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PRAGUE -- Walk into a bar or a cafe in some parts of Prague, and chances are
you will bump into a group of students smoking marijuana in plain sight.

Stroll some of the graceful cobblestone streets and alleys between Wenceslas
Square, site of protests during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and the city's
elegant Old Town after dark, and you are likely to be propositioned by a

Since the fall of communism in 1989, the Czech capital has earned a
reputation as one of the most freewheeling, tolerant, and laid-back cities
in Europe, a sort of Amsterdam of the East. But sex and drugs are now poised
to become hot political issues, with proposals on the table to reform and
clarify the nation's laws on marijuana and prostitution.

Those sponsoring the new laws do not have a crackdown in mind. On the
contrary, the trend here with soft drugs and prostitution, as in most of
Western Europe, seems to be liberalization -- which will allow the
government to better control and regulate vices that show no signs of
disappearing, advocates say.

''I think that the Czech Republic needs some steps about drugs, especially
to divide drugs into different categories, to decriminalize the use of
marijuana,'' Ivan Douda, a psychologist who has been working with drug
addicts for 25 years, told Radio Prague last month.

That is exactly what Deputy Prime Minister Petr Mares, who is in charge of
the nation's drug policy, is proposing.

''What I'm trying to do is to build a barrier between those who are
experimenting with marijuana and those who are offering hard drugs,'' Czech
media quoted Mares as saying recently. ''I don't like our kids to get in
contact with drug dealers and I believe that, well . . . let them have an
opportunity to raise two or three marijuana plants and smoke them. It's
better than to try to buy it on the streets.''

Czech marijuana laws are already extremely permissive, albeit vague. The
country's 1999 drug law allows people to legally possess ''a small amount''
of marijuana. But the law does not specify what is a small amount, giving
enormous discretion to police and judges.

In theory, possession of more than a ''small amount'' is punishable by up to
two years in prison, but in practice the result has been widespread
tolerance. In the rare cases when police make arrests for marijuana use,
judges throw out the cases.

An estimated 400,000 Czechs regularly use marijuana, including about 60
percent to 80 percent of 18-year-olds, according to recent surveys cited by
local media.

''The young generation is taking marijuana like a normal thing, something
like alcohol, so experience with it is normal,'' Douda said.

Mares is proposing to make possession of up to a specific, yet to be
determined, amount of marijuana a minor violation similar to a traffic
ticket. It would prohibit use by those younger than 18 and impose stiffer
penalties for selling marijuana and for selling and possessing hard drugs
like heroin and cocaine. The details of the law, which Mares estimates has a
50 percent chance of passing, are still being worked out.

Passage would place the Czech Republic in the European mainstream, as eight
of the 15 current EU members have decriminalized marijuana. But in most
former communist countries, marijuana use is punishable by jail time.

Decriminalization advocates cite a recent study by the Czech government that
concluded that marijuana is no more of a health risk than alcohol or
tobacco. But police officials oppose decriminalization, saying it could lead
to an increase in the use of hard drugs and a rise in the crime rate.

Czech legislators are also considering proposals to legalize and regulate
prostitution, which is technically illegal but widely tolerated. Prostitutes
are common in the center of Prague and on roads near the Czech borders with
Germany and Austria.

Explicitly offering sex for money in public is currently a misdemeanor in
the Czech Republic. But the law is rarely enforced and the Interior
Ministry, the nation's top law enforcement body, estimates that between
15,000 and 25,000 prostitutes are working in the country. Press reports
estimate that the industry takes in $218 million per year, resulting in $72
million in lost tax revenue annually.

Officials here have been talking about legalizing prostitution for years. A
50-page report released in 2000 by the Interior Ministry, recommended
legalization and strict regulation. The report recommended that prostitutes
be registered with the government, taxed, and required to get regular
medical checkups. It also called for designating specific places --
so-called ''red light districts'' and brothels -- where prostitution would
be allowed.

Such a move would bring the Czech Republic's legislation closer to that of
Germany, where sex workers are required to register and pay taxes.

But political wrangling has prevented the proposed legislation from coming
to a vote in Parliament. Frustrated with the delays, the Prague City Council
plans to submit its own bill in the fall. ''The spread of brothels, peep
shows, and prostitution in the city is becoming unbearable,'' Deputy Mayor
Rudolf Blazek, a supporter of liberalization, told the Prague Business

The City Council's legislation is similar to the Interior Ministry's bill
but would give municipal authorities greater latitude in regulating

Last year, the legalization of prostitution received a qualified endorsement
from an unlikely source: Roman Catholic Bishop Vaclav Maly, one of the
country's most respected clergy members.

''This is not to say that I approve of brothels,'' Czech media quoted Maly
as saying in April 2002. ''But . . . it would be better to have prostitution
take place there, with medical checkups and prostitutes paying taxes. It
would be the lesser of two evils.''

Pubdate: Sun, 06 Jul 2003
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2003 Globe Newspaper Company
Contact: letter@globe.com
Website: http://www.boston.com/globe/
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