I was surprised, 10 years ago, when I chanced upon a bottle of vodka containing marijuana in the fanciest delicatessen in Prague: there were pot seeds floating in the oily, straw-hued 40% proof spirit. I was surprised to find a recipe book entitled “We Cook With Cannabis” on sale in the bookshop next door. I was surprised to read that, faced with the dilemma “Eat it or smoke it?”, the author’s verdict was “eat it”. Because when inhaled, the effects kick in right away, or within five minutes, but only last for two hours; whereas when ingested in any dish you like, it takes half an hour, or even an hour and a half, for the effects to kick in, but the high lasts for eight whole hours.

I was surprised when the bookseller apprised me that the practice of cooking with cannabis was still quite rudimentary in the Czech Republic. People use it any which way, blending arbitrary quantities thereof with all manner of ingredients, though as a matter of fact it calls for special dishes that are specially conceived for marijuana mixing – which is why the recipe book is indispensable. I was surprised when, at the end of a trial that dragged on for years, the Czech court in Olomouc acquitted the publishers and authorised the sale of the book. I was surprised to hear that the first calls to legalise cannabis in Czechoslovakia were made in a student newspaper called Zverdlo only a few months after the collapse of communism.

Vaclav Havel likes dope too

I was surprised to hear that in 2000 president Havel pardoned a 19-year-old who had proffered some of his weed to two younger boys, for which he had been dealt a suspended four-year sentence. “I wouldn’t have been able to look at myself in the mirror,” declared the president, who was a pot smoker himself. I was surprised when the medical school at Charles University in Prague created an “Addictology” department at its psychiatric hospital, which promptly undertook scientific studies of marijuana consumption. I was surprised to learn that the Czechs lead Europe in cannabis consumption, well ahead of the Dutch. In 2004 one out of ten Europeans, and one out of five Czechs, smoked marijuana. I was surprised to learn that, now that the authorities turn a blind eye to cannabis consumption, the prevalence of hard drugs has plummeted in the Czech Republic. I was surprised that the same goes for beer: the more beer Czechs drink, the less hard liquor they imbibe. I was surprised that a drug that is formally prohibited, as is the case with marijuana, is the subject of two official magazines in the Czech Republic, Konoptikum and Soft Secrets.

I was surprised that the first information about growing marijuana at home under artificial light appeared in the early 1990s in the very serious weekly Reflex: in the form of a guide for patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, which can be treated using cannabis. I was surprised that since 2004 the same magazine holds an annual contest, the Reflex Cannabis Cup, for the best photographs of home-grown pot plants, replete with four different prize categories: “Indoor”, “Outdoor”, “Beauty” and “Ikebana”. I was surprised that a thousand pictures are entered every year and that the entrants, including the prize-winners, remain anonymous. The identities of only half the jury members are disclosed to the public: there are celebrities on the jury who don’t know much about pot, and unknowns who know absolutely everything about home-growing.

Czechs have a beautiful culture

I was surprised that the first selection of photographs is personally undertaken by the magazine’s editor-in-chief (who, by the way, after having seen Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn on Czech television, said to me in an e-mail, “The Czechs have a beautiful culture, but the Poles a beautiful soul.”) I was surprised that the magazine prints a special warning that the use of this drug before the age of 16 is harmful, that it can lead to psychosis in adolescents, that it can easily be overdosed in prepared dishes, that smoking it is dangerous and, like any inhaled organic matter, carcinogenic. I was surprised that the editors advise readers “DON’T SMOKE!” and recommend use of a marijuana inhaler, which is supposed to protect against the very harmful effects of tarry substances. When I learned that, as of 1 January, growing cannabis for personal use (up to five plants) and possession of small amounts (e.g. up to 15 grams of cannabis) are no longer penalised under Czech law, I was not surprised.