There is nothing politically easier in most countries than scapegoating drugs and drug users as the source of all social problems. Politicians can expect a boost in their popularity when they support repressive measures against drugs and are dismissive of public services for people who use illicit drugs.
But visionary policy-makers in the Czech Republic—from the early years after four decades of Soviet occupation to the present day—have resisted what is politically easy and exemplified what is smart and humane in drug policy. Their story is the subject of a new report from the Open Society Foundations Global Drug Policy Program, A Balancing Act: Policymaking on Illicit Drugs in the Czech Republic.
In the Soviet period, there was no real policy-making on drugs because the state denied that drugs were available. In the rhetoric of the time, drugs were portrayed as an indulgence of weak Westerners. Fortunately, by the time of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989–1990, in spite of Cold War communications barriers and propaganda, a core group of Czech health professionals had some awareness of the need for a drug policy environment that would help contain the relatively new threat of HIV.
The new government gave health experts, including those from emerging civil society groups, the platform to contribute to policy. The policy that resulted featured a balance between policing and health services. Ensuring easy access to clean injection equipment and treatment of drug dependence for those who needed it was a priority from an early stage. With these measures in place, HIV stayed in check even as it was exploding elsewhere in Europe and in most parts of the former Soviet bloc, where the world’s fastest growing HIV epidemics are found to this day.
But as drug use and drug injection became more visible with the new openness of Czech society, political pressure mounted for harsher drug policing. Some local leaders and the media challenged the policy established in the early post-Soviet years of not counting individual use and possession of drugs as criminal acts. In the late 1990s, the Czech government changed the penal code to establish criminal penalties for minor individual-level drug offenses.
At the same time, though, the government did the smart thing and invested in a study of the impact of the new law. The study found that criminal penalties for minor offenses did not result in less drug use or less initiation of drug use, as proponents of the new law had expected. Criminal sanctions were convincingly demonstrated not to be the right move for minor offenses.
In light of these results and after a number of years of further consideration of scientific evidence, the Czech Republic removed criminal sanctions from individual possession and use. Measures were also taken to reflect the government’s view that cannabis is less harmful than other drugs and should be recognized as such in the law. As a result, people convicted of minor drug offenses as misdemeanors have good access to health and social services they may need and do not have to deal with the social exclusion that comes from having a criminal record. The police are also able to keep their focus on larger-scale trafficking and violent crimes.
The top drug policy position in the Czech Republic—called “drug czar” in some countries—has been held since 1990 by people with front-line experience in providing health and social services to people who use drugs. Many countries insist, rather, that the top drug job go to someone with a police background. Along with “drug czars” who understand something of the reality of drug users’ lives, service-providing NGOs are also an important voice in Czech drug policy-making.
At the annual session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs earlier this year, the Czech delegation strongly denounced repressive “war on drug” approaches, asserting they are clearly ineffective even though many countries are afraid to say so. They spoke with a confidence that comes from the real-life experience of standing up for the dignity and rights of people who use drugs, even when it is politically difficult to do so.
A Balancing Act: Policymaking on Illicit Drugs in the Czech Republic is the latest in a series of “good practice” case studies undertaken by the Global Drug Policy Program. Also in the series are reports on Portugal and Switzerland.