Jindřich Vobořil: Can One Man End the Global Drug War?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Former user, current innovator of drug policy? Oddly logical.
In between slurps of soup and sips of coffee, Jindřich Vobořil tells a story of his youth that would sell out a Broadway theater. He lived on and off the streets in his hometown of Brno, Czechoslovakia, running with local gangs. By age 12, he was burning through 30 cigarettes a day and says he moved on to hard drugs by his teenage years. By the mid-’80s, Vobořil was a 17-year-old dropout who played guitar in a rock band and had joined the nation’s preeminent anti-communist organization, Charter 77, before becoming … a Catholic, organizing underground religious activities — back then, religious people were persecuted by the government.
Friends, meet the unlikeliest top-level bureaucrat on planet Earth.
The 49-year-old Vobořil isn’t your typical paper pusher. Think of him as the drug czar, coordinating drug policy for the Czech Republic. But he’s no hammer-fisted police officer. He’s a psychotherapist and the founder of one of the country’s largest drug-related nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), who’s using a variety of progressive programs to tackle record-high underage drinking and smoking as well as rising meth production. Though little-known even in his own country, Vobořil has a sophisticated approach to drug policy that has countries from Latin America to neighboring Eastern Europe seeking to emulate him. And he’s trying to make the upcoming 2016 Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly on the World Drug Problem his big stage with a resolution that will open the door for progressive policies like decriminalization of use and possession.
That is, if he still has a job by then. When we meet Vobořil — who has straight, shoulder-length hair and sports an unassuming blue-and-peach striped shirt, jeans and sneakers — in his office building’s basement cafe, he takes 15 minutes to wonder out loud how long he’ll be employed. He has made it a habit of calling out the lethargy of politicians and the poisonous influence of big business — diversions from the status quo that have earned him official warning letters, informal threats and even a 10 percent salary cut last year. It’s no wonder he isn’t willing to move his family to Prague from Brno, instead opting to commute more than four hours daily despite being in the fifth year of his job. “If I moved here, I’d have to be much more careful,” he says with a smirk.
Vobořil lays out the challenges he faces day in and day out, in what is arguably the vice capital of the world. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, his country is plagued by meth and has one of the continent’s highest rates of pot smoking. While the rest of Europe does its level best to clear out its smoky cafes in favor of clear-eyed social spots, the Czech Republic is going in the opposite direction. Youth smoking is close to the worst in Europe, according to the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs, and has risen a fifth since 1995 — compared with Ireland and the U.K., which have cut its rates almost in half. As for alcohol? The Czechs love that too — more than 1 in 10 Czechs are problem drinkers, a rate that ranks among the highest in the world.
Enter Vobořil, with high-profile and highly controversial moves like pushing for a tobacco, alcohol and gambling tax (part of which will be redistributed to treat hard-drug addicts) and an indoor smoking ban, among other policies. But the work has only started. Inside Cafe Jericho, a dive hidden among back alleys downtown, more than three-quarters of the 20- and 30-something crowd are smoking, producing as much smog as Beijing. From the next table over, 20-year-old Anna Karnikova, a philosophy student at nearby Charles University, tells me she has been smoking since age 14. “But now I’m ashamed of smoking indoors,” she says, nodding toward a little kid nearby. A few minutes later, the mother of the kid taps Karnikova’s shoulder and motions to borrow her lighter.
Certainly, this is one drug czar who gets what drug use is all about. After graduating to smoking weed in his early teens, Vobořil says he moved on to taking psychedelics, wooed as he was by the hippie movement. Before getting dragged into the underground anti-communist and religious communities, where he became sober, Vobořil was using a range of pharmaceutical drugs, including ephedrine. “I was always experimenting first among my friends,” he says. The son of divorced parents — a communist mother who served in the military and worked in a leather factory and an anti-communist father who worked in a tractor factory — Vobořil preferred the streets to home.
According to him, he probably would have ended up where many of his friends did — addicted, unemployed, maybe in prison — if it weren’t for his punk rock band. Just having something, anything, to do was his saving grace. “I was lucky,” he says. “I got out at the verge of developing problems.” But his rabble-rousing days weren’t over: Enthralled by a charismatic young priest, he became an activist against the anti-religious communist government, organizing lectures and seminars and copying and distributing restricted religious texts. He prayed every day and was baptized at age 18. “I thought religion was cool, countermainstream,” he says. (Vobořil still prays and goes to church on Sundays but says he’s now more spiritual than religious.)
Which is how, in an unorthodox fashion, his passion for reducing drug abuse started. He began ministering to users by offering them refuge on his couch in his rented room inside a nun’s apartment. Post-revolution, in 1989, he made it his job. At 22, he enrolled at Palacký University in Olomouc to study social work and theology and started up an NGO called Sdružení Podané ruce (Helping Hands). After “essentially begging” local donors for funds, his motley crew finally got its big break: selling religious icons, carved out of wood, across Europe, bringing a profit of about $20,000 a year, estimates Vobořil.
It turns out that communism played a big role in creating the country’s drug problem. The Soviets appointed Czechoslovakia as one of the empire’s pharmaceutical specialists, among other things. So Czechs had access to a lot of the chemicals (like ephedrine) and know-how to make Pervitin, the brand name of meth that was used by the Nazis to keep soldiers awake and alert during World War II. The Iron Curtain also meant that illicit substances like cocaine had trouble getting into the country. Meth was made in makeshift kitchen labs, creating a homegrown industry that’s among the continent’s largest, says Tomáš Zábranský, one of the Czech Republic’s foremost drug experts.
Now it’s Vobořil’s job to help clean up the fallout. For one, he wants to increase funding for treatment and prevention programs from $400,000 to $20 million. These programs are like the ones he created at Helping Hands, whose success made Vobořil so attractive to the government, said the spokesperson for Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka in an email. In the Czech Republic, it’s been tough to get funding for projects like substitution programs, in which users are given a pharmaceutical alternative to a hard street drug like meth or heroin. Other efforts include the bread and butter of a liberal drug policy: Contact centers allow users to come off the street, shower, get medical treatment and referrals to substitution programs and, of course, participate in needle exchanges. Some of his policies, particularly on regulating tobacco, have faced staunch opposition from the likes of Senator Jaroslav Kubera of the Civic Democratic Party, who has caused headaches for EU lawmakers as well. Kubera wrote in an email that if we ban smoking, next comes “Coca Cola, hamburgers and other undesirable activities.”
The biggest issue, though, is a lack of resources. There are approximately 10,000 problem drug users in Prague but only three contact centers. And only one of them has a shower.
Next to a park where a lot of users hang out sits a row of dilapidated buildings, one of which houses the center with a shower, run by the NGO SANANIM. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d miss it: There’s no signage, thanks to a community protest against it. Upon entering, you’re greeted by a reception desk, behind which are four or five dozen plastic medical drawers holding everything from swabs to syringes. The center is pretty makeshift, with an examining room for basic medical treatment that moonlights as a storage space for piled-high boxes. Some, like 37-year-old David Leninsky, a former heroin addict who comes in to get syringes to shoot a substitute called Subutex (buprenorphine), consider the center’s staff “a second family.” But there are around 115 users who come through the center’s doors every day, and “it’s impossible to build relationships with everyone,” says director Tomáš Vejrych.
But as he forges on at home, Vobořil has plans to take his policies to a broader audience: the 2016 Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly on the World Drug Problem. He’s hoping to reinterpret the governing rules of international drug policy, which are currently dictated by the 1961, ’71 and ’88 conventions on drugs. Right now, they promote a zero-tolerance policy that is fueling the infamous global war on drugs, which many have deemed a failure. There needs to be a huge overhaul of international law, says Hannah Hetzer, policy manager for the Americas at the Drug Policy Alliance. “We need something that reflects the reality of the 21st century,” she says.
Vobořil’s weapon to begin the end of the war on drugs? A mighty resolution. One that will interpret the conventions in such a way as to give countries the green light to follow in the footsteps of liberal bastions like the Czech Republic or Switzerland. They could then ditch the war-on-drugs mentality, which costs some $100 billion a year to enforce. That progressive policies, which are often written off as a pipe dream, might actually come to pass is “extremely significant,” says Hetzer.
To be sure, before the resolution hits the tables at U.N. headquarters in New York City, it has a long, long road ahead. First, it’ll likely need the support of the European Union, which would then bring it to the global table, with near-certain support from many Latin American countries and potentially the U.S., says Vobořil. Still, hard-liners like China and Russia may squash it into oblivion, which is what some predict. “There aren’t many countries wanting to follow the example of the Czech Republic,” says Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy adviser to President Obama. Still, Vobořil is hopeful. He points to academics and other supporters who think the time has finally come for a strategy to tackle one of the world’s most agonizing problems. If the punk rocker slash bureaucrat can pull it off, it will make for one hell of a magnum opus.