One American Finds No Good Weed in Ukraine

In the port city of Odessa, the state of mind could be chronically improved.

When I arrived in Ukraine, the country was stuck in a proxy war between the United States and Russia, and Star Wars election jokes seemed like the only thing the international media cared about. Weeks later, the votes were still not all counted; yet the winners had somehow been determined.

Watching this electoral absurdity on local TV while hanging out with a crew of neighborhood B-Boys in Odessa cafes afforded me a jaundiced insight into Ukraine’s psyche. But just finding the Quick Spins Crew took months—and occurred by accident.

One late summer night I was drinking al fresco at the Odessa pub Texas BBQ with a group of American expats that included a man wearing a 10-gallon hat. I reminisced about the joys of smoking marijuana, and explained to the 10-gallon hat why it was so hard to find workable weed in Ukraine.

“Physical addiction is weaker than emotional addiction, and this is physical,” the young pharmacist explains.

Ukrainians, generalizing here, hate drugs and drug users. Narcos, as they are called, are considered the lowest form of life. One recent day, rather than prescribing sleeping pills, a doctor suggested drinking whiskey to help me sleep in a noisy apartment. Later that same day, a pharmacist offered Russian Valium, phenazepam, which is basically a roofie. It hits in two to three hours, and knocks you out.

Why not have normal drugs I ask? Not hypnotics?

“Physical addiction is weaker than emotional addiction, and this is physical,” the young pharmacist explains.

But physical addiction is worse than emotional addictive drugs like weed, I say.

“Yes, but it is weakness.”

That’s the post-USSR Ukraine perspective for you. Booze is fine, roofies too, but a drug that you emotionally enjoy—you are not strong.

Ukraine is among the strangest places in Europe—and Odessa is Ukraine’s strangest place. The Black Sea port city is the entry point for boatloads of drugs into Europe, but you can't buy cannabis in the city unless you’re willing to spend a ton of money and risk arrest. It makes enjoying life difficult.

Odessa, Ukraine (Image via Mr1karik/VSCO)

This is not necessarily purely the citizens’ fault. Ukraine arguably had the worst 20th century in Europe. These are people who saw their capital of Kiev switch hands 17 times from 1917 to 1920—ping ponged from Bolshevik, to Imperialist, to German armies. In the ’30s, Stalin starved 4 million Ukrainians. Steamrolled by Hitler, they were crushed by Communism for half a century. After the USSR split in ’91, Ukraine never fully prospered as a standalone state. Two revolutions in less than a decade—the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2013's Euromaidan—indicated further instability. Now the country is at war.

It is a place with collective PTSD, but they don’t believe in treatment; so the whole country might seem crazy. 

Back at the Texas BBQ pub, my new local friend A. appears. He saunters up in baggy pants, classic Nikes, a knit sweater; his hair a Slavic afro of tumbling curls. He passes off the goods. I accept the product and wind up on a multi-week embed with Odessa’s Quick Spins Crew.

The Quick Spins consist of a dozen or so guys aged 18 to the early 30s. They would be considered wannabes in America—white kids who mimic the black urban lifestyle. There are few blacks in Ukraine; so being a B-Boy is a radical departure from the mainstream male style: A strange brew of nationalism, bro, and hipster.

Spending time on the B-Boy circuit is not exactly safe. After one kid purposely knocks over a bar’s lamp, a bouncer slugs me. Another night, I'm nearly arrested when a drunken companion begins breaking into cars. In daylight hours, there's a brawl between a Fascist political party and the B-Boys over rights to a basketball court.

We meet in spare apartments, grand hotels, music studios, and in the city’s parks and basketball courts. Most of the B-Boys I meet are perma-high on low-grade weed. Central Odessa is a grid of tree-lined cobblestone streets, doubly shaded by dangling art nouveau balconies, walled in by parkland that tumbles to sand beaches—a wandering stoner’s paradise. At great risk: Ukraine has insane drug laws. 

Odessa’s B-Boys have no faith their country will ever emerge from total corruption, or that they’ll ever get their hands on good weed.

The B-Boys live the Underground Man’s life, but not out of spite like Dostoevsky characters. They keep their scene hidden. And their wayward insouciance makes one thing clear: The last few months have seen Ukraine drastically pivot yet again to the verge of state collapse

B-Boys interpret the political situation as more or less as murky foreign interests mucking up their already septic political system. To them, no side is “good.”

Ukraine’s government is the opposite of progressive. Earlier this month, parliament voted to block a law that banned discrimination at work against gays. Legislators have done little to reform the corrupt, bloated state. Some might argue, based on the recent election debacle, Ukraine isn’t even democratic.

Young people lack cash to go out to the relatively expensive bars and clubs. Parties, A. and the B-Boys explain, are held in industrial spaces or homes—unless you really crave a massive nightclub with horrifying house music.

Five-star hotel life for $70 a night due to the war and economy crash

On a recent afternoon I met up with A. and co. This co. included two Alexys and a Sergey. All of them seem to have the Nike swoosh on every item of clothing. These guys form the core of Quick Spins Crew, which travels across Europe and Russia on the B-Boy circuit.

One of the Alexys is set to travel to America that week for a series of UDEF competitions. “We applied for 12 U.S. visas. They gave us five,” he explains.

Not that it really matters. A. and his friends have no yearning to move to the more prosperous West. They would rather live in Odessa. “The food is better, people are relaxed, there is the beach,” A. tells me.

A., the only one fluent in English, explains the B-Boy philosophy: “There are four elements of hip hop from when it began in the ’70s: rapping, graffiti, DJing and breakdancing. We’ve added basketball, I suppose.”

Alex and Alexy's apartment

We lounge in A.’s one-room apartment. It sits on Odessa’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue—prime locale by museums and parkland for $300 a month. It’s stocked with bongs, pipes, and joints, and we’re all using. His walls are painted light yellow. The light is muted neon, and the furniture is dorm-room fresh. A large world map tacked on one wall faces a desk with a keyboard on it pushed against the other. In a few days, it will be A.’s birthday. Funk music blares. Things seem to slow down, but time passes quickly. I don’t leave until 4 a.m.

In Odessa, the cast of characters create a reality far more bizarre than any Hollywood Star Wars metaphor. It drove me to breakdown—maybe it was a mid-30s crisis—whatever it was, Ukraine is outside this world.