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Activists stage protest for cannabis decriminalisation

THE FIRST march in Slovakia supporting the decriminalisation of marijuana has failed to persuade politicians to make changes to the country's drug legislation.
Politicians from across the political spectrum remained unmoved by the crowd of about 500 mainly young people who took part in the so-called Millenium Marijuana March on May 3 in Bratislava, and insisted that Slovakia was not prepared for relaxed laws on soft drugs.
The march was among the first such initiatives in the state since the fall of communism in 1989. Shortly before last year's parliamentary elections a group of young politicians with the Social Democrats (SDA) pledged to soften marijuana legislation but after the SDA failed to be elected to parliament, the discussion quickly faded.

THE FIRST march in Slovakia supporting the decriminalisation of marijuana has failed to persuade politicians to make changes to the country's drug legislation.

Politicians from across the political spectrum remained unmoved by the crowd of about 500 mainly young people who took part in the so-called Millenium Marijuana March on May 3 in Bratislava, and insisted that Slovakia was not prepared for relaxed laws on soft drugs.

The march was among the first such initiatives in the state since the fall of communism in 1989. Shortly before last year's parliamentary elections a group of young politicians with the Social Democrats (SDA) pledged to soften marijuana legislation but after the SDA failed to be elected to parliament, the discussion quickly faded.

Organisers and those who participated in the march said it was about time that Slovakia started to change the laws that criminalize marijuana users. According to existing legislation even those caught with small amounts of marijuana may be sentenced to between one and five years in jail.

In addition, those in favour of decriminalising marijuana are saying that society remains uninformed about drugs and that the topic is still a taboo subject for many Slovaks.

One of the organisers of the march, Daniel Hromada, told The Slovak Spectator that a number of Slovaks still believed that marijuana was injected and that it was a natural gateway to hard drugs. Many, he said, are in fact still unaware of the existing medical classification of drugs into soft and hard categories.

According to Hromada, it was also important that Slovaks address what he considered a strict drug legislation and to stop occasional users from "feeling like criminals".

"Many of us are recreational users of this substance and at the same time we are citizens of the Slovak Republic who do not want to feel like criminals and hate to live in constant fear of being sentenced for several years in jail just for growing a certain plant," Hromada said.

Participants of the march, who carried posters with slogans such as "Without fear" and "Legalise nature", supported the initiative to decriminalise marijuana stating that the current legislation was interfering with individuals' free will to make decisions over their own bodies and minds.

"I don't see why the state should meddle with people's decisions regarding their health or state of mind," said one participant of the march who wished to remain anonymous.

He said, however, that he was aware that it would take some time until the group's goal was reached because "it is clear that at the moment decriminalisation or complete legalisation of marijuana is politically unachievable".

Even Hromada said that he realised it had been unrealistic to hope that the current right-wing ruling coalition that included the strongly traditional Christian Democrats party would support softening of cannabis legislation.

He added, however, that their march was a means to opening a media discussion on this matter.

"[In the medium term] this effort [to decriminalise marijuana] is certainly realistic because such liberalisation of laws is gradually taking place all around the Europe into which we are heading."

Several European countries including the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland have either fully legalized marijuana or have softened their drug legislation to decriminalize occasional users of soft drugs.

Changes in pot legislation may already be underway in the neighbouring Czech Republic where the cabinet's Deputy PM Petr Mareš is proposing softer penalties for possession of cannabis. According to his plan those caught possessing less than 250 joints-worth of cannabis would only be prosecuted for a misdemeanour rather than facing a jail term as it is now.

The Czechs changed their criminal law in 1999 to include a clause permitting jail terms for those found in possession of drugs in an amount "greater than small". Mareš thinks that such a law has not stopped the spread and the use of cannabis products but rather criminalizes a considerable part of the young population.

It is not known yet whether Mareš's proposal will be accepted by his fellow legislators.

At the moment, however, politicians from all Slovak parliamentary parties have stated that decriminalisation of marijuana is not on their agenda and many say the country is not ready to copy the example of the Netherlands, for example, a pioneer in its tolerant pot legislation.

While some said they could imagine the topic will be brought up for public discussion at another, distant time, others, such as the Christian Democrat Peter Muránsky, said decriminalisation of drugs would "lead this society into hell".

Ľubomír Lintner, deputy chairman of the liberal New Citizen's Alliance said that his party was also against softening marijuana laws at this point.

"We consider [changing drug legislation] to be premature at this time. The country first has to deal with its most pressing problems, including the economic and social situation. We can talk more about this issue when Slovakia reaches where such a country as the Netherlands is today, both economically and socially," Lintner said.

Politicians and even health workers who deal with drug addicts have pointed out that ultimately they could only do their best to inform the public of the dangers that addictive substances such as marijuana and alcohol present to people.

"The role of health workers who deal with the drugs issue is pushing through a healthy life style," Ľubomír Okruhlica, head of the Bratislava-based Centre for the Treatment of Drug Dependencies, recently said to the press agency SITA.

People must know that the use of marijuana is forbidden according to state legislation and they must have sufficient information on its health and social risks, he said.

However, available statistics show that young Slovaks are nearing the levels of their EU peers in terms of their experience with the soft drug.

A 2002 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction showed that the current use of cannabis among young people in the EU ranges from 5 to 15 percent.

A Slovak Statistics office survey released in October 2002 reported that 16 percent of Slovaks between the ages of 16 and 29 said they had used marijuana at least once.

For now, however, the organisers of the march are saying that their goal was at least partially successful.

"What we wanted to achieve with the event was to get this theme into the media and to show the Slovak nation that users of marijuana are not junkies in the traditional sense, but that they are responsible people, and we have also tried to break the barrier of silence on this them," said Hromada.

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