Czech Republic The Czech Republic is a landlocked Central European nation with a population of around 10.5 million. The Czech Republic has a long history of utilising cannabis, and in modern times boasts some of the world’s most progressive cannabis laws—although these laws have been sorely tested on more than one occasion.
History of cannabis in the Czech Republic
The Czech Republic (historically known as Bohemia) boasts abundant archaeobotanical evidence of early cannabis use, mainly in the form of pollen grains. Research conducted in the East Bohemian lowlands in 2008 indicates that Cannabis/Humulus was already present in the pollen record 2,250 years before present (BP).
Between 2,250 BP and 1,000 BP, Cannabis/Humulus pollen was present at low levels for much of the record, although there are several periods during which it was apparently absent, perhaps due to environmental fluctuations. A little over 1,000 BP, pollen levels increase significantly, and remain present in increased quantities up until approximately 200 BP. At this point there is a sharp decline to zero—it is thought that this marks the shift from intensive hemp cultivation in favour of Secale, or rye, at this particular site.
Humulus (hops) is cannabis’ closest relative, and their pollen grains are often difficult to distinguish. However, various other factors beyond the pollen itself indicate that cannabis was the key crop present in the record, and that cultivation began in earnest at the site in around the 9th or 10th century CE.
The Early Medieval hillfort at Libice nad Cidlinou in Central Bohemia is an important archaeological site, and is thought to be one of the oldest settlements in the Czech Republic. Macroremains of various plants including cannabis, opium poppy and flax have been found in the ruins, dating to the 9th century CE. Another Early Medieval site at Žatec in the northwest of the country has provided further evidence of cannabis macroremains and pollen; in this case, cannabis was noticeably more abundant in the 9th and 10th centuries and had already begun to decline by the 11th and 12th centuries, as cereal production began to intensify.
Cannabis use in Czech medicine
At first, it is likely that cannabis use was confined to textiles, food and oil extraction, as the local biotype is low-cannabinoid hemp. In the later medieval period, use of cannabis in medicine became more widespread; higher-cannabinoid varieties were introduced from Asia via Eastern Europe, but the pharmacopoeia of the time certainly made use of local hemp too.
In around 1596, an influential herbal written by the Italian physician Mattioli was reprinted in Czech in the Prague printing houses; this herbal, famed for the quality of its woodcut illustrations, clearly depicted the cannabis plant and described its various uses. Cannabis was widely used in Bohemia and the surrounding region to treat fever, boils, sinusitis and earache, among many other common complaints.
In the 1950s, the results of thirty years of observations at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Jince, Central Bohemia (then part of Czechoslovakia) were published. Hemp seed was extensively used as a treatment for tuberculosis, and often enabled afflicted individuals to fully recover when administered as the sole food or medicine; this was believed to be due to the favourable ratio of amino acids found in hemp protein. Further research conducted at the University of Olomouc, Moravia (along with Bohemia and Czech Silesia, Moravia is one of the traditional Czech territories; however, ‘Bohemia’ is generally accepted to mean all three, particularly in a historical context) provided some of the earliest modern evidence of the bactericidal properties of hemp.
Cannabis folklore in the Czech Republic
The tuberculosis study made use of cannabis grown in what is now Slovakia for their investigations. Slovakia is still a hub of hemp cultivation, and has provided some of the information we have on folk traditions involving hemp in the region. The proximity and enduring socio-political closeness the two nations have today implies that traditions held in Slovakia would likely have been known, if not necessarily observed, in Bohemia itself.
The Slavic peoples that inhabit the present-day Czech Republic and Slovakia (as well as many surrounding countries) share a vibrant culture of folk traditions that in many cases persists to this day. In the Slavic pantheon, the goddess Mokoš is seen as the ‘sacred feminine’ and protector of women; she is associated with water, and traditionally female occupations such as spinning, weaving, and fate (fate or destiny is associated with weaving in many cultures, including Greek and Norse). As an offering to Mokoš, women would traditionally throw hemp seed into water in the hope of securing favour and protection.
In Budca, Slovakia, celebration of Hromnice Day (Candlemas, celebrated throughout the Slavic world) on February 2nd is marked by a day of rest and communal hill-sledding; it was believed this observance would cause the hemp to grow high.
In Bohemia, it was considered unlucky to conduct certain work activities, such as weaving, threshing, sewing, knitting, or grinding grain, on several important holy days—Christmas Day, St Lucia’s Day, Three King’s Day and the Day of the Holy Innocents. The belief was that doing so would anger the spirits of dead ancestors, and a bad harvest of hemp, flax or corn would then follow.
Even the Nebraska Czechs, a community founded in 1963 to represent the ethnic Czech and Slovak population that had begun to immigrate in large numbers during the 1860s, still utilise hemp and flax (among other textiles) to produce colourful kroje (costumes) worn in traditional festivals.
Culture of cannabis use in the Czech Republic
In Old Czech, the word for cannabis was kanopia; most other surrounding countries and those to the south and east utilise similar words, all deriving from the Scythian root word (thought to be kanap or kanab) which gives us most modern words for cannabis including Greek (kannabis) and modern English ‘cannabis’, taken directly from Latin. Czechs, Slovaks, Silesians and many other Central European and Balkan peoples share common cultural and linguistic features, and are collectively known as Slavs or Slavic peoples.
Historically, Slavic peoples have inhabited Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe since at least the 6th century (some believe they descend from local Neolithic populations); their ancestral homeland is disputed, but their spread has reached as far north as Scandinavia (where they intermingled with Viking cultures) and northern Russia, as far south as the Arabian Peninsula and Syria, and as far east as Mongolia and even parts of China. As their cultural sphere is so broad, they have exchanged cultural ideas and practices with a wide range of disparate peoples over the centuries, including many cultures with long and venerable traditions of cannabis use, such as those of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
It is small wonder, then, that Slavic hemp customs bear so much resemblance to those found in Central and Northern Asia, even down to the brightly-coloured, geometric patterns woven into the traditional hemp clothing still produced by some communities. Hemp is an integral part of the weaving culture that remains a source of pride to many Slavs in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and elsewhere. Spinning and weaving hempen and flaxen cloth at home, along with the arduous manual labour associated with production of the fibre, was ubiquitous throughout the Slavic world until very recently. Manual processing of hemp has all but disappeared, having been replaced by machine processing, but persisted in some areas up until the mid-20th century.
It is highly unlikely that cannabis-related practices ever died out entirely—the modern culture of cannabis use does not exist in a vacuum, and its widespread social acceptance and overall familiarity to many Czechs has ensured that consumption rates far exceed most other European countries, and have done for decades. Certainly, growing a plant or two on one’s balcony is a common practice by older women, who still utilise cannabis in traditional home remedies, such as ointments and teas.
Cannabis laws, arrests and sentences in the Czech Republic
Until 1962, there was no official drug law in Czechoslovakia. The country was a founding member of the League of Nations and was a signatory to the revised 1925 International Opium Convention that effectively outlawed international trade in cannabis and hashish, but the terms of the treaty did not necessitate legislation to be enacted in Czechoslovakia as at that time no international trade existed, at least not on any meaningful level.
The 1962 law rendered cannabis illegal, but it was not until 1993 that the newly-independent Czech Republic brought a new set of laws into being, designed to bring the country in line with the terms of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The 1993 law also clarified that use of cannabis would be considered a misdemeanour, but that sale, traffic and cultivation were all criminal offences. However, it did not set out limits for what constituted personal possession, and an ambiguous clause referring to ‘amounts greater than small’ caused widespread uncertainty.
In 2009, the law changed again—now, personal limits were defined as 15g of cannabis or 5g of hashish. It was also specified that individuals cultivating up to five plants containing 0.3% THC or higher would at most be subject to a misdemeanour; cultivating more than five plants would remain a criminal offence—unless of course the plants contained less than 0.3% THC. However, although there have been no more official changes to the law, it has been reported on several occasions that the limits are systemically ignored, and individuals may now be arrested and charged for possessing as little as one gram of cannabis or hashish.
In 2013, the most recent change was brought into force. This change legalised medical cannabis, but has been widely criticised as it failed to establish reasonable cultivation regulations that would enable an industry to emerge. It specified that for the first year, medical cannabis would need to be imported (illegal according to the Single Convention, and impossible in practice). It also failed to set up effective licensing systems for would-be domestic growers. Eighteen months later, Czechs are still unable to access medical cannabis.
Cultivation of cannabis in the Czech Republic
As the pollen record shows, cannabis has been consistently cultivated for centuries in the Czech Republic, with fluctuations in intensity occurring in response to socio-economic or political changes. In response to the anti-cannabis campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s, the culture of cannabis cultivation declined markedly, and despite the passing of legislation protecting hemp farmers in 1999, the industry has not recovered. A brief period of renewed activity occurred immediately following the change in law, but it rapidly dropped off to prohibition levels when it became clear that processing and harvesting equipment did not meet requirements.
It is not clear exactly how much land is devoted to industrial hemp in the present-day Czech Republic; at the post-prohibition peak in around 2006 it is believed that up to 1,700 hectares were under cultivation, but this figure had dropped to 200 hectares by 2010, and since then there has been little evidence of the industry growing to any great degree.
On the other hand, the cultivation of cannabis for narcotic and recreational purposes is increasing steadily. Grow shops are abundant, and there appears to be a highly successful culture of small-scale, personal cultivation. Despite this, cultivation laws remain somewhat restrictive, and growers may be subject to arrest.
Cannabis trafficking in the Czech Republic
Very little cannabis is trafficked into the Czech Republic, due to its healthy levels of domestic production. However, international trafficking gangs have taken advantage of the nation’s relatively lenient policies and over the last fifteen years or so, the Czech Republic has emerged as an hub for cannabis trafficking. Primarily, Vietnamese gangs are implicated in the large-scale cultivation and trafficking of cannabis, although Russian, Czech and Slovak gangs may also be involved in the trade. Most cannabis intended for export is destined to be sold in Germany, which has very high domestic demand.
In 2012, a record quantity of 563kg of cannabis was seized by Czech authorities, and a total of 218 cultivation sites detected. Overall numbers of plants seized has also increased over the last few years, with 90,091 plants seized in 2012, 62,817 in 2011, and 64,904 in 2010. It appears that large-scale cannabis trafficking is not only increasing, but is also becoming more specialised and profitable.
Purchasing and using cannabis in the Czech Republic
It is easy to acquire a good supply of cannabis in most urban centres. In Prague there are various bars and clubs known for discreet, under-the-counter sales of cannabis. Generally, procuring cannabis does not carry any great risk of arrest or police harassment, and if consumption is discreet (and preferably limited to the home) there should be no cause for concern.
It is advisable to avoid street dealers, who not only face heightened scrutiny from law enforcement but are likely to sell substandard products. In some parts of Prague, street dealers are common just as they are in Amsterdam. Instead, it is advised to secure one’s own supply, perhaps by enquiring in a local bar or club—‘house’ dealers may be present, or sympathetic locals will typically otherwise assist. Typically, prices apparently range from €25 – €55 for an eighth-ounce (3.5g); quality is usually high, but may be poor if purchasing from street dealers.