Czech rules on narcotics possession designed to aid law enforcement
Long known for a liberal policy on drugs, the Czech Republic is now officially quantifying its status as one of European Union’s most lenient member states when it comes to decriminalizing drug possession. But these new guidelines come among signs that the rest of Czech drug policy is not keeping pace with other EU members and contradicts law enforcement tactics being utilized to tackle alcohol abuse.
On Dec. 14, Prime Minister Jan Fischer’s government approved new standardized limits, delineating criminal and misdemeanor drug offenses. Starting Jan. 1, the new numbers will allow a person to possess, for example, up to 15 grams of marijuana or 1.5 grams of heroin without facing criminal charges. Anybody possessing less than these amounts is eligible to be charged for a misdemeanor, but may also receive little more than a warning from police.
“It is a step in a right direction,” said Michal Hammer, spokesman for the National Drug Squad (NPC). “To put it simply, for exceeding these amounts of narcotics possession, one can be prosecuted in Frýdek Místek as well as in Ostrava.”
Authorities are quick to point out that these levels represent not a change in law, but rather a clearer definition for law enforcement, which has previously used the ambiguous term “a small amount” as the dividing line between misdemeanor and felony prosecution. In the Czech Republic, 87 percent of successful prosecutions are tied to cases involving drug sales or production, and only 13 percent are related to possession, according to the NPC.
Starting in 2010, possessing the following amounts of drugs is no longer a criminal offense.
- Marijuana 15 grams or less
- Heroin 1.5 grams or less
- Cocaine 1 gram or less
- Methamphetamine 2 grams or less
- Amphetamine 2 grams or less
- Ecstasy 4 tablets or less
- Hashish 5 grams or less
- Hallucinogenic mushrooms 40 pieces or less
- LSD 5 tablets or less
Lagging in policy
The Czech Republic may be among the most liberal EU member states when it comes to decriminalizing drug possession, but policy on prevention and treatment lags behind others with similar regulations
Total anti-drug expenditure
- Czech Republic 22.7 million euros
- The Netherlands 2.2 billion euros
Treatment, counseling, medical expenditure
- Czech Republic 9.4 million euros
- The Netherlands 550 million euros
Czech authorities insist their new guidelines fall in step with European norms, but they are in fact much more liberal than policies in most neighboring countries. According to the European Legal Database on Drugs (ELDD), Slovakia defines criminal drug possession as having more than three times a single dose of any substance, putting the Czech regulation of marijuana some 15 times over that threshold. In Hungary, anyone possessing any amount of drugs is eligible for a five-year prison sentence. Those defined as addicts are punished less severely but are still eligible for a one-year prison term for possessing any drugs.
The Czech philosophy on drug policy may in fact make the country the most liberal of all EU member states. Even the Netherlands, long known as a bastion of liberal drug policies, including businesses licensed to sell marijuana, draws a sharper legal distinction between hard and soft drugs. The Dutch also limit decriminalized possession of marijuana to 5 grams (one-third of the Czech amount) and any hard drugs to 0.5 grams (one-third of the Czech amount for heroin).
The logic behind decriminalizing drug possession is to treat drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a criminal one.
“If a person possess drugs for their own use, or is a drug addict and needs his daily dose, the prosecution of such a person does not solve the drug-abuse problem as a whole,” Hammer said.
A shift in policy toward decriminalization is usually accompanied by a shift in resources from law enforcement and courts to drug treatment and counseling, and it is in this area, as well as in the overall resources dedicated to fighting drugs, that the Czech Republic lags far behind its European counterparts with liberalized drug policies.
In 2008, the Czech Republic spent a total of 597.3 million Kč on anti-drug policy with about two-thirds of that money coming from the national government. About 247 million Kč of the total was spent on prevention, addiction treatment and medical care.
The Netherlands spent 2.2 billion euros last year on drug policy, with 25 percent (550 million euros) spent on treatment, prevention and medical care.
While the Netherlands has about one-and-a-half times as many residents as the Czech Republic, a comparison between the two finds that the Dutch spend more than 60 times more money per resident on anti-drug policy (146 euros per person per year in the Netherlands versus 2.2 euros per person per year in the Czech Republic) and 40 times more per person per year on drug treatment and counseling (36 euros per person per year in the Netherlands versus less than 1 euro per person per year in the Czech Republic).
The loose Czech policy on drug possession does not match the philosophy being utilized to combat other substance abuse problems either, raising questions about whether the government is attacking addiction with a coherent policy.
On Dec. 15, the Czech Traffic Police announced they would begin using breathalyzer tests during every traffic stop to combat what they say was a doubling of people driving under the influence compared with last year. The Czech Republic is the only country in Europe test for alcohol on every traffic stop.
“The change in practice only applies to alcohol,” said Veronika Benediktová, a police spokeswoman. “The screening test to detect that a driver is under the influence of drugs will only be applied in cases where the police have suspicions of drug use.”
The new clarification of the drug-possession law is being praised by most experts as a positive step to giving police officers clear, uniform guidelines, but government offices either proved unable or unwilling to provide answers to follow-up questions related to the policy. The Health Ministry declined to provide information about how much is budgeted each year for drug treatment. The Justice Ministry was equally tight lipped, though it did say the policy is scheduled for a review in early 2011.
Even amid signs that the rest of Czech drug policy is not in-step with liberal possession laws, most drug counseling professionals see the emphasis on drugs as a public health problem as a good thing. But, with 44 percent of Czechs between 15 and 24 years old reporting they have used cannabis, and 29 percent of the same group using the drug in the past year – the highest rates in the EU – some remain skeptical whether the policy will make much of a dent.
“It looks more as if it will not have any effect on the drug situation,” said Ivan Douda, a psychologist and co-founder of Drop In, an NGO focused on treating drug problems. “Drug consumers and dealers will most likely adjust.”
And, with new laws decriminalizing marijuana in amounts with a street value of between 3,000 and 4,000 Kč, Douda has another suggestion.
“It would be better to take into account the purpose of drug – possession or production – rather than just the amounts,” he said.
– Klára Jiřičná contributed to this report.