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Europe: Drugs -- Czechs Catch Up With The West (Part 5)

For the Czech Republic -- as with other countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union -- the fall of Communism brought with it a sudden opening of borders. Over the past decade, the flow of people and goods across frontiers has increased dramatically. In this last of a five-part series on drugs in Europe, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten looks at how the Czech Republic, as a transitional country, is coping with one of the consequences of this new opening, namely the flow of illegal drugs. He reports the country is becoming a favored transit route as well as an end-user destination.

Prague, 1 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- According to most estimates, it will take the Czech Republic at least two more decades to match the EU average in several leading indicators, among them GDP. But in terms of the illicit drug market, the Czech Republic has already caught up.

Miroslav Nozina, a research fellow at the Prague-based Institute of International Relations, is an expert on cross-border drug traffic. He says the post-Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe have much less time to adapt to this challenge than their western counterparts were allowed.

"The process, let's say, of creating the drug scene, which in the West lasted 30 to 40 years, happened here within three to four years, during the first half of the 1990s. Since that time, the situation is stabilizing and equalizing and we are very rapidly becoming like Western Europe in this respect. Let's say that in the next 5 to 6 years, the situation will be practically identical."

"Practically identical" means that marijuana has become relatively easy to obtain in schools, with a significant percentage of teens admitting to having tried it at least once. Recreational use of synthetic stimulants such as 'ecstasy' also matches Western European levels. The Czech Republic also has its own domestic amphetamine substance called pervitin, which was available on the black market under Communism and remains in use.

Ivan Douda, a psychologist who founded Prague's Drop In Center, where drug addicts can turn for medical care and counseling, says the upward trend was expected.

"This is probably going to sound banal, but we are confronted on a daily basis with the fact that the heightened drama in this country regarding drugs is a sort of price for the freedom we have gained. Our people, especially young people, were not ready for this freedom and the responsibility that comes with it. Drugs offer a feeling of freedom and relaxation."

Following the downfall of Communism, a more liberal climate led to the revision of existing drug laws. The manufacturing and trafficking of illicit substances remained subject to prosecution, but not the possession of drugs for personal use.

Soon, however, heroin began to appear in the Czech Republic in large quantities. With conflicts in the former Yugoslavia disrupting existing trade links, the Czechs found themselves on the so-called Balkan drug route, leading from Turkey to Western Europe.

Local police complained that the law made it almost impossible to arrest dealers, who could easily pose as simple users.

In 1998 the Czech parliament amended the country's drug code so that possession of "more than a small amount" of drugs is a criminal offense.

Since the law went into effect at the beginning of last year, scores of drug dealers have been arrested, as have ordinary users. Josef Radimecky manages the Czech government's inter-ministerial Anti-Drug Commission. He says one of the problems with the new law is that it does not distinguish between so-called 'soft drugs' like marijuana and more harmful substances like heroin. This has created a mess in the courts.

"We are looking at models now in place in Britain, Germany, Portugal and we'd like to have drugs differentiated into those which are more and those which are less socially dangerous. Concretely, I am thinking about cannabis derivatives, which are currently in the same group as heroin or pervitin."

Radimecky notes that in several recent court cases sentences handed out for drug offenses were clearly out of proportion to the crime. In one case, judges handed down an eight-year sentence for the distribution of marijuana, in another a pervitin dealer received just 1 1/2 years. He says judges need to be given clearer guidelines.

Another issue is that a mechanism for alternative sentences does not yet exist, so users are being sent to jail, where they are more likely to get deeper into trouble, instead of being weaned off their habit. But that is scheduled to change in January, with the creation of a so-called "mediation and probation service." Ladislav Gawlik of the Czech Justice Ministry is in charge of establishing the service, which will be staffed initially by 160 social workers throughout the country. Gawlik says the program will make it possible for judges to hand out alternative sentences to drug offenders, who will be helped to reintegrate into society by the mediation and probation centers.

"On the one hand, they will offer mediation between crime perpetrators and crime victims and then there will be the probation aspect, meaning the overseeing of how alternative sentences are carried out. The centers will help people carry out those sentences and as regards drug addicts, the centers will help them organize a treatment program."

Ivan Douda of the Drop In Center says the media and politicians have overblown the drug problem. The hard-core addict population has remained small and thanks to needle-exchange programs, he says, HIV infection rates among them have remained very low. This is not the case in many other Eastern European states and in this respect, the Czechs were far ahead of their time, initiating pilot needle exchange programs even in the last years of Communism. Douda says the vast majority of teenagers experimenting with marijuana today are only doing what their parents did before them, with the drugs available at the time.

"I think the situation is very similar to the situation of my generation, meaning 50-year-olds. We experimented with alcohol in the same way young people today experiment with marijuana and in exceptional cases, some people looked for illegal hard drugs. It's the same today. It's just that more people are experimenting with drugs, including hard drugs, but they are not becoming addicts."

Douda would like to see the police use their new powers to go after small-time drug dealers, who despite the new law are still visible on the streets of downtown Prague.

"People often call us and ask: 'Why don't the police act against drug dealers on the street? If I see them, then the police surely do as well. So why don't they act? I can't do anything.' The police usually answer that they're following the big fish and that they know about the street dealers. But I think it's a big mistake. The police in this way lose support. The average citizen says to himself: 'That policeman is either a fool or bribed or scared, or is clueless or lazy.'"

Jiri Komorous is head of the Czech Republic's elite anti-drug police unit, whose officers spend their days tracking and, with some notable successes, arresting international drug dealers. Komorous's outfit has been praised for its efficiency by numerous international police organizations, including the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which trained many of his officers. But Komorous says as long as there is demand, no amount of police work will get rid of drugs, or dealers -- especially in tough economic times.

"Until there is a fundamental break in the demand, until we can reverse the trend that drugs are 'hip' and 'modern,' especially among young people, the police can try all it can, but there will be no basic change."

Josef Radimecky of the Anti-Drug Commission says the government's education strategy for the next four years aims to do just that. One worry is that based on statistical evidence, drug use appears to have spread from Prague to outlying parts of the country -- especially in economically depressed regions with high youth unemployment.

Since 1998, every school in the Czech Republic has had classes in drug prevention. But Radimecky says for those programs to be effective, teens must be taught not just about drugs but about how to become responsible decision-makers.

Radimecky says that may require a fundamental shake-up in the approach to teaching in the country:

"Kids are very well informed about drugs -- both from these prevention programs and from their peers. I think the problem lies elsewhere and it's in something that probably can't be changed quickly and that is the education system in the Czech Republic as a whole. I had the opportunity of being abroad in several countries and to observe how schools function and work with kids. We still have a very autocratic education system. This means that the teacher constantly tests students. The students fear the teacher. There is no partnership."

According to the EU's European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the Czech Republic has fared better than many other post-Communist states in coping with its drug problem, partly due to its pragmatic approach. Another factor undoubtedly, is the relatively good state of the economy. But public pressure to 'get tough on drugs' is increasingly being felt. Experts warn that Czech politicians must retain a balanced approach and resist calls to hand over complete control of drug issues to the police. That strategy, as has been demonstrated in Western Europe, and many would argue in the United States, is likely to fail.