A marijuana smoker rolls a cigarette at Letna park, an act that could be
punished with time in prison. Sitting on an open patch of grass in Letna
park, the 21-year-old salesman casually rolled a marijuana cigarette.

He lit it and took three deep drags before passing it to a friend.

"It doesn't turn you into a drug addict," said the smoker, who gave his
name only as Josef. "Pot is the same as beer."

Josef's ritual is a common sight in a country where an estimated 400,000
marijuana users are largely ignored by the authorities and tolerated by
most everyone.

Now Deputy Prime Minister Petr Mares wants to alter the criminal code and
liberalize the country's marijuana laws to further reflect that relaxed
attitude.

Mares, a Freedom Union deputy in charge of anti-drug policy, wants to
distinguish between the use of marijuana and harder drugs, such as cocaine
and heroin.

He was inspired by the findings of a recent two-year, government-funded
study that concluded marijuana use is less harmful than alcohol or
tobacco.

The proposal would amend the country's 1999 drug law so that users and
small growers could face only a fine for marijuana possession. Under the
existing statute, possession of 10 marijuana cigarettes could land a
person in prison for up to two years.

The proposal, which is part of a larger Justice Ministry bill to amend the
penal code, is also aimed at cleaning up ambiguous language in the law
that gives police discretion in regards as to what constitutes a large
amount of the drug. The law defines a large amount only as "an amount
larger than small."

Plan applauded

Although the legislation has yet to be introduced in Parliament, marijuana
advocates are applauding Mares plan, which would follow the trend in
Western Europe to soften penalties for marijuana use by redefining it as a
health rather than a criminal issue.

Since 1999, eight of the 15 current EU member states have amended their
drug laws to decriminalize marijuana use, according to the U.S.-based
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana laws.

Passage of the proposal would also signal a step away from most former
Eastern bloc countries, where possessing as little as one marijuana
cigarette can bring sever penalties, including prison time.

Mares said his amendment is needed to stop youths from making the jump
from marijuana to harder drugs. He said statistics show that 50 percent of
the nation's high-school-age students have used marijuana. In Prague, he
said, that number jumps to 70 percent.

"The real threat is that they will make another step from marijuana to the
needle," he said.

By not lumping marijuana with harder substances, it is hoped that youths
will shy away from making that next step.

Marijuana advocates agree.

"It is the best possible way to approach the drug problem in the Czech
Republic," said Jiri Dolezal, a Reflex magazine reporter and the author of
seven books on the legalization of marijuana.

"The core problem, and I think Mares's proposal is trying to deal with it
in a very sophisticated way, is that the current law puts people who use
marijuana for their own purposes into the same category as criminals who
sell heroin to children," Dolezal said.

'Not the way'

The plan is facing resistance from some lawmakers and police, including
the nation's top anti-drug official.

Opponents of the legislation say lesser penalties for marijuana use will
lead to an increase in the use of harder drugs and a spike in the
country's crime rate. They also disagree that marijuana is no less harmful
than alcohol.

"This is not the way to solve the drug problem," said Jiri Komorous, the
director of the National Anti-Drug Center.

Komorous said he is against any softening of the law. He said that Mares's
plan runs counter to the recommendations of such international
organizations as the UN's International Committee for Narcotics Control.

"I wouldn't be against stricter laws against drug dealers, but that should
not be at the expense of legalizing some drugs," Komorous said.

He said that the study put forth by the government on the effects of
marijuana was contradictory to several expert reports, including one
published in the British Medical Journal that showed marijuana was more
harmful than cigarettes and alcohol.

Komorous, who has been lobbying Parliament members on the issue, said the
response has been favorable to his position.

Some marijuana smokers interviewed for this story said they thought the
bill was a waste of time, considering that no one is imprisoned in this
country for marijuana use.

"The situation is already fairly lax,' said Vince McCaffrey, a 24-year-old
Irish citizen who has lived in Prague for more than two years. "People
feel free to smoke."

Copyright Prague Post.


Title: Czech Republic: Marijuana Proposal Sparks Debate
Author: Kevin Livingston, Staff Writer
Source: Prague Post
Contact: editor@praguepost.cz
Website: http://www.praguepost.cz/
Pubdate: Thursday, June 19, 2003