A 'coffee shop' to ease Berlin's drug problem

BERLIN -- Could a marijuana dispensary run by medically trained staff solve an intransigent drug problem? Or will it cause new ones?

BERLIN — No matter the hour, it’s hard to cut across the east end of Kreuzberg’s Görlitzer Park on foot without attracting the attention of the German capital’s boldest salespeople.

“You need something?” one man circles by to ask before rotating back into a nearby group of colleagues. A few feet on, the next sales pitch is even more persistent — uncomfortably drawn out before the seller also peels off to one side. 

The popular pedestrian thoroughfare is one of Berlin’s most infamous points of sale for illegal drugs, mostly marijuana sold by African refugees, who have difficulty obtaining permission to work in Germany. Tourism and immigration to the German capital have driven up demand, helping this black market to thrive around the clock in one of the city's most frequented public areas.    

Repeated raids by police have failed to deter as many as 100 dealers, who work the park during peak hours — a reality that has prompted calls for radical changes to Germany's drug policy. The Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain district, led by Mayor Monika Herrmann, is now going so far as to seek permission to open the country’s first government-run coffee shops — an experiment in the legalized, controlled sale of marijuana. 

The push is also highlighting the growing number of experts, including scientists, judges and law professors, in favor of a drastic change to German drug policy — even as it remains unclear whether coffee shops will ease access to hard drugs or encourage drug tourism.


Gorlitzer Park original.jpg
Gorlitzer Park
 "Punishment hasn't changed a thing in these cases,” Herrmann told SmartPlanet. "We’ve had police raid after police raid, and the sellers are back before you know it… the current direction isn’t working anymore, and we need to try something else.”

Herrmann said she envisions multiple “coffee shops” — or more accurately, points of sale — throughout Berlin, staffed by medically trained personnel, where anyone over 18 years of age can legally purchase a specified amount of quality-controlled cannabis. The kiosks would initially be government-run, she said, with a potential carding system to curb drug tourism to such areas while still maintaining purchasers’ privacy. 

Further details would need to be carefully hashed out with legal, medical and social experts over the coming months in preparing the official proposal, the mayor said.    

Current German drug policy strictly forbids the possession or sale of cannabis. Herrmann and her allies will have to convince Germany’s Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices that the coffee shop experiment serves a particular "scientific or public interest” according to Germany’s Narcotics Act. The most recent application for a special permit — a request to sell cannabis out of pharmacies in a neighboring German state in 1994 — was quickly rejected. 

Prof. Dr. Lorenz Böllinger, a criminal law expert and psychologist from the University of Bremen, doesn’t see the coffee shop proposal passing the country's ultra-conservative USFDA equivalent. He said the body is made up of long-term appointees, who are unlikely to change their view on the legalization of any narcotic soon.    

Still, Böllinger and his colleagues formed what is known as the Schildower Kreis, or Schildow Circle, in 2012 — a group of scientists, judges and law professors behind a resolution outlining the distinct need for the full decriminalization of cannabis in the public interest. The resolution meanwhile includes signatures of 121 academics, which amounts to nearly half of Germany’s criminal law faculty.  

The group’s resolution argues that criminal prosecution of drug offenders, particularly in the case of cannabis, is costly, antisocial and unproductive, and that current laws breed criminality and fuel the black market, among other shortcomings. Should the push for debate on the issue prove successful, it could pave the way for the complete decriminalization of cannabis in Germany. 

"Görlitzer Park is a concentration of all the problems that arise from criminalization of drugs,” Böllinger told SmartPlanet. “Any black market attracts fringe people, because it offers high profits, and this causes organized crime.” 

Böllinger admits that drug tourism would be highly likely if marijuana were legalized in Germany, but says that Herrmann could be on the right track with registration cards like those currently used in Uruguay with specified amounts allowed purchasers every day or week. 

"There’s no right way in a wrong world,” Böllinger said. "We have to look at these things as a long process, and start by finding viable solutions, like the many countries around Europe that already have legalized drugs."

Mayor Herrmann’s basic model has already proven successful in dealing with similar problems in the United States, Portugal and the Netherlands. A 2011 E.U. study confirmed that toleration of cannabis sales could help to separate hard and soft drug issues. In Sweden, where the sale of cannabis is illegal, some 52 percent of marijuana users reported they could obtain harder drugs from their cannabis suppliers. Meanwhile, only 14 percent of Dutch users said they could do the same. Researchers said the trend speaks to the retail marijuana market as a highly specialized one across E.U. Member States.  

An overwhelming increase in drug tourism in recent years has led the Netherlands to reconsider three decades of famously tolerant drug policy. But even the Dutch border town of Venlo — which appears pleased with its new requirement for proof of Dutch citizenship or residency to purchase cannabis — also benefitted from decriminalization of the drug.

“The coffee shop arrangement of the 70s was never intended to supply the rest of the European continent with soft drugs," Venlo mayor Hubert Bruls told German TV station ZDF of his local constituents' discontent with the steady flow of drug tourism from nearby Germany. "The point was to separate hard drugs from soft drugs, to protect the health of the people, and this worked. Drug consumption here is below the European average."      

Some three million Germans use marijuana. Although 60 to 70 percent of Germans asked in a 2010 study said they consider cannabis to be more dangerous than alcohol, 60 percent of respondents were nonetheless in favor of decriminalizing the drug.

PHOTOS: Flickr / DonGoofy / valakirka

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com