Will Berlin soon have its first coffee shop?

September 12, 2013

Görlitzer Park in Berlin-Kreuzberg is the latest hot topic in the local media, due to ongoing problems that come with the massive scale of drug dealing and drug use there. Residents are no longer prepared to accept the situation as it stands. Politicians are trying to defuse the situation by making some unusual decisions.

The German newspaper “Die Tageszeitung” (taz) states that illegal drug dealing, especially involving cannabis, has for a long time been a problem in Görlitzer Park. Additionally, ongoing violence between drug dealers, or between them and their clients, is another reason for weekly police raids and related arrests. Monika Herrmann – since the 1st of August the borough mayor of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, and a member of the Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) – claims that the drug dealing cannot currently be controlled and neither public health, nor the safety of young people, can be guaranteed, by means of an enforcement-led approach to the problem.

For this reason, it is hoped that regulated provision of cannabis in a coffee shop at Görlitzer Park - a proposal mooted by the previous borough mayor, Franz Schulz - will improve the situation. His successor is now trying to put the proposal into practice.

Under the German Controlled Substances Act (BtMG), an exception provision (§3) exists, allowing (among other things) the cultivation of cannabis for scientific or other purposes that are of public interest. Mrs. Herrmann and her party made use of that provision, in drafting an application to the district council (Bezirksverordnetenversammlung/BVV) on the 28th of August.

The application states that the project is designed to counteract "the negative consequences of prohibition and the consequential black market." It is recommended that local councils should at first initiate a round table discussion with residents and local groups, as well with drug and addiction experts, the police, and politicians with special expertise in relevant subjects. The discussion would e.g. aim at clarifying questions concerning the application to the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM), as well as the purchase of cannabis, the operation of the coffee shop, and cooperation with qualified research centers. Setting up the coffee shop will provide an opportunity to examine, among other issues, whether and to what extent the safety of young people can be improved, whether contact can be established with problematic drug users, and whether their health problems could be reduced (since they would receive “pure” cannabis in the shop).

Critics and proponents

Katharina Oguntoye, head of the intercultural network Joliba that especially deals with African-German families, has no faith in the prospects of success for a coffee shop. Taz quotes her as follows: ‘The reason for the rising number of Africans in the park – some of them are dealers but others are not – is the policy towards refugees and migrants.’ She suggests supportive programs that would help the refugees to find their bearings.

Mechthild Dyckmans – the Drug Commissioner of the Federal Government – is worried that ‘the establishment of coffee shops would send a completely wrong signal to young people’. It would make them believe (she feels) that cannabis products are harmless. Furthermore, health risks associated with frequent use are not something one should underestimate, as recent research and the number of people receiving treatment for cannabis use confirm, she maintains.

The Ministry of Health is also opposed to the sale of cannabis in coffee shops. If there is a medical need (the Ministry claims) this need should be satisfied by way of prescriptions, redeemable exclusively in pharmacies.

Taz states that a coffee shop would infringe the Schengen Agreement, in which countries such as Germany commit themselves to prohibit the sale of cannabis, among other substances. Additionally, the newspaper article refers to a 2009 report of the "Van de Donk" Commission of Inquiry, which criticized the development of coffee shops - claiming (among other reasons) that such shops become a business contributing to organised crime and the supply of the foreign market.

When taz-readers got the chance to discuss the issue, one of them made a suggestion to avoid the tourism boom which might be expected to follow the setting-up of the shop. He suggested that only limited amounts of cannabis products should be sold, and then only to adult residents of the city of Berlin.

Rolf Ebbinghaus, working for the Berlin "Hanfmuseum" (Hemp Museum), supports the idea of establishing a coffee shop. He recalls the judgment of the Federal Constitutional Court in 1994, which called for the evaluation of foreign experiences, and for a restriction of sanctions, as a basis of the criminal prosecution system. In his opinion, Berlin should have the courage to follow that court decree, and release people from the ‘unjustified pressure of prosecution’.

Astrid Leicht, chief executive of “Fixpunkt e.V.”, makes the point that an annual expenditure of 3 billion Euros on criminal prosecution and the fight against crime has made no noticeable impact on the availability of drugs; moreover, that spending has created funding shortfalls in the fields of dependence prevention and health protection. She recognises that a coffee shop is unlikely to solve all the current problems, but in her opinion, enforcement-based drug policy has been a complete failure.

The Green Party concludes (in its application to the BVV) that the policy of prohibition over the past decades has failed, and that the evidence for this can be seen in the current situation in the park. Prohibition, they say, has not led to a reduction in drug use, but has actively prevented the implementation of appropriate measures for protecting public health and the safety of young people. Extended police operations would not solve the problem, but merely temporarily displace the drug dealing: As soon as the police were gone, dealers would come back to the park, making an enforcement-led approach to the issue, pointless. Furthermore, criminalisation is a bar to the dissemination of information about the risks and dangers of cannabis. The Green Party also points out that in the Netherlands and Portugal, where cannabis has been decriminalised, the number of drug users has decreased.

This article was written by Katharina Grimm, the intern of HCLU from April to September 2013.