You are facing a potential five-year prison term for “inciting and promoting toxicomania.” This offence sounds like something from the last century. Can you tell us what this crime is and why you have been accused of it?
The offense of “inciting and promoting toxicomania” has been, in fact, embedded in the Czech penal code since the 1990s – the last century – and explicitly states that “[w]hoever encourages another [individual] to abuse an addictive substance other than alcohol, or in other ways incites or spreads the abuse of said substance, shall be punished by imprisonment or the ban of publishing activities.” The wording of this section of the law is very vague. These are so-called “catch-all” or “elastic” laws, which allow the police to interpret and apply the law arbitrarily to pretty much any activity related to psychoactive substances — excluding alcohol, that is. Since 2010, I have been publishing a magazine called Legalizace in the Czech Republic, which focuses not only on cannabis, but on a whole range of topics related to psychoactive substances, their use, and legislation.
The Czech Republic has, in my opinion, very strict and high penalties for drug offences embedded in its laws.
The magazine offers interviews with well-known personalities and informs about the use of cannabis in medicine, industry, and culture. It also provides counseling and support to people dealing with problems that legal and illegal psychoactive substances can bring. We share the stories of people who use psychoactive substances, patients, and victims of prohibition. And, last but not least, the magazine provides news from home and abroad, research findings, and expert studies, as well as offering readers possible ways of regulation and suggestions for legislative changes. What led the police to believe that the magazine constitutes the criminal offense of inciting and promoting toxicomania is a range of articles, mainly those regarding the cultivation of cannabis or its use as medication, including photographs of the cannabis plant, cherry-picked from the aforementioned wide range of content found in the magazine. For two years, the police combed through each individual magazine issue, investigated me for a year, and eventually brought criminal charges against not only me as the editor-in-chief, but also my company which publishes the magazine.
Do you think that others who publish articles, books, or videos are now facing the same criminal investigation in your country, or is this investigation specifically targeted for political reasons?
I cannot say with certainty that my prosecution has political overtones. Yes, I am a person active on the political scene; I am a representative of a Prague municipal district, I ran for the Senate [of the Czech Republic] in 2020, when the police officially began to investigate me, and I have repeatedly but unsuccessfully run for the Chamber of Deputies on the subject of cannabis regulation. Instead I would say that Legalizace magazine is a fairly visible and well-known periodical which can be as controversial to (especially) law enforcement authorities as its actual content. For many, the subject of psychoactive substances and their possible use or calls for a change in legislation may still be perceived as an unacceptable issue. The stigma surrounding this subject is often stronger than rational considerations of ending prohibition. So I fear that if I lose this case, if the court rules in favor of the prosecution, it may very well happen that similar charges brought against other media or publishers will follow, to which the precedent set in my case will be applied. My aim is, of course, not to lose the case, not only for the sake of myself and my magazine, but for other media as well. I am fighting for the freedom of speech and the right to information, guaranteed to us by our [Czech] constitution.
How can you fight this accusation, what chance do you have?
As part of the investigation, the police have gone through all the individual magazine issues from the past ten years—that’s 60 magazines in total. They picked out several articles from each issue, about five on average. I am thus facing about 300 individual criminal acts, and each article is being considered on a standalone basis. In court, the prosecutor read out my thirty-page indictment for over an hour and a half. It is difficult to be confronted by such charges, and it costs a lot of time. I wrote a response and defense to every single individual charge and placed the article within a broader context. I have also called for the prosecution to prove any intent on my part to incite anyone to substance abuse by means of comprehensive texts written by experts in the field. It is a matter of hairsplitting—a battle of words and the interpretation of the context of each article, which is complicated by the fact that law enforcement perceives the very word ‘cannabis‘ or ‘THC‘ as something illegal, undesirable, and criminal. It is then hard to fight and hard to argue with an opponent with such a mindset. It all depends on the independent judgment of the court, which must decide in the matter. It is very difficult to predict what kind of punishment I am actually facing—it could be probation, imprisonment, a fine, forfeiture, or even a ban of the charged activity. Of course, the only possible and acceptable sentence I can imagine is the acquittal of all charges. My next court appearance is on November 3, 2021, where the court should hopefully reach some sort of verdict, so I am very curious myself whether I will receive any punishment and what it may be.
The Czech Republic is known for its liberal drug policy in Europe. Is this a false image?
The Czech Republic indeed has a very liberal approach to addiction, drug use, and supporting people with substance problems. At the same time, however, the state has, in my opinion, very strict and high penalties for drug offences embedded in its laws. For the cultivation and harvesting of even only a handful of cannabis plants, courts are in some cases imposing prison sentences of up to several years, which is not commensurate with the actual social and health hazardousness. To simplify the issue, you can receive a higher sentence for growing cannabis than for, say, negligent homicide.
Cannabis, along with other illegal psychoactive substances, is still perceived as an unacceptable evil for the individual and society. What persists in society is the stigma and demonization of cannabis, and law enforcement authorities in particular continue to be greatly repressive and uncompromising on these issues. It is also evident that the establishment is resisting reform and the liberalization of legislation that would be in favor of cannabis and its use(fulness). Although the world and namely Europe is now in the process of legalizing and effectively and meaningfully regulating psychoactive substances, the Czech Republic remains conservative, almost reactionary, in relation not only to cannabis, but also to the protection of human rights and freedoms.
Medical cannabis use is legal in the Czech Republic, theoretically. But can patients access good quality cannabis? What are the obstacles?
Medical cannabis is a big topic in itself which contains many flaws. Medical cannabis was legalized in the Czech Republic in 2013, on April 1 to be exact, and for a long time, we said that it was indeed an April Fool’s joke. It was not until 2020 that insurance companies began to reimburse medical cannabis. Before 2020, the state sold either imported cannabis from abroad or, later, cannabis grown in a single certified grow house in the Czech Republic at prices higher than those on the black market. It was and still is illegal for patients to grow their own cannabis— it is not possible, for instance, to register yourself and thus obtain cannabis in your own way. Prohibition and the ban on growing cannabis for personal use persists, despite there being a law which states that cannabis is medicine. Furthermore, cannabis treatment is still prescribed by only a handful of doctors—169 of them to date for the entire Czech Republic with its population of ten million. Medical cannabis is intended only for specific diagnoses, although its usefulness is much broader; in palliative care, I almost dare say it has no limits. Also, treatment involving cannabis in this country is only available to citizens of legal age, which is unacceptable evidence of cannabis prohibition. Although diseases do not choose their patients according to age, non-toxic cannabis treatment which, if it does not help, certainly does not harm, is available legally only to adults. I consider such a legislative framework to be, politely put, immoral. And I could go on and on, adding on to this list. We still have a long way to go. Some hope can be found, perhaps, in the amendment to the ‘cannabis’ law that will come into effect on January 1, 2022, which will allow the cultivation of different types of cannabis of up to 1% THC, it will offer more parties the option to acquire a license to cultivate medical cannabis, and it will allow the export of medical cannabis to other countries. While this is more of a legislative change for business than for actual access to and use of medical cannabis, any development of the cannabis industry will sooner or later be reflected in other changes that will hopefully lead to meaningful regulation and freedom for cannabis and its users.
Your final goal is the legal regulation of the cannabis market. There are many debates about how to regulate cannabis – some would introduce a commercialised model, like in North America, others would introduce cannabis social clubs, like in Spain. What model would you prefer?
This is also a very complex question that requires a similarly complex answer. To put it simply, I personally cannot imagine any regulation of cannabis which would be based on prohibition, banning the individual from growing a limited number of plants on their property and then processing them and using them for any sort of personal use. I consider unacceptable, immoral, and reprehensible any regulation that stands on the suffering and penalization of the individual, that continues to deny adults the right and freedom to possess cannabis for personal use without any penalties whatsoever. Personal rights and freedoms are a fundamental pillar of reasonable regulation, and I believe all efforts and attention must be directed to this issue.
The magazine offers interviews with well-known personalities and informs about the use of cannabis in medicine, industry, and culture.
Otherwise, we will end up with regulation that does not provide equal conditions, that opens up space for corruption and clientelism, and that limits the operation of market mechanisms and the invisible hand of the market within a commercial environment. Subsequently, on the level of the freedom of the individual, I can imagine regulation allowing adults to associate in cannabis clubs or providing opportunities for the unrestricted commercial use of cannabis. I believe that cannabis is entitled to and has the right to become a free trade commodity that would be regulated on the level of other goods, subjected to both production, processing, and sale inspection as well as taxes, which can be used, following the example of some U.S. states, to cover the costs of prevention, education, health or, for example, sport.
What do you think: how long should Czech young people wait until the recreational use of cannabis will be legal in your country?
When I see the efforts of other European countries, such as Luxembourg, Germany, Italy, Spain, but even Switzerland, when I see the positive effects of legalization in the USA, Canada, and elsewhere, and when I add to this the potential commercial benefits, i.e. sales revenue, which can fill many an empty state treasury, I believe that it will be possible for all adults to plant and grow or buy cannabis freely and without fear of penalty within five years. Of course, I will do my best to get ahead of that estimate and push for the legalization of cannabis even sooner. Yesterday was already too late.
Author: Peter Sarosi