Free speech under attack in Czech cannabis crackdown

Posted on December 11th, 2021 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , , .

PragueThe Czech Republic and especially its capital Prague have won a cachet among the international cannabis-cognoscenti. But now a local magazine dedicated to the cannabis culture may be forced to close by legal action — with its editor under threat of prison time.

Of all the post-communist countries, the Czech Republic is seen as the one that has best finessed the transition to an open society. Its predecessor state Czechoslovakia was at the forefront of the fight for freedom. Through it all, there was a strong whiff of alternative culture. The very word bohemia comes from one of the Czech Republic's two historical regions, Bohemia and Moravia.

Libertarian legacy
In 1968, what was then Czechoslovakia saw the "Prague Spring," a period of official liberalization, in which the quest for a "socialism with a human face" was given an acid-rock soundtrack by bands like the Plastic People of the Universe. This was abruptly interrupted by a Soviet military invasion that August, and repressive orthodoxy was restored.

But 21 years later came the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, with the communist regime overthrown by nonviolent strikes and demonstrations. Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who was a leader of the revolution and then Czechoslovakia's first post-communist president, was famously a Frank Zappa fan, and even appointed the irreverent California rocker as a "special cultural ambassador." Beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg, who had famously visited Prague in 1965 and left his stamp on the semi-underground counterculture scene, also became an icon for the post-communist transition.

Then in 1993 came the "Velvet Divorce," in which Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the independent countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia — an amicable parting, in happy contrast to the disaster then unfolding in Yugoslavia.

In the years since then, Prague has been a global hotspot of hipster tourism, with a thriving (if not quite above-board) cannabis scene. 

So the criminal case that may force the closing of the Czech Republic's pioneering cannabis magazine is — at least in the eyes of its targeted editor — disturbingly redolent of the bad old days of authoritarian rule.

Waiting for the clampdown...
This is Robert Veverka, publisher and editor-in-chief of Legalizace magazine, and head of the advocacy organization of the same name. He's a visible and indeed respectable figure in many other ways. In 2018, he was elected to the board of the Prague 2 municipal district, and serves as an advisor on the Prague City Council's Commission for Drug Policy. He has also run for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Czech parliament, with the Pirate Party on a legalization platform. In 2020, he ran for the Senate, and came in third among eight candidates. In the middle of the campaign, charges were brought against him.

On Nov. 3, Veverka was convicted by a district court of inciting "toxicomania." The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years, and the judge has informally announced a one-year term. However, the sentence is not to be imposed while the case is on appeal. Veverka says he could likely get probation in lieu of prison time if he did not pursue his appeal. But accepting probation would mean ceasing to publish Legalizace.

The case hinges on "instructions and advice about how to cultivate" cannabis that appeared in the pages of Legalizace, which are said to have "resulted in inspiring at least one individual" to procure seeds through an ad in the magazine and grow several plants — "thereby producing the prohibited substance Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol."

Understanding this strange case requires a look back at the career of Robert Veverka over the years of relative liberalization for cannabis in the Czech Republic.

...after years of tentative progress
Veverka says he first became interested in cannabis at the age of 16 in 1992, when he read Jack Herer's hemp manifesto The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Interestingly, that same year, the pioneering Czech chemist Lumír Hanuš, working with the team of the legendary Raphael Mechoulam at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, first described the structure of anandamide, a key endogenous cannabinoid neurotransmitter.

Veverka visited the Netherlands in his 20s, and — like so many others — had his mind blown by the ultra-tolerant atmosphere. "You could go and buy it like bread," he recalls to Project CBD via Skype. "I thought it was so awesome."

Back home in Prague, he helped organize the first pro-legalization demos in 2007, which eventually evolved into the Czech entry of the Global Marijuana March, held each May.

This pressure began to pay off, and 2010 saw a reform of the Czech criminal code, in which 10 grams or up to five adult plants became an "administrative" rather than criminal offense. But Veverka saw this decriminalization as far too limited.

"You could grow five plants, but if you harvested from your own plants, you were guilty of the crime of producing drugs," he explains. "And in any case, the plants could still be confiscated. It gave a false sense of freedom, but you were still very vulnerable if you had plants in your garden."

That year also saw the launching of Prague's annual Cannafest, an international confab of growers, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts.

And it was the year that Veverka launched Legalizace magazine. With ads from seed banks and grow shops, it took off fast. Seeds were made legal in the 2010 reform — at least until they were planted — and sometimes the magazine gave out seeds as a promotion, in a plastic bag attached to the cover. There were explicit instructions on cultivation, curing, preparation of edibles, and so on — and general celebration of the cannabis lifestyle. It has been published every two months since then, now boasting a circulation of 12,000.

In 2013, a medical marijuana law was passed, but Veverka notes wryly that it took effect on April 1. "We said that it was indeed an April Fool’s joke," he says. Domestic cultivation was not allowed, which meant all the national supply had to be imported, initially by the Dutch firm Bedrocan. This meant high prices, and health insurance wasn't allowed to cover it. "It cost more than 10 euros per gram — double price on the black market," Veverka recalls.

Later, a single certified cultivation facility was established at the town of Slusovice by the Czech company Elkoplast. And in 2020, insurance companies began to cover medical cannabis.

However, with the limited progress came a backlash. 2013 saw the start of a series of raids on grow shops. Even if they were selling legal products, proprietors could be charged with promoting "toxicomania" if there was any material on the premises about cannabis — such as Veverka's magazine. Some 50 people were thusly charged over the following years. They mostly got probation rather than prison, but the legal harassment was a blow to the burgeoning homegrown scene.

Censorship by other means 
The similar case against Veverka was actually brought in Bruntál, a Moravian provincial town some three hours to the east of Prague. That's because a grower was busted there with 38 plants. He got probation in a plea deal, but allegedly told police at the time of his arrest that he learned how to cultivate from Legalizace.

Veverka later determined that police investigators bought Legalizace's entire archive of back-issues through the magazine's e-store. "I made some money from the police," he says, again with a wry smile.

Veverka is planning to appeal, because he sees accepting probation as submitting to de facto censorship. "They aren’t ordering the magazine shut down, but I'd go to jail if I put out an issue. Going to jail for writing an article — it's like the old totalitarian system."

Punishment is not likely to be imposed while the case is on appeal to the Moravia-Silesia kraj (region) court. But if his conviction is upheld there, then punishment would be imposed even if he appealed to the Constitutional Court, the Czech Republic's highest with jurisdiction in the matter. 

This comes, ironically, as Veverka's cultural-libertarian Pirate Party is getting its first taste of executive power in the Czech Republic, A new coalition government was elected in October, led by parties of the center-right but also including the Pirates. In the deal-making, a certain number of ministerial seats were promised to the Pirate Party, despite the fact it only holds four seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies.

So it seems like a contradictory political moment for the Czech Republic, which may make Veverka's strident voice seem all the more threatening. "They want me to accept not publishing the magazine in exchange for not going to jail," he says. "This case was brought because my voice was too loud, I became too dangerous for the system."

Veverka maintains that the silencing of a social agenda is really at stake here. "We want to have cannabis social clubs, we want to stop the war on drugs," he urges. "Every adult should have a right to grow in their own garden. The biggest danger of cannabis is its illegality."

This story first ran Dec. 13 on Project CBD

Image: Pixabay 


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