Latvia: My (Weedless) Nightmare Behind The Old Iron Curtain
[This is Part 2 in a series. Click here to read Part 1, "Chronicles From Moscow: The Drug Situation in Russia".]
I was on a bus with my head pressed against the cold window. It was freezing and I couldn't sleep. I left Moscow more than 10 hours ago. It was five in the morning and dark, but you can guess that the fog was encompassing everything.
The driver made an announcement. We had reached the border with Latvia. We had to go through the Russian control and then through Latvian customs. There was a tense feeling in the air but I couldn't grasp what it is; I felt kind of like someone years ago when the communists controlled everything that happened on this side of the world. The Latvian guard got on the bus and started to collect passports. He was surprised to see my Mexican passport, it was like if he was looking at a psychedelic sticker of Nikita Khrushchev. I was told to get out of the bus and I followed their orders. They said they had never seen a Mexican before and I looked strange; I was the first Mexican to cross the border in this remote part of the world, so they wanted to have the exotic experience of talking to me in their broken English.
I reached Riga in the morning, around 10 AM. I couldn't decide if I liked it or not; it was strange. Riga is the capital city of Latvia, one of the Baltic countries that was part of the USSR along with Lithuania and Estonia. The city-center is very beautiful. Like a lot of European cities, it combines the old feeling with a modern atmosphere. They try to incorporate the contemporary tendencies in the old buildings. The centre is full of tourists and beautiful people are everywhere. Nice patios and a couple of medieval and gothic churches decorate the town. There are big murals and a modernist building which houses the Museum of Interventions where they vilify Russians and Germans as enemies of the state, despite the fact that 30% of the population of the country is Russian.
I stayed in a nice little hostel in the middle of the city-center. Everything was swell. I visited the city, the churches, drank beer in the main plaza on a huge patio, worked a little bit, had lunch, walked and walked, and saw the river that crosses the city, Daugava.
Latvia is now part of the European Union and has spent a lot of money on their city-centre, but the people still lives miserably. In the old town there are modern bars and boutiques, but in the outskirts you can see the concrete blocks where poverty crawls everywhere in this near-bankrupt country of 2-million people. Sadly, I couldn't smoke any weed.
The quality of marijuana in this Baltic country is not very good, according to my contacts, because I never had the chance to try it, unfortunately. They affirm that most of it comes from England and some from Russia. Dutch weed is a luxury item here.
Almost nobody grows here because of fear and lack of resources. Poverty is present in every sector of the economy and growing pot is no exception. The price of a gram is at least 10 Lats ($18 US). But if the quality is fairly good, the price could go up and if it comes from Holland expect to pay 15 Lats ($27 US). I also heard that it might be possible to score in the night clubs, but it is more likely to get some pills like ecstasy.
“The best is to have a connection with good marihuana and a fair price,” Dzelzs Vilks (not his real name) tells us: “You have to be very careful with the quality of the grass when you are buying because it is very hard to define which is good and which is bad. The quality generally is bad and they charge you 10 Lats per gram. Only experience smokers can identify good weed when they smell it. I cannot”.
Like Dzelezs, nobody admits openly in this country that they smoke marijuana. If somebody is arrested in the street and has marijuana with him or her, they will face a big problem with the Latvian authorities. They are very square-minded. Latvia signed the 1961 convention act of the United Nations regarding the prohibition of drugs and included all cannabis-related products on the list of “controlled substances”.
Possession is forbidden unless is for scientific and medicinal purposes. Possession quantities are a little vague and ambiguous; according to my research, if a normal person is caught with what is considered a 'big quantity' (one kilogram of non-dry marijuana or 100 grams of dry marijuana) he is expected to spend at least seven years in a Latvian jail. If that person is found to be a participant in a criminal organization or there are other kinds of narcotics, or if the person is dealing, the sentence increases to 10 - 15 years. If you are caught with a small quantity of dry, 2 grams for instance, you still could have serious problems with the law and even some jail time. My contacts in Riga reaffirm this.
“The first thing you have to understand is that it is the same situation for tourists as for national Latvians,” Jelena told me.
“There is no difference” Emils reaffirms, nodding his head.
“But we have to admit that the law in Latvia is not clearly written and the interpretation can be very different depending on the situation,” continues Jelena. “If you get caught you can also try to bribe the cop so he can 'forget' about you. Corruption is an everyday thing here. On one hand it is very possible that he will accept the bribe because of necessity, but on the other hand, he might be afraid to lose his job because a lot of people are losing their jobs, so cops are also very careful not to risk their work”.
People in Latvia are always looking for a way to alter their state of consciousness, and alcohol is their favourite drug to do so, due to its wide availability and low cost. Sometimes they even distill alcohol illegally, often with dire consequences like blindness or death. In addition, the tradition of drinking is well established in the Baltic countries and generally when you open a bottle here, you never close it until is empty. They drink until they are drunk and some studies show that almost half of Latvians drink that way at least once a week. Another Russian heritage; vodka runs freely throughout the cities, but contrary to Russia, you cannot drink on the street; however, in the main square you can buy a beer for a Lat and drink it there.
During Soviet times, Latvians used tranquilizers like Dimedrol and a tea called Hanka that is made by infusions of dry poppies. Some say musicians and artists of that time had access to more natural drugs like marijuana.
Recently, according to data from official studies, since 2002, there is an increase in addictions to different substances. It seems that people are using different combinations of drugs at the same time. Some non-official organizations have conducted their own studies with astonishing results. One of them concludes that 37% of the registered patients for the first time in 2008 in some hospitals were using different substances at the same time. 29% were diagnosed with intake of opiates (mostly heroine). Amphetamines and methamphetamines were present in 17% of the patients while only 9% of them said to be taking cannabis. In regards to tobacco consumption, it is believed that 65% of the adult population are heavy smokers.
Latvia has signed three of the United Nations conventions for the regulation of drugs. Besides, Riga is a member of European Cities Against Drugs (ECAD). This movement is in charge of regulating the so-called soft drugs. An extreme organization that views total prohibition as the only solution, they are trying to eliminate the distinction between hard and soft drugs to impede marijuana legalizing efforts.
There are approximately 15,000 hard drug users in Latvia. The panorama is not very cheerful. Here the authorities waste money in actions that have no results while the country is in deep debt in the middle of an economic depression that worries the whole population. In other words, the country is bankrupt and there is a lot of unemployment which translates in poverty and crime. Outside of the old town that is the city-center, there is a feeling of despair and insecurity in the city. But the government is wasting money on useless policies.
What was meant to be my last day, I spent the morning filming around the old town. In the afternoon I found a funky jazz restaurant and I stopped to eat.
I was eating in the bar when a strange guy heard that I was looking for a concert to film for www.vanmusic.ca. I shot a lot of cool footage of the city that day and had my camera with me. I also had my laptop because I was working.
He was a strange guy, and I mean strange because he was wearing a suit and a tie and was recommending a hard rock band - maybe I should have suspected a guy in a tie.
“So the only problem,” he said, “is that the band plays outside of the centre.” Their name was Rusa Gruppa and they were supposed to be one of the biggest bands in the underground movement of Riga. “A mix of Latvian punk with heavy rock and a social conscience,” he told me.
Latvia doesn´t seem like a dangerous place because the center is very nice, and I didn´t see the signs or listen to my interior voice. So I grabbed a taxi that took me to the other side of the bridge, where poverty looms on top of every roof of the communist-era buildings, their dwellers shriek with hopelessness as their country goes broke.
The taxi dropped me off at a small bar on a corner. The band was waiting for me already and pushed me into the bar as quickly as they could. I thought there was a threat luring outside – it was like those werewolf movies where everybody stays at the bar at night because outside they could get killed by these terrifying creatures.
I filmed the band, who didn´t really fit the description that was given to me. They were big and hairy. A cross between Latvian bikers and inbred truckers from Oklahoma. They put meat on the table with potatoes. I ask the band and its groupies if they had any weed - nothing. Then the songs exploded. They played loud. The place was full. About 40 spectators were there, mostly rocker kids and a couple of sinister looking fellows, who I think were responsible for what happened to me after the party. These guys were big, bold, and mean.
I was taking photos, doing my creative shots, and everybody was very nice to me. For some of them, it was the first time they had ever seen a Mexican in their lives. When I wanted to leave, I asked the bartender to call me cab. A young Latvian kid bought me a good-bye vodka and I drank up. I had my laptop and my video camera and some excellent footage of Latvians in their natural habitat.
I was waiting outside of the bar for the taxi when from behind I suddenly felt a big arm, like if a bear was attacking me. I turned around and started feeling punches. Then I was on the ground being kicked. I could see the shadows of three skinheads, Latvians Neo-Nazis.
They are obviously drunk, and left me for a moment to stand up. One tells me some gibberish in his language, then tries to grab the bag with the camera and the laptop. I tell them in English that they can´t take my tools away; I need them to work. One of them tries again and I punch him out of frustration then started throwing punches until they grab me. I felt a metallic blow above by eyebrow in the right corner of the left eye. Could have been a ring. Fucking skinheads took my bag, my wallet with my cards, IDs and 70 Lats.
All I remember was watching the dark sky on my back unable to get up, unable to move, then it was all blank… I don´t remember how I got to the police. I remember leaning against a wall and telling them everything at the station, and was frustrated because they just sat there. They didn´t go looking for the guys that just robbed my stuff, who must have been known to the police, but there were no investigation, nothing. Police are also very nationalist in that country, they don´t like foreign people or tourists that much.
“What do you want us to do,” they asked me, like I was asking for a piece of the moon. “Do your work, go find my stuff,” I told them while my swollen eye was getting bigger and darker, kind of purplish. I told them what I thought of their system and that they were better off as part of the USSR, so they threw me out of the station.
I went back in to tell them that the least they could do was to take me to my hostel, as I didn´t have the slightest idea where I was. It was 5 in the morning, and the sun was just coming up as a solitary tram broke the tranquility of the deserted street. They took me to the hostel and I went up to my room to sleep.
The next day, Jelena and Emils, two cool Latvians friends of a friend, came to see me. BY noon my eye was huge and I felt like the elephant man. Every part of my body ached, it felt like they had kicked me everywhere. I was stranded in Riga without money.
Latvia is going through some harsh times. A conservative estimate says that about 40,000 mortgages are not paid in Latvia. In a country of just over 2-million, that is an alarming thought.
On January 13, 2009 there was a massive protest in Riga to demand a solution for the economic crisis, and the protest got violent. Some protestors went straight to the parliament. Police dispersed the people with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets. Even the mass media still speaks about the brutal repression of that day and the unjustified violence of the police and the special forces that came an hour later to the protest. People now are scared, poor and afraid.
“In other times, Latvians and the other two Baltic countries (Estonia and Lithuania) used to be saved by their father, the USSR, who always pulled them out of trouble,” said a living legend – an ex-KGB agent I met who would not give his name for obvious reasons. “They didn´t have much but they were better off. Even though they don´t like Russians and wanted to be independent, they didn´t have to worry where to live or what to eat. They still have this idea that the government will save their problems, but now, instead of the USSR, there is the European Union - but they will not do it for them. The World Bank and the IMF have them by the balls.”
The ex-agent and I sipped Georgian cognac and he continued, “Drugs? There´s always been people smoking marijuana, even in the soviet times. We didn´t see it wrong that people were smoking weed. We were looking for spies not drug users. People have always been very discreet when taking drugs behind the iron curtain still are now. There´s always been hard laws against drug users and that image is still in the heads of the Latvian people, but they don´t care and they will continue to take drugs. Drugs will always exist, they should legalize them all.”
I decide to leave the country. It was pointless to stay there with no weed, no money, and the police doing nothing to help me. I called my contact in Szeged, Hungary and started to make my way. 'I have another contact in Budapest,' I thought while I was embarking the plane that would take me to Hungary, 'and maybe he will have some weed.'
? Do you want to smoke? - Vai gribi uzsm???t?
? marihuana – z?l?te (slang)
? joint– k?sis (slang)
? 5-6 joints– ku?is (slang -a boat)
? Hash – hašiš [ hashish]