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A Czech Toke on Freedom

After communism's fall, the scent of marijuana became a symbol of liberation. It's now so mainstream, it's raising new concerns.

January 24, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The man with the dancing eyebrows and the blurry tattoo stands in the chilled night and opens the barred gate to his apartment. A dog sleeps on the bed; a snapping turtle floats inside a glass coffee table. A fan hums and a hot light glows in the bathroom, where 11 marijuana plants ripple like a tiny field against the porcelain.

Sit, says J.X. Dolezal, a kind of Czech version of the late Hunter S. Thompson who has written the books "How to Take Drugs" and "Stoned County." He opens a box. There's a sprinkle across paper, a nimble roll of the fingers, a lick, a match strike, a curl of smoke -- and a smile.

"Do you mind?" says Dolezal, his face slightly obscured as he exhales. "Excuse me if I don't offer you any. This marijuana's often too strong for my visitors. I had to resuscitate one guy for almost an hour once. You know, a higher percentage of people here grow their own marijuana than probably anywhere. It's typically Czech: a do-it-yourself nation."

The Czechs do like their weed. A 2005 report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that 22% of Czechs between 16 and 34 had smoked marijuana at least once during the previous year, the highest percentage in the European Union. The nation's cannabis culture is imbued with the whimsical ethos of the hippie movement: guys growing dope in fields, on balconies and in bathrooms, and sharing with friends.

"I've never paid for pot and I never would," said Filip Hubacek, a university student majoring in social sciences. "I don't mind paying for my gym, but not for my pot."

Selling or offering marijuana is illegal here, but the law is permeable, containing a passage that could have been lifted from a novel by Franz Kafka, the Prague-born chronicler of the absurd. It's OK to possess "no amount larger than a small amount," according to the statute. The metric rationalizations and extrapolations around such an ambiguous definition are debated with gleeful fervor amid smoke wisps in clubs and in apartments like Dolezal's.

"We have to be concerned with the use of marijuana," said Viktor Mravcik, director of a national agency that studies drug use and addiction. "It's becoming a political problem. It's not something we are proud of. One of our targets is to stop [the use of] marijuana and Ecstasy in the young population."

Marijuana and other drugs weren't widespread during the Cold War, at least not openly. The communist government considered marijuana an "imperial scourge" of the West, another way to degrade the worker's soul. But when the Velvet Revolution swept aside the Iron Curtain in 1989, the scent of pot became a symbol of freedom, moving beyond the counterculture into an increasingly liberal mainstream. Hybrids were imported from the Netherlands, and Czechs experimented with potency, hydro-planting and the vagaries of bongs.

But Czechs were wary of sharing a good thing, and, with a history of oppression from the Habsburgs to the Nazis to the Communists, have long been suspicious of interlopers.

"There's a drug called Pervitin," said Martin Titman, a therapist at the Drop In, a drug counseling center in Prague. "It's a kind of amphetamine that was made in Germany during World War II to energize soldiers before battle. The recipe was lost in the 1960s, but the Czech underground discovered it and has kept it as a national treasure since. It won't share the recipe with German organized crime."

The same goes for American expatriates and others who arrived in Prague after the fall of communism as a "soft drug" tourism market evolved alongside the more insular marijuana culture of native Czechs.

A raconteur with a cantankerous side, Dolezal, who reminds a listener that his writings helped shape the nation's marijuana culture, doesn't want a bunch of stoned, goofy-faced tourists roaming around Prague Castle and falling into the Vltava River. Despite his entreaties, however, dealers whisper in alleys at night, selling a gram of this, a bag of that, to Russians, Brits and Americans.

"We want to legalize marijuana," said Dolezal, tapping on his coffee table to check the turtle. "But we can't sell it in cafes like in Amsterdam because we'd get all the unemployed Germans coming here. We don't want foreigners consuming marijuana in public. It could demean marijuana. We like the system where a friend gives it to, or sells it to, his friends."

Mravcik estimates that about 12 tons of marijuana are smoked each year in this country of 10.2 million people. Its prevalence among young people has doubled since 1995, he says. Unlike heroin and amphetamines, marijuana is not classified as high risk, but it is raising concern in a country where drug treatment centers didn't begin in earnest until 2001.

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