In a huge blow to legalization efforts in otherwise progressive Czechia, the Court of Appeal ruled that publishing a magazine about cannabis can be deemed illegal because of the so-called “spreading of toxicomania”. What impact could this have on both cannabis policy and freedom of expression in the heart of Europe?
Robert Veverka is editor-in-chief and sole publisher of magazine Legalizace, which has existed in the Czech media space without any problems for more than ten years. After over a year battling in court, he has been ordered to pay a fine of more than £ 10 000 (250 000 Czech crowns), and the court ruling effectively bans him from publishing the magazine in the future.
Bolshevik relics in the law
According to the court in Ostrava, the third largest Czech city, the magazine offered instructions on how to illegally obtain cannabis, how to grow, process and use the plant. From time to time there were also seeds inserted in the magazine, since the sale and possession of cannabis seeds is completely legal in the Czech Republic, and there were disclaimers attached. The court also didn’t like advertisements of fertilizer companies and seedbanks, although all the goods are normally sold in gardening shops and are all perfectly legal.
Veverka described the “spreading toxicomania” (or the ‘promotion of drug addiction’) section cited in the law as very flexible, sufficiently vague that it can be interpreted in many different ways so that it suits the prosecution, saying:
“It is a Bolshevik relic and a relic of totalitarianism. It allows for a loose interpretation of what constitutes incitement to substance abuse.”
He points out that it applies to all drugs but one – alcohol. The Czech media are full of adverts glamourising alcohol consumption, and promoting it even to kids. “But if you tell somebody they may want to try cannabis ointment on their knee, you can end up in court,” said the publisher.
The decision is definitive, his only remaining option being to appeal to the Supreme and Constitutional Court, which Robert Veverka intends to do– although nobody knows when (and if) these courts would take up the case, because they are overwhelmed.
“I will try to take this further to the highest courts to protect not only myself but any other media outlet that chooses to write about cannabis,” he said.
Furious experts and politicians
Throughout the court case, Mr. Veverka has had the support of prominent politicians from the Czech Pirate Party, of which he is a member.
For example, minister of regional development and vice prime minister Ivan Bartoš wrote on his Facebook:
“The Pirate Party will always protect free access to information. In my opinion, in the case of Robert Veverka, the courts are criminalizing the sharing of information that is completely harmless to society.”
Experts have also criticised the case. National drug coordinator and main figure behind the current legalization push Jindřich Vobořil expressed support for Robert Veverka on many occasions. And said of Legalizace:
“From my point of view, this is the only magazine that is openly trying to discuss the fact that the current cannabis laws are hurting more than helping,”
He also gave his expert opinion on the case in writing, but to no avail.
He who dares inspire
According to the indictment, at least one person was inspired by the magazine, got seeds there and used them to grow and process THC rich plants, following the instructions in the magazine. Still, the court’s verdict took Veverka by surprise. He does not yet have it in a written form and does not know exactly the reasoning of the three judges.
“I know that in case of ‘spreading toxicomania’ it’s enough for the court to find that I’m breaking the law in just one of thousands of published articles,” he explained.
He also noted considerable stigma surrounding drugs in the Czech court system, explaining that once someone who is charged with any drug related offence stands before the court, they are immediately viewed and treated as criminals. “And the potential penalties are huge – comparable with serious violent offenses.”
Writing about drugs, but only in a bad way
Last year, the judge of a District Court gave Veverka a 2.5-year suspended sentence on top of a financial fine. The judge said – among other questionable things – that he could tell the percentage of THC in flowers only from looking at a picture, and basically stated that in his opinion, people can only write about cannabis legally if they are criticizing it.
Both Veverka and the prosecutor appealed. The court of appeal partially upheld both appeals: Judge Jaroslava Miketová said they agreed with the district court’s guilty verdict, however, they considered the 2.5-year probation to be disproportionately harsh.
According to the judge, the financial punishment was enough because Veverka didn’t have any prior issues with law. Still, according to the court, it was clear that the publisher knew that he could encourage others to illegally grow cannabis for the purpose of producing and using it. This, the judges said, was the case when the witness testified that he had actually grown cannabis from the seeds in the magazine.
View this post on Instagram
Cannabis regulation on horizon
Judge Miketová also acknowledged the changes being considered in the Czech Republic with regards to its cannabis policies:
“The Regional Court of Appeal is aware that in recent years the criminalisation or decriminalisation of drug offences relating to marijuana has been the subject of professional and lay discussion, but it must be stated that no social consensus has been reached on these issues yet, and that law enforcement authorities must follow the current legislation.”
Robert Veverka stressed that he continues to push for the end of cannabis prohibition. “The most dangerous thing about cannabis is its illegality,” he said repeatedly. And the national drug coordinator Vobořil still hopes that regulation of cannabis will happen and that it will not only bring better control, but also billions in taxes to the state coffers.
Lukas Hurt is a Czech translator and journalist focusing on cannabis legalization. Follow him on LinkedIn here or on Twitter @LHurysek
Note from Volteface: Our Head of Operations, Katya Kowalski is scheduled to be speaking on the Legacy vs Legal in Europe panel with Robert Veverka at the upcoming Cannabis Europa event in London May 2-3. The panel will discuss how countries will transition cannabis from the illegal market to the legal market and the overhaul of legislatory frameworks across Europe, a shifts in policy which will define the entire industry.