The straight dope

So you're vacationing in Berlin this summer, and confused by the legions of joint-toking, jaw-chewing Berliners you encounter. Are drugs legal here or what? Christine Köhler-Azara, the city's drug commissioner, clears up the rather druggy waters.

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Photo by Jarka Snajberk.

The ubiquitous presence of party drugs in clubs, the familiar sight of dealers in stations and parks, the signature whiff of cannabis in the streets, state-sponsored injection rooms… Is Berlin too lax on drugs? Berlin’s commissioner on narcotics, Christine Köhler-Azara, defends the city’s liberal policy.

What are the most popular drugs in Berlin right now?

Heroin is becoming less popular – it’s not really a drug that fits in with the zeitgeist. If you take it, you want to sit in a corner and be left alone. Today young people are looking for very different feelings. They want a kick, they want to be faster, more awake, more stimulated. They want “party drugs” like cocaine or amphetamines.

What do you tell youth about party drugs?

The narcotics laws do also apply in Berlin!

One example of our policy regarding party drugs is the informational campaign “Na klar” which advises young people about the risks they are taking when they decide to consume such drugs.

Your flyer about ecstasy contains some pretty surprising advice – for example, taking half a pill and then waiting half an hour before taking the second half. Should it be the government’s role to provide this kind of information?

[Laughs] It’s a different line than in the US. You can see that in Germany’s Federal Narcotics Law (Betäubungsmittelgesetz or BTMG). Paragraph 31A of this law says that criminal charges can be dropped in cases of small amounts of drugs for personal use. In Berlin, with up to 10 grams of cannabis, the public prosecutor has to drop charges. Between 10 and 15 grams, the prosecutor can choose whether to pursue a case or not.

So no one will be sent to jail for smoking a mega-joint, or being caught with a dime bag in their pocket…?

Well, it depends… If someone is caught consuming drugs ostentatiously near a school or a playground, there is always the possibility to press charges. Paragraph 35 of the BTMG also stipulates that a sentence of under two years can be spent in a therapeutic centre instead of a prison.

That all sounds very reasonable.

We want to be pragmatic. Our experience has shown that it’s not a good strategy to create too much hysteria; it’s important for the state to not lose credibility. Instead, we try to provide scientific information. That’s more successful than a simple policy of “Say no to drugs”. But we also have to say that cannabis can cause psychosis, even after consuming it once – not in every case, but it happens. So when we do prevention in schools, we explain that smoking cannabis is bad for health and contains a risk of addiction.

Judging by all the young people smoking pot in Berlin, that doesn’t seem to be a very successful approach…

Berlin is indeed at the very top if you compare the Länder in terms of cannabis consumption. But then in terms of alcohol intoxication among youths, Berlin is in the lowest third and the numbers are going down. That has something to do with the availability in big cities.

Where do the drugs come from?

Everywhere. The Netherlands, Eastern Europe, Spain, Portugal… Of course there are cannabis plantations and methamphetamine labs in Brandenburg, but Germany imports, rather than exports, illegal drugs.

Aren’t some drugs, like ecstasy, fairly safe?

But you never know if it’s really MDMA in the pills. They’re produced under black market conditions.

Isn’t that an argument for legalisation, or at least quality control? There are quality checks for drugs like alcohol and tobacco.

Yes, but they’re legal. Illegal drugs are illegal for a reason. We don’t want to create a false sense of security by providing checks. These drugs are dangerous even if they are pure. If people want to take drugs to go dancing, shouldn’t they take responsibility for all the consequences? The state is not like Mama and Papa to take you by the hand.

But then the state provides safe havens for clean consumption, the Fixerstuben (injection rooms)… What’s the difference?

These rooms offer the possibility to inject drugs under sanitary conditions. The staff also offer information: where you can get needles, how to get vaccine shots against hepatitis, where to get tested for HIV/AIDS. They try to get people into drug counselling and show them they have alternatives. We also have a mobile consumption room, a bus with two spaces for drug users. It parks in different places, for example at Stuttgarter Platz in Charlottenburg.

They’re not always popular with the locals, are they? You have had difficulties in the past, for example with the injection room at Kottbusser Tor…

Yes, they couldn’t find premises, so the district government decided to step in and provide them with a space in an unused school in Reichenberger Straße. When you want to open a drug consumption space in a neighborhood, no one is thrilled. It’s the same problem with mental hospitals or homes for asylum seekers: everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but nobody wants to have it in their neighbourhood. So, before we opened the space, we organised big public meetings and all the neighbours’ fears were addressed. Residents realised it is better for them if people use this room rather than taking drugs out on the street.

Are Berlin’s politicians all in agreement with this?

There is pretty much a consensus. There were fights about this when substitution treatments were introduced back in the 1980s, but most people are in agreement about the basic idea.

Many people who move to Berlin from abroad think drugs, especially cannabis, are decriminalised here.

That is a mistake. Cannabis is still illegal in Germany. We’ve signed a treaty against drugs with the World Health Organisation. Even if charges for drug possession in small amounts are dropped, there are still criminal charges. That means people still get their fingerprints and their pictures taken. Drugs are illegal. And the narcotics laws do also apply in Berlin! 

Originally published in Issue #116, May 2013.