3 February 2014, by Ian Willoughby
In November, the Czech police’s drugs unit raided dozens of “grow shops”, businesses that sell products necessary for the cultivation of marijuana. The police justified the large-scale confiscation of goods on the grounds that a court had ruled it was illegal for the shops to offer in one place everything needed to grow the drug, from seeds to literature. This is disputed by the grow shop owners, including my guest today, Michal Otipka, who runs four in Prague. Before we got on to the legal niceties, I asked Otipka how he’d first got into the business.
“I studied at the University of Economics here in Prague and I met two very interesting guys. Basically it was the idea of my friend. He was kind of a music freak – kind of a DJ pioneer.
“He moved to Holland and used to work with vinyl records. There he saw the whole culture. He came back to Czech, he opened some DJ stores and a vinyl shop. And he also said, maybe it could be a good idea to open something like a grow shop…”
Which I guess he would have seen in Holland and elsewhere in Europe.
“Yeah. He saw it in Holland, he saw it in Europe, he made new friends in Germany… We are on the market since 16 or 17 years ago and back then Germany was a pretty restrictive country.
“And in Berlin is one of the biggest shops in Europe. Basically it used to be called a grow shop but now they want to be more politically correct [laughs] in Western Europe so they call it ‘urban green concept’ – basically it’s fertilisers, pots, soils and all these things.”
I came here in the early 1990s and in those days it was quite common to see people smoking marijuana in bars and clubs. Do you think people associated smoking with freedom in those days?
“For me, it’s like an indicator of freedom… One thing is smoking marijuana, the second thing is our shops – there has to be a clear line.
“But there is some style of living, or some culture. I think nowadays people are smoking maybe even more than 20 years ago.”
And also what they’re smoking today seems to be, from what I’m told, stronger than what they were smoking. When I first came here people said that Czech marijuana was from ‘the cottage’, it was quite weak. Now it’s much stronger. Is that partly because of the success of the grow shops?
“I think it’s a natural development. There are new strains, more people are involved, there’s better technology, better fertilisers, better access to information – I think it’s thanks to the internet. On the internet you can find everything. It’s speeding the business a lot.
“By the way, the argument that marijuana is stronger these days… OK, it’s like with alcohol; you can drink 10 beers or you can have 10 shots. If you can have something which is stronger maybe you can smoke less and still get to the desired state of mind [laughs].”
I know this isn’t your area exactly, but I do have to ask for our listeners who don’t know the legal situation – what is the legal situation surrounding the possession of marijuana in the Czech Republic?
“The thing is, they made a stupid law. I think it’s a unique law in the world. It says you can have an amount which is smaller than big. Which is actually funny, because for some people half a kilo is not enough, and for some people half a gramme is too much. It leaves a lot of room for speculation.
“It’s not a law. There was some kind of recipe from the police saying, I think, that you can have 16 grammes of marijuana.
“But the Supreme Court ruled half a year ago that they agree with this but it wasn’t done in a 100-percent legal way, so they had to cancel this regulation. So now even possessing one joint is a crime, but most people don’t know that.”
But isn’t it not a crime but rather a misdemeanour.
“Yes. But the police try to pretend that they are totally stupid and they treat it like an official crime.
“Basically we are getting to a situation where your wallet is stolen, your car is broken into, then you go to the police and they tell you, hey, we don’t have the capacity to solve this.
“But if they want to create pressure… By the way, one month ago they went to clubs and made raids. If you were smoking they searched you and took you to a police station like a real criminal and opened something like a case.”
Before Christmas, some of your grow shops and many other grow shops around the country were raided by the police’s drugs unit. Why did that happen when it happened?
“It’s a question. I don’t know why it happened. There are two main, let’s say, theories. The first one is a conspiracy theory, that some ex-politicians, some so-called mafia groups are trying… and also there’s the interest of big pharmaceutical companies… they’re trying to take over the business.
“They want to clear up the market for medical marijuana and this madness which is in the States. They smell money so they want to solve it this way. Maybe it’s possible, but I’m not the biggest fan of this theory.
“The second theory is like with the fall of the government of Mr. Nečas. The police and state attorneys are, how to put it, trying to get stronger in the Czech Republic.
“We had no strong government so I’m afraid that it’s a decision of one, two, maximum three people, who are so high and have such power without control and they decided just to try it.”
If I understand it right, a court ruled the year before last that grow shops aren’t allowed to sell all the paraphernalia needed to produce marijuana?
“Basically, it’s a little bit different story which has been misinterpreted about 1,000 times – and as we say, if you repeat a lie 1,000 times it becomes the truth.
“The whole story is that two guys in a small city… it’s a minor detail, but it could be important, they were two gays organising house [music] parties in a small city. The mayor was very conservative…
“The police call it the local game: At the best restaurant in a small city, very often the only one there, the mayor, the chief of police, the state attorney and sometimes the judge meet at one table.
“There were two trials at the base level. If you read it, there was no defence. The judge just copied and repeated what the police said.
“They sent it to the Supreme Court, the appeal, but they made a mistake in this letter, so the Supreme Court didn’t decide in the case – it was just a formal decision.
“That’s one thing. The second thing is we don’t have the Anglo-Saxon system of law. And another is that the most important rulings are published every six months, in what’s called the Green Book of Rulings, but this is not there.
“Also the judge, Mrs. Kůrková, who has been handling this case, sent a message to the chief of the anti-drug police saying that they shouldn’t use the ruling the way they are using it, that the ruling was just a formal decision and wasn’t meant to unify the court decisions.
“The police were looking for a weapon, but they took the first one they saw and they took the wrong one. I’m sure of this.”
What’s happening now with your businesses? You have four grow shops and there are many others that have been raided and had their stuff seized – what’s the situation now?
“It’s already two months ago. They’ve confiscated from us goods in the value of one million dollars. They confiscated cash, but they haven’t blocked bank accounts.
“They took the goods and I asked them, does this mean I am not allowed to continue to run my business? They said, no, no, you can continue, I’m just curious what you’re going to sell when we took all your goods.
“It’s even stranger because in May last year there was an MMM happening in Prague 3, at Parukářka, there were eight or nine thousand people and we had our promo stand there…”
Sorry, MMM means Million Marijuana March?
“Yes, exactly. We had our stand and the chief of the toxi-team, the anti-drug police in that district, a very nice lady, came there with a group of their investigators.
“They came to our stand and we had a long discussion with them. I’m sure that they made a recording of it, they taped it for evidence on a police camera.
“We discussed the situation with them and made a clear deal. She said, OK, you’re not allowed to have books and manuals here – please hide them and the rest is OK for me.
“And five months after that the same team with the same boss came to my shop and confiscated all the goods. I said, hey, you’re the guilty one – you told me that I can and now you’re prosecuting me!
“They felt ashamed. They looked at the ground and said, sorry, sorry, we got new orders and we had to follow them – that’s the structure.”
Is your industry taking any kind of coordinated action to fight back against what’s been happening?
“Yes. What we are doing is a coordinated action. They wanted to create the impression that it’s not a big raid so it’s 50 individual cases, which is much harder for us to defend.
“On the other hand, there were some minor violations of the law in some cases, so it’s good we are not connected with those people.
“The first thing we did was to have some meetings and share information. On the other hand, we are under a threat from the police that they could persecute us as an organised crime group, so we have to be very careful with this.
“You would expect that the police are working on some 21st century level but they are not able to use the internet. They don’t have the internet in their offices.
“It’s a funny story. Twenty police officers came to my shop and they didn’t know that it had two floors. They had only one computer which was 10 years old.
“I got to the interview with the police and I knew exactly what was going on in the north, the south, the east, the west, that in some places the police had apologised, they gave back t-shirts, in some places cosmetics.
“They were surprised – they didn’t have this information. You would expect the government authorities to work on some coordinated level and you face a very sad reality when you go there.”