PRAGUE, Czech Republic — In the smoky red basement of a popular club in Prague, a Finnish student sits at a table passing a joint to a friend. A young Polish tourist approaches and asks where to get another one. “Just go over there,” says the Finn pointing toward the bathroom.
This scene plays often in Prague these days, a city where the young are flooding in to party hard, with little fear of getting busted.
“We’re not here for girls, we’re here for drugs and fun,” said Mathieu, who declined to give his last name, and who drove from Paris with friends to spend four days in Prague. They are drinking beer and absinthe in Chateau Rogue, one of city’s most notorious tourist clubs for scoring drugs. “Everybody told us that Prague was the best place to find drugs,” said Mathieu’s friend.
Although the Czech capital has long been a tourist attraction with its medieval grandeur, elegant spires and cobbled streets, these days it has become a magnet for stag nights, pub crawls and young Europeans seeking a weekend party in a country cheaper than the Netherlands and more easy-going than its neighbors (in Slovakia, having a small amount of marijuana can lead to three years in prison).
The Czech Republic has always been relatively lenient about drug use, which has been legal since 1990. Possession, paradoxically, remains a crime but isn’t actively prosecuted, mainly due to a lack of resources: The Czech Government Council for Drug Policy Coordination reports there are only 200 people working on the National Drug Squad and they mostly target manufacturers, importers and major dealers.
“The Czech police have mainly been enforcing the drug laws at a certain organizational level,” said Jakub Frydrych, head of National Drug Squad of the Czech Police and the Bureau of Investigation.
The Czech Republic once defined illegal drug possession with the legally vague phrase "more than a small amount." In January, a new law took effect quantifying the amount of drugs that equals a misdemeanor offense: possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana, 1.5 grams of heroin, 1 gram of cocaine and 4 tablets of ecstasy, for example, can result in a fine of 15,000 Czech crowns ($830), the average monthly salary in the country. Possessing anything more is considered a felony.
Even though those amounts make Czech drug laws among the most lenient in Europe, officials bristle at the suggestion that the new law has liberalized drug possession.
“Drugs are not decriminalized in the Czech Republic,” said Frydrych. “Possession of drugs is at a minimum a misdemeanor. I personally do not consider the new law to be more lenient.”
(Read about the new drug law in neighboring Poland, meant to counter synthetic marijuana.)
Danny Kushlick, founder of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation in Bristol, United Kingdom, said the new Czech law is more progressive than a blanket prohibition but still leaves production and supply to organized crime networks and unregulated dealers. He said more needs to be done to coordinate drug laws across borders as well. “We have to look at [unifying] drug policymaking throughout the world in order that particular places don’t become drug havens,” he said.
Czech National Drug Policy Coordinator Jindrich Voboril said that the law has become harsher when it come to methamphetamines, heroin and cocaine, which are increasingly problematic for the country.
In recent years, the Czech Republic has become Europe’s top producer of methamphetamines, made in small secret labs, of which 300 to 400 are raided each year, said Frydrych.
Among European Union countries, the Czech Republic has the highest percentage of people between the ages of 15 and 24 who have tried drugs at least once, according to Tomas Zabransky, head of research and development programs at the Center for Addictology at Charles University in Prague. Zabransky says that instead of leniency, the new drug law simply takes “a pragmatic approach which acknowledges that drug addicts are ill and should not legally be punished for their illness.”
Meanwhile, it is still too early to assess what effect the new law has had, said Viktor Mravcik, head of the Czech National Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction. The Center for Addictology predicts little change in the situation for addicts. Where officials say they do expect change, however, is in recreational and experimental use.
In essence, the new law is a lure for drug tourists. Even though there are no official numbers available for this type of tourism, anecdotal evidence shows that Prague has become a top party destination in Europe.
Brandon, who declined to give his last name, a Prague-based pub crawl guide and California native, admitted that part of his job is to take groups to bars where weed can be purchased and smoked inside: “I throw a party, and if people want drugs I introduce them to the right people.”
And even though Czech officials dislike the label of “New Amsterdam” for their capital, they admit it isn’t too far off the mark. Czech attitudes toward drugs are similar to those in the Netherlands, said Voboril: “It’s still illegal if you do it but we won’t put you in prison for it.”