Grows Shop Owner Battles Persecution and Prosecution

Police are Newly Cracking Down on the Marijuana Middlemen

By Dhruv Sud

Photo courtesy of Lidovky.cz

“You can grow five plants, but the moment you cut them and dry them two things happen. First, you are committing the crime of drug production, which is stupid. Secondly, you would have to be really stupid to only have 15 grams of product from five plants, so there isa dis-balance between the law and the reality,” Michal Otipka said. Photo courtesy of Lidovky.cz

At a small table in the corner of a dimly lit bar, grow shop owner and popular marijuana activist Michal Otipka crouches over his glass of coke. Unkempt waist-length dreadlocks fall into a pony-tail on the back of his head.

Recently, Otipka has become the target of myriad police raids and court cases, which he blames on his visibility in the Czech Media as a proponent of legal rights for grow shops. He owns multiple growshops in Prague that sell cannabis seeds and equipment to grow hemp and other plants.

“The cops had to borrow cash from me to buy the wrapping and packing materials so they could take my things away,” Otipka said incredulously. “It’s like a comedy.”

“Some of them have bags with machetes to curb the marijuana plants. They came there and said, ‘fuck boss it’s a normal company, normal people, they are doing nothing wrong. What are we doing here?’ Otipka said, remembering the most recent raid.

Otipka, who appears to be in his late 30s, grew up in Prague and has been smoking for years, a hobby that eventually led him to start growing his own weed and launch a grow-shop business with friends in his spare time. His main career is teaching Kraz Maga, a self-defense system similar to Judo.

“I think it’s a positive thing, I’ve smoked the last 18 or 19 years and still I’m alive, finished my university studies,” states Otipka cheerfully. “I’m working 10 or 11 hours a day and when I come back, I just want to fucking smoke.”

However, a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience in April by Harvard and Northwestern researchers says the drug is more dangerous many people might surmise. The study says even casual marijuana users show substantial differences in vital brain regions linked to emotion and motivation.

The irony is that Otipka is being targeted in a country known for the most tolerant drug laws in Europe.  Using marijuana and even hard drugs is not a criminal offense but rather a misdemeanor. But although smoking marijuana is widely accepted in the Czech Republic, the regulations governing grow shops are murky.

“The cops had to borrow cash from me to buy the wrapping and packing materials so they could take my things away,” Otipka said incredulously. “It’s like a comedy.”

The law states that growing up to five plants is decriminalized and selling equipment and cannabis seeds to grow is not a crime, however there are stipulations that get growers into trouble.

Otipka laughs heartily as he clarifies, “You can grow five plants, but the moment you cut them and dry them two things happen. First, you are committing the crime of drug production, which is stupid. Secondly, you would have to be really stupid to only have 15 grams of product from five plants, so there isa dis-balance between the law and the reality.”

Otipka likened the drug situation in the Czech Republic after the fall of communism in 1989 to “anarchy,” explaining that before drugs were not a concern of the government. For ten years at least, successive governments avoided passing regulations dealing with drug use, partly in reaction to the harsh control communist regimes exerted on people’s lives. That is, personal freedom of choice took a front seat in the minds of politicians before they were willing to pass legislation that might seem too restrictive.

But Optika claims that is changing.

“There used to be an unwritten compromise; if you have behaving okay, not connected with hard drugs or criminals they let you live, but now this balance has been broken.” He added that the pressure on grow shops intensified in 2011 when the national police appointed anti-marijuana activist Jakub Frydrych as director of its anti-drug unit.

Drug laws in the Czech Republic, however, are still quite lenient when compared with the United States.

Photo courtesy of lidovky.cz

Michal Otipka is grow shop owner and popular marijuana activist in Prague. Photo courtesy of Lidovky.cz

In 1999, the first drug laws in the country stated that possessing “an amount greater than small” was considered criminal activity, regardless of which drug.  But police typically turned a blind eye towards personal drug use and the country was known as a paradise for casual marijuana smokers who could light up inside and outside popular bars.

Ten years later the government refined the a law and now users run the risk of criminal persecution if they possess more than half an ounce of marijuana, around a quarter ounce of hash, five tabs of LSD, four tablets of ecstasy and even 1.5 grams of heroin.

Additionally, drug legislation now limits the amount of THC (the psychoactive component of marijuana), the amount of marijuana plants one can grow and the amount of marijuana product one can cultivate.

“Everyone who grows cannabis with a THC content exceeding .3 percent is breaking the law,” explained Barbora Kudlackova, representaitve for the Czech Police department, “The offense is also always in the case of drying and processing cannabis” she continues, as it consitutes as drug production.

Cannabis plants with a .3 percent THC content is industrial hemp and and does not emit psychoactive properties. Furthermore, buying and selling marijuana as a criminal act and can result in jail time. In essence, growing, buying and selling pot in the Czech Republic is illegal but using it is not. This creates an interesting conundrum for smokers, as where as people meant to get the weed they smoke?

For a long time cannabis and even harder drug use was not one of the main priorities of the police department. But as the country sees increases in the number of young smokers the police have become more invested in curbing cannabis culture.

Last fall, the Czech Supreme Court ruled that selling all the tools to cultivate illegal plants such as marijuana in one store is a criminal offense as it promotes illegal drug use and makes it easier for people to cultivate their own plants.

The government’s 2012 drug report states that 53.8 percent of Czechs between the ages of 15-34 have used marijuana in their lifetime, one of the highest youth rates in Europe and a 10 percent increase over 2011.

“For a long time cannabis and even harder drug use was not one of the main priorities of the police department. But as the country sees increases in the number of young smokers the police have become more invested in curbing cannabis culture.”

Frydrych of the anti-drug said in 2013 interview with Czech daily, Lidove noviny, “These grow shop owners decided to create a business connected to illegal practices, which clearly increased the risk of police intervention. They were well aware of that.”

Otipka recalls a time when weed was “everywhere” in the Czech Republic and remembers buying some of the first pot he ever had from friends with ease. This new focus on drug use is far from the situation he remembers as a kid.

“My parents were against it, but they were liberal,” he reminisces. “We were playing the game-if you don’t show it I don’t see it. It was funny, they had a bedroom next to me, I’d open the window and smoke a joint and my father,” he imitates a cough, “and he didn’t say anything, he told me after some time ‘Oh I know you were smoking’” he says laughing.

He adds that this attitude is common in the Czech Republic, but he knew of parents who talked about drugs with their kids or even smoked with them as due to the fall of communism and lack of religion in the country there is much less stigma associated with recreational drug use.

But data from the government’s 2012 Drug Situation Annual Report shows less tolerance for marijuana as a business. “Since 2007, there has been a progressive increase in the number of detected plantations and the volume of seized marijuana plants and dry matter,” Kudlackova said.

Photo courtesy of Lidovky.cz

Otipka recalls a time when weed was “everywhere” in the Czech Republic and remembers buying some of the first pot he ever had from friends with ease. Photo courtesy of Lidovky.cz

“For this reason National Drug Headquarters last year initiated a coordinated crackdown on growshops” she continues stating that growshops increase the availability of the drug, help people learn to grow their own weed and increases “social acceptance” of drug use.

However, Otipka does not see it this way. He notes that his shops do not only provide the tools to grow marijuana but other plants as well and likens them to general botany stores. “One thing is my shops, and the other is my personal opinions,” he concludes.

Since the police crackdown, the role of marijuana and particularly growshops in the Czech Republic has changed. Otipka explains that before the Czech police were quite liberal with marijuana and many individually still are.

“A few years ago, I was smoking on a pavement behind a pub, behind me two police officers walk up. They look at me, I look at them, they cross the street and continue down the pavement,” he recalled, noting that police typically avoid Czech smoking clubs such as Chapeau Rouge and Cross Club where many tourists easily purchase drugs. Prague has even been dubbed the “Amsterdam of the East” due to its allure for some marijuana-loving tourists.

But now, the government’s new anti-drug agenda encourages policemen to crackdown on marijuana use and particularly growshops. Otipka’s shops have been raided by policemen who, according to him, did not even know what they were looking for. Otipka says his shops have been raided three times within the last two years.

However, Otipka doesn’t hold this against the officers. “They are overworked, they have low motivation, sometimes they don’t pay them extra so they just do what they have to do” he said. “One of them once told me; ‘fighting hard drugs it’s your hard job, marijuana it’s points for free.’”

“I said to my police officer, ‘what will you do when you go home after this?’ He said, ‘I will drink a beer.’ I said, ‘You fucker, I’m gonna smoke one, is it worse? Is it better? Do I blame you? No!’” exclaims Otipka.

While the situation is in flux Otipka hopes that situation can return to what is once was; where growers and smokers were left alone by the police and government.

Otipka describes his situation in a hazy simile;  “Everybody smokes, it’s a shame that some people don’t say. It’s like one guy with a gun can hold a whole crowd hostage but if they rush him he wouldn’t stop them, but you don’t want to be the first one to try because usually the first one gets the bullet in the end. But I don’t want to be a sheep in the crowd.”

Dhruv Sud is in the NYU Steinhardt Class of 2016. His hometown is Hong Kong, China.

 

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Categories: Culture, Spring 2014 Issue Number 3, Travel

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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