Czech Republic

Drugs in the Czech Republic: A Reflection on Three Decades

How did the drug scene in the Czech Republic evolve over the last three decades?

The story of drugs, the culture of using them, and the repressive and preventive strategies of dealing with them in the Czech Republic starts in the early nineties. Not that non-alcohol drugs did not exist there before ’89, but their use and production were not publicly discussed in any way and apart from classic psychiatry, there were no specialized services offering drug users help. The most common drugs taken back then were pharmaceutics that were misused and overdosed, home-brewed methamphetamine, better known as pervitin, and “braun” (a traditional Czech opiate based on Codeine). Crimes related to drug use mostly involved faking prescriptions and breaking into pharmacies and medicine stockrooms. Drugs were produced almost exclusively for personal use or for a small circle of close acquaintances at the most.

The Velvet Revolution and the political upheaval phase which was its consequence rapidly shifted the situation: borders opened and hitherto unknown drugs, above all heroin, made their home here. A so-called open drug scene established itself, with all typical features such as specific means of distribution and the criminality connected to it. At the same time, however, the first non-state organizations responding to these changes took shape and the first strategies of harm reduction from illegal drug use were formed.

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The Golden Age

The first civic groups were created in a completely organic way and saw the involvement of experts in psychology and psychiatry, Christian activists and, most importantly, active or former drug users themselves. The last group was the only one possessing any real insight into the drug scene: to exaggerate a little, they managed to naturally develop the trend of a participative approach which has only recently started appearing here thanks to some of the more enlightened international organizations. Their enthusiasm for the new possibilities helped set up a – for the time – very sophisticated and complex system of secondary and tertiary prevention. The relevant positions at ministries and advisory organs were staffed by experts holding pragmatic attitudes to drugs and addiction and a system of financial support for services that were until then financed by subsidies from abroad started taking shape. Maybe it was because of this well-off drug policy that the less fortunate side of the situation started showing itself; however, in that time of euphoric beginnings, this was hardly noticed.

The police was helpless in the face of the resulting chaos.

In the meantime, the streets of larger cities experienced a proper drug boom. There was a jump in users (although that may have been due to the the fact they were now officially started to be counted), and getting one’s hands on drugs in the streets of Prague, Brno or Ostrava was easier than buying a tram ticket. The police was helpless in the face of the resulting chaos and, unable to organize raids against the distribution network, focused on crimes connected with obtaining the money for drugs. In time, the situation caught the public eye and with populist gestures by some parties (like the suggested three-strike law) and the rise of the bizarre policeman Jiří Komorous into the position of the head of the National Anti-drug Central Unit, the police “manned up” and opened the Czech front of the so-called war on drugs.

Prisons filled with young people, often right above the age limit for criminal liability, sentenced for petty theft. The amount that had to be stolen in order for the theft to be treated as a criminal offense was fixed at 2500 crowns then and since the values of stolen objects were added up, one could land in prison for stealing a trinket of laughable value. Witnesses remember that the prison slang for this kind of convicts was “hangerers” – because of cases in which a shop owner added the value of the coat hanger to that of stolen clothing. But the wild ride the nineties were went on in spite of the police’s efforts: 1994 saw the first Czech freetekno party and the popularity of techno music and related use of “dance drugs” rose steeply. And cities still loved their pervitin and heroin.

Halfway through the decade, a rising number of drug users among the Romani was noted in several regions. In Prague, there were families in which all three generations took heroin together and its use and trading overtook entire city districts inhabited traditionally by the Roma and a similar situation arose in Brno shortly afterwards, with drug trade paralyzing the neighborhood around the now-legendary Cejl street and decimated the local community of the Olachian Romani. The social services did not handle the crisis well, failed to spread information about the risks and means of help including the harm reduction services among the affected community and clinics have not managed to find a way to reflect the specific needs of the Roma. In Prague, the on-site harm reduction teams played a game of cat and mouse with the open drug scene – which was chased around the districts by the police applying their „forcing out“ strategy. Those originally responsible for the creation of anti-drug strategies, by now firmly planted in high political circles, focused on creating management positions and obtaining money for the drug sector, resulting in a neoliberalization of the field where all the deciding power was concentrated in the hands of a closed circle of experts, the “founding mothers and fathers”. The non-profit sector missed a unique opportunity to respond to the sharp increase of drug users’ numbers in their natural environment in a time when the public was not yet completely hysterized and trusted the experts, and politicians had yet to use the public scares for their own gain. It would not even be necessary to go too far for inspiration: at the time, the Swiss Zurich managed to stabilize what was the biggest European open drug scene with their progressive drug policies.

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The day the heroin ran out

Another moment that (according to most of the people who remember the time and are willing to talk about it|) shook up the Czech drug scene was the period when quality heroin disappeared off the streets. It had vanished, as they say with exaggerated nostalgia, together with the good times: the hope-filled nineties had gone by. Some attribute this to an uncharacteristic success by the police who could have severely limited the import of heroin via the so-called Balkan Route, others connect it to the military intervention in Afghanistan which took place around the same time the heroin disappeared. The opiate black market was immediately overtaken by the synthetic opioid buprenorphine originally intended as a substitute used in curing the addiction; it was sold under the brand Subutex. Originally it was possibly to get the prescription for it from just about any willing doctor and it attracted many by its low price. Traditional dealers in the streets were replaced by doctors’ offices and pharmaceutical companies began making profits from selling drugs. This trend persists even now and using illegally distributed prescription drugs dominates the Czech opiate market and – apart from the occasional summer vacation in poppy fields – constitutes the primary source of drugs for opiate users in the country.

Those responsible for making drug policies have again failed to respond effectively and in time. While on-site workers were trying to deal with the breakout of severe health problems caused by applying the (completely unintended for this kind of use) pills directly into the vein, the primary issue on the political level was steering the existing system towards professionalization of services and creating the separate field of Addictology. In 2006, the Social Service Bill passes the Parliament – and that is the moment many activists working directly with the drug users talk about as the time when they definitely lost their illusions.

In search for a diagnosis

The emerging bureaucratical chaos led to some of the non-profits outright ceasing to exist while others fought tooth and nail to find a way to fit into the standards dictated for the quality of services provided. Personal changes took place in order to fulfill the requirements for formal education and the necessary data were being frenetically falsified. The time when it was possible to tailor the services to fit the momentary needs of the drug scene, to adapt and make use of new paradigms and to take inspiration from abroad was over, replaced by the search for a diagnosis and a target group. At the same time, the medical and social branches of the services gradually divorced and started showing vastly different approaches to the phenomenon of addiction. The services were centralized into several humongous NPOs providing help at various levels – and the annual fight for subsidy money started.

The common cold for the ID

Another legislative intervention that greatly affected the pervitin black market and the behavior of its users was the limit enforced on selling prescription drugs containing pseudoephedrine (necessary for making pervitin). As a result, the pills could only be sold in a much smaller amount and only upon providing an ID. This measure utterly failed at lowering the amount of drug users, but the one thing it lowered drastically was the quality of pervitin. Production of the drug was taken over by large, well-organized groups capable of securing a sufficient supply of pharmaceuticals; they, however, made the drug exclusively for sale, which resulted in lower quality and side effects. Last January, the same measure was taken in Poland, which used to supply the pharmaceuticals for most of the Eastern part of the Czech Republic; it is only reasonable to assume another drop in the quality of pervitin and a resulting outbreak of health issues of its users will occur soon.

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Resting on laurels

The current situation of the drug scene definitely is not anything to write home about. People use low quality goods that threatens their health, which only brings them in line with typical consumer behavior in this country. The services provided to users and their families are accessible but rather than coming up with functional systemic solutions, the overworked, frustrated and underpaid workers try to solve what problems they can while the general strategy of drug policies remains unchanged since its establishment, as do the people directing it. The hypertrophied system is preserving the situation where – thanks to having a good start with accommodating legislature – its results are not bad at all compared to abroad, but it is painfully obvious that it is unable to respond to newer developments. The adjustments to the support network, such as they are, are merely cosmetic and the experts are not only unable to force unpopular but functional measures through but also fail to mention some topics at all, at times even standing against their own principles. At the heart of the issue lies an inability to respond to the growing social problems of drug users such as their astronomical over-indebtedness, lack of decent housing and zero reflection of the societal context of the causes of an addiction.

The services providing help in the field of drugs and addiction, despite presenting themselves as apolitical, show a distinct influence by right-wing positions, stressing rewarding effort, motivating the client to change and the financial rentability of an individual’s redemption. And this is the way the issue is presented to the public. The dinosaurs that hold the positions of leading experts in the field keep ignoring the issues of social inequality or the necessity to regulate the powers of distrainers; they fail to respond the growing intolerance in Czech society, they do not stand against the populism of political subjects and they are not appearing in the discussions about the right for decent housing. On the other hand, we can quite often spot them in the company of discredited politicians, hunting or playing golf.

Write at least something positive at the end

Thankfully, the creatures of the drug policy and drug user care system are not the only ones who missed their bus when it comes to adaptation. So far, those who could reasonably profit on the increasingly repressive measures fail to show up as well. Thanks to that, our drug strategy still commands some respect abroad. It would be worth a try to not miss the next opportunity and move on towards a progressive and – most of all – realistic direction for the drug policy. Such an opportunity could be provided by the upcoming transformation processes like the reform of psychiatry, the reform of surrogate family care or passing the Social Housing Bill. The time to show some guts and stand by the side of those this issue concerns the most is now – in spite of the public opinion and populistic media.


Translation by Michal Chmela.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.