Prague – I’m sitting in the land that my ancestors called Bohemia, participating in a national ritual that has been occurring here since the days when the fashion statements were made in steel, leather and animal pelts. When I say “ritual,” perhaps you imagine me genuflecting before some Christian deity – but no, that doesn’t happen much here in the Czech Republic, which is generally regarded as the most atheistic country in Europe. The ritual that I’m speaking of, is the simple imbibing of the world’s best beer, outdoors, in nature.
I’ve been accompanied here by Freebie, HIGH TIMES’ pre-eminent cannabis photographer, and Robert Veverka, our friend/guide/translator and entrée into all things cannabis in the Czech Republic. Robert runs Legalizace, the country’s largest marijuana magazine, which, between its glossy pages, covers all aspects of pot culture here – art, politics, activism, cultivation, you name it. Legalizace is the first Czech pot magazine produced by Czechs for Czechs, and it has a circulation of 12,000 throughout the country (plus Slovakia and Austria).
Also with us is Lukas Behal, the organizer of Cannafest, a marijuana trade show that drew 17,000 attendees over three days last year at its inaugural event in the Industrial Palace, a historic 200-year-old national building in Prague.
Despite the public setting – Bar Mlikarna, a crowded beer garden in Riegrovy Sady, a park in the center of the city – we have two open jars of herb on the table in front of us from which we’ve been liberally sampling. The first is a schwaggy batch of outdoor that does not impress, but the second – an unnamed variety that smells to me like a Blueberry variant – is kind enough to meet even Freebie’s California standards.
Lukas is talking excitedly about his event. Already an accomplished tradeshow organizer, last year he decided to combine his career with his passion for marijuana. “Before the show, we went to Spannabis [Europe’s largest annual cannabis trade show, held in Spain] and introduced Cannafest to the public,” he says. “Everyone was so happy that someone was organizing a show in the Czech Republic. We covered everything: growing, seed banks, natural resources, hemp, cosmetics, food, clothing, building materials and a section for NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. There were 25 seminars given by doctors, professors, patients, lawyers, politicians and activists from all over Europe. This year will be even bigger.”
“Is it true that people are going to open Amsterdam-style coffeeshops in the Czech Republic?” I ask, referring to a rumor I’ve heard.
“I don’t think so,” Lukas answers. “Maybe in a few years, but not right now – it’s too far from that. But we are happy with this,” he adds, gesturing to our immediate surroundings. “You can smoke everywhere.”
It makes perfect sense; after all, what is a coffeeshop but a cannabis-friendly ghetto? Sure, it’s nice to be able to walk into a shop and choose between a dozen different varieties for sale, but isn’t it better just to live in a society where sparking up a joint at your local bar is less awkward than ordering an O’Doul’s?
My ancestors left the land of Bohemia sometime in the late 19th century, eventually settling in the German-Czech enclave of Yorkville in upper Manhattan and missing the hardships that would befall the territory in the century that followed. It was during those years, however, that the seeds of today’s liberalism were planted, pressed into the dirt by jackboots and tank treads and fertilized with national blood.
After World War I, Bohemia was incorporated, along with Moravia and the Slavic territories, into a chimera state called Czechoslovakia. The country prospered in the era between the wars, but as Hitler set out to claim neighboring Germanic lands for the Third Reich, Czechoslovakia was sold out to the Nazis by France, England and Italy, in the hopes of avoiding another protracted European war, via the Munich Agreement of 1938.
During the seven years of Nazi rule, 345,000 Czechoslovakians – 80 percent of them Jews – were killed, and many more were sent to forced-labor and concentration camps. A week after Hitler’s decision to eat a bullet in the Führerbunker, there was an uprising against the Waffen SS by Czech insurgents. Via radio, the resistance begged for US assistance, but an agreement with Stalin allowed the Soviets to liberate Prague. A coup d’etat in 1948 put the Communists firmly in control of the country, ushering in an era of Soviet-style totalitarianism, crushing free speech and political dissent.
After the Prague Spring of 1968, as the country was trying to steer in the general direction of democracy, Czechoslovakia was invaded on Leonid Brezhnev’s orders by 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 2,000 Soviet tanks and would remain behind the Iron Curtain for the next two decades. As the Soviet Empire finally imploded in the late ’80s, the Czechs reclaimed their dignity with the 1989 Velvet Revolution, electing poet and political prisoner Vaclav Havel as president. The Czech Republic can now claim a designation as the fifth “most peaceful country” in the world, according to the Global Peace Index.
Perhaps it’s the result of living under totalitarian rule for so long, but modern Czech society is wary of anything that smells of authoritarianism, and the drug laws regarding personal use here are lenient. Forty psilocybin caps, four tabs of Ecstasy, five hits of LSD, a gram of coke, a gram and a half of heroin, two grams of crystal meth, and all you’re looking at is a fine. As for herb, Czech law decrees that a person with five living plants or 15 dried grams doesn’t even have to lie to a cop about how or why they have it; they can just look the officer in the eye and say, “This marijuana is mine.”
I shared a joint with M. at the Cross Club, a three-story nightspot where the infrastructure was made entirely of welded scrap metal – dark alcoves and crisscrossing stairways formed from pipes, engine parts and hubcaps, as though M.C. Escher and H.R. Giger had a welded-steel brain baby. Fourteen years ago, M. opened the very first grow shop in Eastern Europe, and now it’s part of growshop.cz, a nexus of 17 stores spread across the Czech Republic. M.’s inspiration back then was the simple fact that Czech cannabis at the time – mostly homegrown outdoor and cheap hash from India – sucked.
“It’s changing now,” he said. “Ten years ago, we started selling seeds for six months and had to stop. We imported Master Kush and Mazar from Dutch Passion. Then I brought from Switzerland cuttings of Peacemaker that I smuggled in my shoes. It had a nice smell, short flowering time, big yield. The most popular ones now are White Russian, Jack Herer and maybe Northern Lights.”
Following the explosion of cannabis use in the Czech Republic, there was a natural progression from the home grower to the entrepreneur. This hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed by Czech law enforcement, and recently a chain of grow shops was busted in a large conspiracy case in which the shops were accused of working with their customers to produce and sell. There were undercover agents, wiretaps, the whole bit, and it sent a chill through the grow-shop industry here.
“It’s stupid,” M. said. “You could be in trouble [growing commercially]. In Czech law system, you don’t have precedents, so two same crimes going to two different judges, different courts, one is innocent, one gets the death penalty … it’s a joke.”
I asked him if he had an opinion as to why the Czech Republic was such a liberal country.
“I think it’s because of the atheism,” M. replied. “The Christian Party [officially, the Christian and Democratic Union] is in the minority because of the history: There was the Catholics and the Protestants fighting people, and then we were under Germany and they suppress our religion, and then the Communists were against the religion.”
“But so much of this city is devoted to religion,” I mused. “All the beautiful cathedrals, all the statues of saints …”
“Yeah, nice building, it’s okay,” M. shrugged. “You have the left-wing party and the right-wing party, and then in the middle there are the fucking Christians, so they are like a bitch to sell, you know what I mean? They are prostitutes.”
Denizens of the Dark
So Freebie, Robert and I now find ourselves on an empty cobblestone street in an industrial neighborhood on the outskirts of Prague, walking lost between dark buildings with statues of crumbling saints peering out from their edifices – canonized but forgotten figures who seem to track our movements as we try to beat the fading daylight to our destination, which is, of all things, a country-and-western bar. I assume this must be the only CW bar in the city, but Robert tells me that I’m very wrong, that in fact such places are popular and there are many here. Problem is, he doesn’t seem to remember where this one is.
As the darkness descends, I’m feeling more haunted than nervous, since Prague is more menacing in its design than it is in its intent. Walking through the meandering gothic streets at night is a bit like entering an old-world fairy tale – the kind where curious children strike out in search of a house built from candy, only to get eaten by ogres once they find it.
We spot two figures heading toward us: a skinny little pimp in a black leather jacket and a bleach-blonde hooker holding a wilted bouquet of carnations, who is having a tough time navigating the cobblestones in her heels. Robert approaches them to ask if they can tell us where the bar is.
“Why do you want to know?” the pimp spits back, yanking the girl away, causing a few dying white petals to fall from their stigmas and float to the ground.
As we walk on, I hear a familiar melody coming from around the corner that I recognize as Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” only the words are different – strange – until I get close enough to realize they’re being sung in Czech. Inside, there’s a live band seated in the back, throwing down a shit-kick that is inspiring a small bunch of drunks to cut a rug that owes as much to a mosh pit as it does to a line dance.
“We are here,” Robert announces.
We’ve come to meet Karel Bukvice, a husky, boisterous man with wild, woolly hair that springs feral from his skull. He’s happy to meet us, but doesn’t speak much English. Karel is the proprietor of an indoor grow nearby that we can visit. When Freebie and I pass around a few copies of HT, he explains warily that his room isn’t quite on the same level.
“It’s a punk-rock garden!” he laughs.
I explain that I’m Czech on my father’s side, pulling out my driver’s license and pointing to my Bohemian surname. It’s an immediate hit. Suddenly, a beer appears in my hand, and Karel and his friends are hailing my ancestors and me and doing us the great favor of finally explaining how to correctly pronounce my last name.
“Sheemooneck! Czech! Yes!”
The band kicks into “Folsom Prison Blues” and the place goes nuts. Karel grabs me by the neck and, in broken English, explains: “Only America and Czech Republic understand country-and-western music!” It’s one of those small facts of life that you didn’t know before, but now that you do, makes you feel privy to something special.
On the way to his apartment, we stop at a deli and load up on some giant plastic bottles of brown beer, the Czech version of a forty. Once inside his place, I learn that Karel isn’t just a CW-loving grower, but an accomplished painter and documentary filmmaker to boot. His walls are lined with large, primal, primary-colored oil paintings, impressionistic but primitive, like a Vulcan mind meld between Chagall and Basquiat.
The lights are on in the garden, where he has 80 plants growing in dirt under three 1,000-watt high-pressure sodiums and being fed via PVC tubes and drip emitters. Freebie is happy because Karel is using Easy Grow Diamond Foil around his garden, a roll-up reflective surface produced in England by Freebie’s pal Simon, who will soon be arriving in Prague to join us for the last leg of our tour.
Regarding the variety, Karel explains that clones are not so easy to come by in Prague, so he had to take what he could get – in this case K-49, a sativa-dominant hybrid. When I point to an ancient Soviet-era fire extinguisher standing three feet tall, Karel lights up.
“CO2!” he howls, and then proceeds to show us his homemade delivery system. Freebie kneels with his camera at the ready. Grabbing the handle of the extinguisher, Karel turns to me and declares, “It’s a punk-rock garden!” before letting loose a billowing cloud of vapor into an oscillating fan that disperses it over the canopy. With that, Karel rushes us out of the room so that we won’t all drop from oxygen deprivation.
Karel demonstrates his CO2 delivery system.
We smoke a few joints and pass around the plastic bottles of brown beer, which taste a lot better than I thought they would. (No such thing as a bad beer in Prague.) Then Karel insists that the two of us shotgun some hits off the joint – which, the way they do it here, is just a hair away from French-kissing. I figure fuck it, we all have to pay the ferryman at some point, and Karel blows a heavy cloud of pot smoke into my mouth – but when he turns to Freebie and tells him that it’s his turn next, Freebie decides that it’s time to go. So we say our good-byes and head back into the gothic night, hoping that no ogres stand between us and a well-earned greasy street sausage.
Another day, another gutful of wild elk. Vegetarians should do some research before visiting Prague, a town where a pig’s knuckle on a bed of sliced cucumber passes for salad. Every week is shark week here, or its terrestrial equivalent: a bloodfest the sight of which would cause Sarah McLachlan to write some very sad songs. As for all those cartoon characters I grew up with – Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Bullwinkle? In Prague, their descendants are roasted over open fires in an amount and frequency that would cause Elmer Fudd to beat his musket into a ploughshare.
Freebie and I are staying in Wenceslas Square, named for King Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czech people, who in the year 935 died a martyr’s death at the hands of his half-brother, Boleslav the Cruel. That same day, a son was born to Boleslav, the baby Strachkvas, whose name translates as “dreadful feast.”
So Freebie and I were pretty surprised to meet King Wenceslas as he stood outside a restaurant dressed in armor, his long, brown hair flowing from beneath a steel helmet as he used his sword to hustle tourists into the establishment for a (hopefully) non-dreadful meal. We showed him a copy of HIGH TIMES and asked if we could take a picture of him smoking a joint, but he demurred, citing restaurant policy. His true passion was music – “melodic death metal” – and he asked us to mention his band, Secret of Darkness, so now I have. As a Czech – even a spastic four-generations-removed one such as myself – it’s an honor to serve my king.
Today, Robert had arranged for us to visit the Czech Republic’s only medical marijuana facility. The guy has a seductive cheer that I would follow right off a cliff. In our discussions, he told Freebie and me how he’d hitchhiked from San Francisco through Mexico and down to Costa Rica one summer. When I asked him if he’d ever been to New York, he told me he’d spent three weeks there sleeping in the Port Authority bus terminal because the youth hostel was too expensive.
We convened at our usual meeting spot “beneath the horse’s ass,” which, for you laymen, means in the square at the rear of the statue depicting King Wenceslas mounted on his steed.
Robert, Freebie and I walked over to the offices of Konopi Je Lek (Cannabis Is a Medicine), an “educational cannabis clinic” founded by Dusan Dvorak, a psychotherapist specializing in addiction treatment, who has devoted his life to the healing powers of marijuana.
The Czechs were way out in front with the theory that cannabis can be used to cure and prevent illness. In late 1954, three Czech university professors – J. Kabelik, Z. Krejci and F. Santavy – produced “Cannabis as a Medicine,” a study which concluded that cannabis extracts had an antibacterial effect on numerous microbes, including staphylococcus and streptococcus.
At Konopi Je Lek, I was introduced to a therapist named Jan, an American medical marijuana refugee from Florida. We retreated to the office area, at the back of which was a small growroom that the clinic uses in its studies.
Jan was both a therapist and a patient who suffered from a psychological disorder. “I’m supposed to take three types of meds, but I don’t because I take cannabis,” she explained. “So I’ve been trying to breed out something that has high levels of CBD, because the CBD is what keeps the psychosis at bay … so to speak.”
She described the clinic’s efforts to treat cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, leukemia, addiction and other ailments. There was talk of how cancer must first be treated by discovering the roots of the disease in the mind, and how Rick Simpson’s theories of using cannabis to treat cancer are just the beginning; at the clinic, they were researching exact, strain-dependent therapeutic dosages of THC, CBD and CBN.
At Konopi Je Lek, cannabis is bread to maximize therapeutic cannabinoids like CBD and CBN.
Dusan entered the room and listened to our discussion. Since 2008, he’s been attempting to get government permission to plant large fields of cannabis for research purposes, but every time he starts a garden and invites the relevant authorities to check it out and listen to his rap, they respond by hauling his plants away. I asked him what the mission was at Konopi Je Lek.
“We are here to gain information, express information, and educate people in the field of cannabis – the practical aspects of it and the so-called theoretical aspects of it. We have the opportunity to test large amounts of cannabis; we have clinical responses from patients.”
As we talked, Dusan smoked a cigarette, and I thought he looked a bit like Tim Leary. He had that same smile of a man who, despite his detractors, has a vision that’s been unfolding according to plan.
Stoned to the Bone
So Freebie’s friend Simon, of the Easy Grow Diamond Foil miracle wrap, arrived from England, and the three of us caught a train to the suburb of Kutna Hora, 70 kilometers west of Prague, which is home to both Philip Morris’ Eastern European headquarters and the Sedlec Ossuary, a Roman Catholic chapel also known as the “bone church” because it’s decorated with the mortal remains of somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 people who died during the Black Death (1348-1350) and the Hussite Wars (1419-1434). It started out as a cemetery, but the cemetery was exhumed to make way for the church, and the bones were turned into altars, wall pieces, chandeliers and coats-of-arms, as though Ed Gein had been hired as the interior designer. Perhaps the idea was to demystify death; I don’t know.
The first order of business was to get good and high, so we killed some more of that Blueberryish bud that Robert had given us when we arrived, then bought our tickets and strapped ourselves in for the ride.
The whole time we were traveling to this place, I kept thinking that, despite everything I’d read, we would get there and it would prove to be some kind of farce. But no, we were definitely surrounded by the artistically arranged skeletal remains of tens of thousands of human beings unfortunate enough to die from the “It” disease of their day, or to be slain in a religious war between two factions that disagreed as to who was the rightful inheritor of the sacred and lucrative commission to propagate Jesus’ legacy.
Their skinless faces stared at me from empty eye sockets, reaching across the millennia, grinning with lipless skull-smiles as if to say, “Enjoy it while it lasts, tomorrow you could be me.”
Walking back to the train station, we spotted a bar with an outdoor garden and a fire pit where the better part of what had once been a pig twisted slowly on the spit, hissing and crackling as its charred flesh spewed smoke down the block.
The place was full, but there were three spots open at a picnic bench occupied by a few college-age locals. We asked the group if the seats were taken and, in response, got a bunch of mute stares, shrugged shoulders and, finally, a few mumbled words in Czech that I imagined translated as “Yankee, go home.”
We ordered a round of beer and meat. Our reluctant neighbors looked over in our direction periodically, whispering words and then laughing out loud at the depth of their wit.
“I don’t like this,” Simon the Englishman scowled. “I think they’re taking the piss.”
“What do you care about those guys?” I asked. “Enjoy your pig.”
The snickers from our flank kept coming, though. After a while, one of the guys from the rival crew turned to us, muttered a few words and reached for something in his pocket. Freebie and Simon both looked at me, and I could see the fight-or-flight debate being waged in their adrenal glands. I looked back at our nemesis to find that he was holding a plastic bag – and from that bag, I watched him remove an inch-long marijuana bud.
“Do you guys smoke?” he asked with a stoner smile.
In response, we pulled out our own bud and I passed them my HIGH TIMES card (the one with the big pot leaf on it), and suddenly the young man next to us was smiling and speaking reasonably fluent English.
“I’m sorry,” he laughed, telling us his name was Michal. “We were fooling with you before … ”
“No worries,” I assured him. “I hate tourists, too.”
“You work for a magazine?”
“We’re journalists. You don’t, by chance, know anyone around here who grows marijuana?”
“Someone who grows marijuana?” Michal’s eyebrows arched toward his forehead in contemplation. “Yes, I know of a garden. It is about five minutes away from here.”
Simon began whispering that the whole thing was a setup. I assured him that these guys were just a bunch of college kids getting a buzz on a Saturday afternoon, but he was insistent. Paranoia being the contagion that it is, I started looking at Michal as though he were not the friendly pothead he appeared to be, but rather a master criminal who, along with his gang, lulled American tourists into complacency, brought them to an undisclosed place with the promise of marijuana gardens, and then tortured them over the three days it took to drain their bank accounts at the local ATM. It also didn’t help that I had just spent the last two hours staring at altars constructed from human remains. Was this kid an apprentice in some Eastern European crime syndicate? And if this was a kidnapping, would they be satisfied with the free copy of Nico Escondido’s Grow Like a Pro DVD and the one-year comp subscription that would be HIGH TIMES’ final offer for my release?
I suggested that Simon stay at the bar if he was so worried, that Freebie and I would go it alone.
“I can’t leave you guys like that,” Simon declared, upending the last of his Pilsner Urquell. “Whatever happens, we’re in it together.”
We followed our newfound friends through a neighborhood of modest homes, and without a trail of breadcrumbs to leave behind, I tried to remember the path, in case our journey to this fabled House of Weed led instead to an ogre’s cauldron.
At our destination, we were led through a living room out to a backyard where there were indeed some buds growing amongst the other vegetables. Our hosts were proud of their efforts, about a dozen or so Amnesia Haze plants in the early flowering stage. They rolled a few joints, cracked a bottle of Czech champagne and brought out a bowl of sweet red cherries that they’d just picked. Simon looked slightly relieved, but he wasn’t exactly digging into the offered refreshments lest they be laced with some sort of knockout drug.
It was a nice coup for me and Freebie. Not for the first time, we’d been invited by people to whom we were basically strangers to see what exactly was growing here in the Czech Republic. After all the years I’ve spent writing about this plant, I am always grateful and a little amazed at the doors it opens, as though the passing of a joint were a secret handshake that transcends language, politics and geography. It was especially pleasing to me – the first of my bloodline to make the trip back to our ancestral homeland – and I was grateful to Robert and Lukas and M. and Karel and Jan and Dusan and Michal’s whole crew for welcoming back a long-lost Bohemian son, offering him smoke, drink and swine, and inviting him to feel at home.
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