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Life's A Drag: Serbia's Jailed Medical-Marijuana Users Seize On Double Standard For Reputed Kingpin

A demonstrator holds a banner that reads, "Our plant -- our medicament" during a protest to legalize cannabis in Belgrade.
A demonstrator holds a banner that reads, "Our plant -- our medicament" during a protest to legalize cannabis in Belgrade.

BELGRADE -- Serbia's "legalize it" crowd is sick of getting blown off.

Advocates of medical and recreational marijuana use are accusing President Aleksandar Vucic and other Serbian officials of a double standard after he defended house arrest for an alleged drug baron accused of cultivating the banned weed on an industrial scale.

Vucic recently called the public outcry over Predrag Koluvija's release from pretrial detention amid an ongoing trial for growing more than a ton of illegal cannabis "very strange."

"Because he didn't kill anyone, or there's no indictment that he killed anyone. He didn't have 10 tons of cocaine or something like that, but, as far as I understand, a ton of marijuana -- which half the region, the Germans and others, has legalized -- that he also denies that he had," the president told TV Pink on October 2.

Koluvija's 2-year-old case has greatly expanded since the suspected narcotics boss was reportedly stopped for reckless driving while flashing police-style lights and in possession of a fake police ID, eventually leading authorities to 65,000 marijuana plants and hundreds of kilograms of dried cannabis on his farm, which is called Jovanjica.

Predrag Koluvija (left) poses on his farm with current Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin (right) in June 2015.
Predrag Koluvija (left) poses on his farm with current Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin (right) in June 2015.

Initially, it drew special attention because of the suspect's purported ties to Serbian officials, including Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin, who appeared at Koluvija's organic farm to harvest vegetables in 2015.

After repeated delays, the "Jovanjica" case expanded in March to include a second trial involving an alleged "protection ring" of colluders that extended to police, intelligence, and military intelligence officers in Serbia. Koluvija is also said to have at least indirect ties to a local politician in Croatia and to operate a cannabis business in North Macedonia.

To many, including local investigative website KRIK, Koluvija's case has been "characterized by political influence" from the start, including pressure on judges whose circumstances already invite questions about commitments to justice in this former Yugoslav republic.

To others, it's evidence of influence peddling and crony capitalism in a region where organized crime and its political tendrils undermine public faith in democracy and the rule of law.

Belgrade-born Dragoljub Mrdjic has been a poster boy for legalized marijuana for years, including on social media.

Now, the 58-year-old epileptic, who says he uses cannabis to prevent seizures, has publicized his request for a presidential pardon to criticize a seemingly sharp divide between the haves and have-nots in an aspiring EU member state.

After Kolujiva's transfer to house arrest, Mrdjic appeared at a press conference on October 15 organized by Social Cannabis Club Belgrade (IRKA), which is behind an initiative to legalize cannabis in Serbia, and the National Association of Cannabis Growers to demand legalization of medicinal marijuana and decriminalization of marijuana possession.

"I'm awaiting three years in prison for 88 grams of marijuana and [Vucic] says...[Koluvija] 'only had a ton,'" Mrdjic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "Hey, man, that's not a slap [on the wrist], that's a baseball bat."

Devoutly Orthodox Christian Serbia has resisted pressure to legalize or decriminalize the possession of marijuana. Offenders can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, depending on the amount, with significant time added if it is part of organized criminal behavior.

Serbian police seize an illegal marijuana cultivation laboratory in Gakovo near Sombor in March.
Serbian police seize an illegal marijuana cultivation laboratory in Gakovo near Sombor in March.

IRKA says 20 of its members have been targeted for criminal prosecution in the past five years. The group's president, Milos Simic, cited the case of Milos Matejic, a father of five young children who is currently serving a three-year sentence at Zabela, one of Serbia's largest prisons. "These are all cases of planting personally for oneself, where sale plays no part, people used it personally for treatment," Simic told RFE/RL.

Serbia's neighbors have chosen various approaches to treating the possession of marijuana, with exceptions for medicinal use and decriminalization more popular than legalization.

In EU members Bulgaria and Romania, its possession is punished, although Romania has allowed a medicinal exception for nearly a decade. Among other ex-Yugoslav states in the bloc, Croatia decriminalized small amounts of marijuana and allows medical marijuana for certain illnesses, and Slovenia has decriminalized it.

North Macedonia has permitted the sale of "medical marijuana" since 2016, and it is available in pharmacies. Bosnia-Herzegovina has technically been exploring possible legalization for years. It is illegal in Kosovo and Montenegro, while a ban in Albania is rarely enforced.

'Legalize It'

Mrdjic says he is only demanding the kind of access to medicinal marijuana that is afforded to patients in an increasing number of other countries, including Germany, some U.S. states, and Canada.

"Where is my guilt?" he said this month, as he awaited word on his request for a postponement of his summons to begin a three-year sentence at Zabela, citing his wife's and his brothers' poor health.

Then Mrdjic directed his comments to President Vucic: "I don't know why I was convicted, and, as you yourself say, cannabis is nothing, and it is legal in Germany and the surrounding region."

He added, "I want the same treatment as my colleague, a pensioner from Canada, or as my colleague from Bonn."

The Serbian president's office did not respond to an RFE/RL request for a statement on Vucic's position on cannabis exemptions for medicinal use.

In December, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs removed cannabis from the category of most dangerous narcotics, allowing for more lax enforcement.

But Vulin, the interior minister and a longtime Vucic ally who as labor minister in 2015 visited Kolujiva's farm, said in May that there were no plans to legalize marijuana and criticized local media for misinterpreting the UN commission's decision as giving a green light for a dangerous drug.

"And the nonsense that we've heard about how we'll retroactively legalize marijuana because of Jovanjica, that's nonsense. There's no retroactivity in law," Vulin said.

Vucic added, "Not only has it not been decriminalized, but we will punish it even more severely."

Predrag Koluvija
Predrag Koluvija

Two indictments have been filed in the Jovanjica case, which represents one of the biggest drug cases in the country's history. Koluvija and nine other defendants who were employed at his farm, in Stara Pazova, in the Vojvodina region north of Belgrade, are on trial in connection with the marijuana cache in a process scheduled to resume on November 10.

A new indictment arose in November 2020 and was finalized in March that accuses Koluvija and eight other individuals -- including members of the police, national Security Information Agency, and the Military Intelligence Agency -- in connection with a related protection racket.

Kolavija's defense lawyers have argued that the plants found at the Jovanjica farm were industrial hemp, which is legal in Serbia.

Earlier this year, the European Parliament approved a report by its rapporteur for Serbia, Vladimir Bilcik, in which the Jovanjica affair was cited among the "cases with a high level of public interest" in which European deputies urged Serbian authorities to "deliver convincing results."

Written in Prague by Andy Heil based on reporting by Ljudmila Cvetkovic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service in Belgrade

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