Politics  The latest in cannabis legalization including laws and policies, legislators’ views, election coverage, and more.

Targeting Cannabis, Czech Republic Takes Aim at… Gardening Stores?

Michal Otipka is one of the Czech Republic’s most influential cannabis entrepreneurs. He’s also a self-defense instructor. But when it comes to taking on the country’s court system, he’s powerless.

Otipka runs Czechia’s largest grow stores, which offer an array of wares such as cultivation media, nutrients, and lighting systems. The goods are legal, but perhaps due to Otipka’s success he’s become the fall guy in the country’s war on drugs — or, more specifically, the nation’s war on indoor gardening shops.

Back in autumn of 2013, Otipka’s two shops were among dozens raided by Czech police as part of Czechia’s biggest anti-drug operation in modern history. Police justified the raids by arguing the shop owners were promoting drug addiction. 

 Liberal Laws but Hostile Policing for Czech Republic’s Cannabis Community

In the vast majority of court cases against owners of smaller grow shops, the judges sided with police. Most owners were found guilty but sentenced only to probation; no one was sent to jail. Still, the cannabis community expected Otipka’s case to be different. Because his shops were the biggest in the country, Otipka’s trial attracted considerable media coverage. Every court session was followed by extensive reporting including from state-run television. And Otipka himself vowed to fight the case to the bitter end.

Apart from running grow shops, Otipka has another noteworthy hobby. He’s a renowned instructor of Krav Maga, a close-quarters form of combat developed by the Israeli army. It’s becoming popular among law enforcement in the Czech Republic, and Otipka has given lessons to numerous police officers. The interactions have allowed him to discuss with law enforcement the motives behind and blunders involved in the massive anti-grow shop crackdown and subsequent criminal trials.

Over the course of his case, Otipka became a symbol. If he beat the charges, the largest anti-drug operation in the country’s history would be viewed by many as fruitless. 

In December, just such a verdict was delivered, sparking joy among the country’s cannabis community. But the police don’t like ending up on the losing side.

 Are Tourists Allowed in Dutch Coffeeshops? The Strange Tale of the ‘Weed Pass’

Winning Isn’t Easy

Two weeks before Christmas 2015, even though he only sold wares that are legal and readily available elsewhere in Czechia, Otipka was found guilty of “spreading drug abuse” via his grow shops. But in a move that surprised the state attorney and police, the municipal court judge decided not to punish him at all — not even with probation. The judge even ordered police to return all $500,000 in confiscated goods. 

The ruling meant the entire trial could actually be seen as a victory for cannabis. But there was a downside: The prohibitionists saw it that way, too. So it was no surprise when, in April, a court of first appeal reversed the municipal court decision and sentenced Otipka a year’s probation. Worse still, in mid-July the same appeals court also reversed the decision on the hundreds of thousands of dollars of seized goods. No longer will they be returned to their rightful owner.

Otipka is planning to appeal the decisions at either the Czech Constitutional Court or the European Court for Human Rights. But the odds don’t look good. 

“The state attorney would not appeal the original decision, but he was told he had to,” Otipka said. “The judge [wanted to] stick to the original decision, but he says he cannot.”

“In other trials, some owners were given their stuff back, some of them were completely acquitted,” he continued. But as many expected when Otipka’s case first began, his treatment has been different. “I don’t know if we can call this a constitutional state,” he said.

 Where to Buy Cannabis in Europe? Coffeeshops vs. Cannabis Social Clubs

A previous version of this story placed the wrong dollar amount on the value of Otipka's seized goods. The correct amount is $500,000, not $5 million.