic drug addictions,” according to its website.
Martina Teminova, who chairs Sananim's executive board, said the situation is under control but she worries that publicity around the drug will lead to demands for criminalization of addicts.
“Among long-term users we don't see any change in the trend,” she said. “There are some [public opinion] trends that suggest that drug-dependent people should be put into prison. ... It's not a very helpful way to treat the disease — I'm strongly against it.”
Teminova and Frydrych agree that a needle exchange program has been very successful in limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS. And Teminova says therapy and rehabilitation can turn drug addicts back into functioning members of society.
“Our clientele, after going through treatment can quite easily reintegrate into society,” she said.
Roman, a 33-year-old former meth addict, is an example. After an attempted suicide and two failed attempts at sobriety, he says he has now been clean for six years — and married for five. He's a maintenance worker for Sananim, though it was another drug-treatment center that helped him kick the habit.
Peer pressure at the age of 14 compelled Roman to try the drug, he said, and he didn't stop for the next 13 years.
Roman says he now knows where to draw the line when it comes to drugs and the freedom to experiment with them.
“Don't start,” he said. “You use the drugs in the beginning but in the end the drugs use you.”