If Berlin's Görlitzer Park and Amsterdam battled it out in a Stoner Olympics joint-rolling contest over the accolade "The Ultimate Pothead Nirvana," Görlitzer would win without so much of a cough. On a typical morning stroll through the trendy Kreuzberger port of call, you encounter every kind of Berliner - young parents pushing prams, yuppies walking pampered pets, hipsters playing ukuleles and grilling vegan sausages - but every 10 steps you take, you're bombarded with "Guten morgen! Want ganja?" or "Alles klar? Need dope?"
Meet Görlitzer Park's friendly neighbourhood drug dealers - young black men dressed in baggy pants and baseball caps, occupying the footpaths and park benches - and now the reason behind a controversial proposal by Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Green Party Mayor Monika Herrmann to legalise marijuana in the district. On November 28, the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of setting up the first legal Amsterdam-style coffee shop in Görlitzer Park, to tackle the growing drug problem in the city's central drug-dealing hub, which Green Party MP Hans-Christian Ströbele dubs "Problem Park."
Legal "Selling Points" to Take Drugs Off Streets
"420" is an unheard-of concept in Berlin's hip Kreuzberg stomping ground because people can get high with a little help from their friend Mary Jane on more of a 24/7 basis, thanks to Görlitzer Park's dealers. Most of them hail from West Africa and came to Europe for a better, more secure life, but sadly, all they have been able to secure is a job as a drug dealer. Although police have raided the park 113 times since the beginning of 2013, according to Mayor Herrmann, detaining 984 people and launching criminal proceedings against 310, the roundups have had little impact on the drug trade - which is exactly why Herrmann says the best way to push the park's dealers off the curb is to legalise and regulate cannabis. Through creating a lawful way to buy and sell cannabis, the aim is to slowly eradicate the dealers' business and also prevent consumption.
"It's not that I want to create a happy drug country," Hermann said. Rather, she believes that the "prohibition policy" of the past few decades has failed and that "we now have to think about offbeat solutions."
"If we want to gain control of the dealers and their products, we must manage the distribution," Hermann told Agence France-Presse.
What she envisions will be nothing like the social hubs selling coffee and grass that Amsterdam is known for, and instead prefers talking about "selling points."
Amsterdam Coffeeshop (High Times Coffeeshop by Ricardo Liberato is licensed under CC by 2.0)
"'Coffee shops,' I actually find that term to be misleading," she said. "People won't have a latte in one hand and a joint in the other." (Spiegel)
What the mayor instead has in mind is a state-owned shop-style operation, with security guards, a minimum age for buyers, and medically trained staff such as counsellors who would advise buyers about the risks of smoking dope.
Getting Around Germany's Prohibition Laws
"According to German legislation, the selling and buying of marijuana is illegal. Consumption, however, is more of a grey area. Carrying a small amount for personal use has little to no legal repercussions. In Berlin, the limit is set at 15 grams of cannabis, whereas in Hamburg or North Rhine-Westphalia, a maximum of 6 grams is tolerated." (DW)
To get around Germany's prohibition laws, they plan to use a clever loophole - a clause which states that narcotics can be legally sold for "purposes in the public interest." However, questions remain as to who will run the café, how the cannabis should be sourced and grown, and if there will be any restrictions as to who can buy it and in what quantities.
Marijuana Trade = Prime Source of Income for Refugees
The government allows refugees to stay in the country and receive 346 euros per month while they evaluate whether they qualify for political asylum. "Bureaucratic delays and a shortage of official housing means that many remain in illegal squatters' settlements such as an abandoned school on nearby Reichenberger street, which currently houses 200 to 300 mainly Africans. Asylum seekers aren't legally permitted to work for more than €1 per hour, which makes the marijuana trade an attractive option." (Global Post)
James Garner, an activist from non-profit Joliba, who runs programs to help immigrants integrate into German society, told Global Post that many immigrants worry that legalisation would also mean they'd be forced to leave. "It's an atrocious way of saying, 'We're going to sell something so that they can't sell it, so that they can't make money, so that they leave," he said.
Police Vs. Parliament: Who's Responsible?
Local politicians of all parties acknowledge that the current measures to control street dealing aren't working and the situation cannot continue the way it is, however, there is still a disagreement is about what should happen next. Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) want to maintain the ban and think the police should solve the problem, but police spokesman Guido Busch said the police cannot change the situation on their own.
"It is difficult to take action against the drug trade in the park. The size and layout of the park make it too easy for people to hide or get away," he said.
Once an old railway station in the 1960s and then home to British anarchist art communes, police have problems controlling dealers in the park, as it is long, narrow and fenceless, making it very easy to hide or scatter into the busy surrounding streets should a police raid turn up.
In an an exclusive off-the-record interview with Exberliner Magazine in May 2013, a senior police officer, who served in the Berlin police force for more than 15 years, explained why Berlin cops turn a blind eye to Görlitzer's small-time dealers.
"If no one pushed us, I don't think any patrol officer would ever bother the small-time dealers. They're not a big deal - as long as they're not hurting anyone. But then some press article comes out about Africans selling drugs at Görlitzer Park and people living in the area start saying, "The police don't do anything!" Then our boss will say, "Do something." So we have to show a presence in the park," she said.
She even stated that marijuana is already de facto legalised in Berlin.
"Anyone who wants to smoke weed can smoke weed. Nothing will happen unless you act like a moron and light up a joint right next to a patrol officer - and even then, he's only going to react because he's worried he might get in trouble for not reacting. If I catch someone with drugs, I have to write a complaint. But if I search someone and find two grams of weed, I don't want to write five pages when I know that the prosecutor has to drop any case involving less than 10 grams. We face a choice between useless paperwork and doing something illegal," she said.
According to her, there's no real strategy to the Bereitschaftspolizei (riot police) raids in Görlitzer Park.
"That's just a competition between the different units of the Bereitschaftspolizei to see how many criminal and misdemeanour charges you can get. "Oh, you got five charges today? Well I got seven!" But that isn't real police work in my book," she said. Does she think it's possible to eliminate drug dealing in one distinct area? "It is possible to push drugs out of one place, like Moritzplatz in Kreuzberg, but then you just push them into another," she said.
Facing a Headwind of Opposition
Hermann's opponent, CDU Councillor Timur Husein, argued to Spiegel that the criminal element in the park will only become more dominant with the proposed selling points. "Drug tourists from all over the world" would come to Berlin and residents would be harassed even more. Instead, he proposes to fence off Görlitzer Park, closing it to the public at night, and have consistent police presence throughout the day.
Police Spokesman Thomas Neuendorf is also skeptical about the efficiency of opening cannabis cafes. "As long as there are consumers, there will be trade," he said to DW, while Police Spokesman Guido Busch told Spiegel, "What happens if the dealers started selling harder drugs instead of marijuana? Or if they simply move to the next park?"
Thankfully, Hermann has answers for all the naysayers. "To solve problems that would arise, you would need other accompanying measures: social work and, in some cases, the hard hand of the police. And state-grown cannabis would have a higher quality than its illegal counterpart." (Spiegel)
Cannabis Legislation Around the World
Berlin is not the only city hopping on the cannabis legislation bandwagon. "Hamburg is discussing the same thing in the Schanzenviertel and we're going to get other cities on board," said Hermann. (Exberliner)
The neighbouring Netherlands, with which Germany shares a 577 kilometer border, already has hundreds of so-called "coffee shops" that sell cannabis. In August 2013, the US federal government granted states a free hand in determining drug policy. Uruguay's House of Representatives passed a bill in July 2013 to legalise and regulate the production and sale of cannabis, and on November 26, the bill was passed by the Senate's Health Commission and is expected to be voted by the full Senate in the coming days.
At Berlin's Hanfparade in August, thousands of people demonstrated for cannabis legalisation. "It's about getting the dealers out of business and creating a structure, in which one can buy cannabis without additives, so it's less dangerous," Georg Wurth of Berlin's Weed Organization Hanf Verband told DW. "We started a campaign of motivating other cities to do the same, to open coffee shops or cannabis social clubs, like in Spain, in order to solve all the problems we are facing due to prohibition."
The Waiting Game
The result of the district parliament's vote will be submitted to the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, with a resulting petition being drawn up in cooperation with various experts, counselling centres and area residents. This should turn the infamous Görlitzer Park into a pilot project for marijuana legalization. Whether or not the proposal will be approved - or when - is another story.
Berlin's cannabis legalisation debate has been raging since the dawn of time, with the same swords being crossed at the round table - the CDU claiming that tougher policing is needed and the leftists arguing that marijuana legalisation would be a more effective solution. Ultimately Herrmann's proposed selling points could help sweep drug dealing off the curbs in Kreuzberg, but that's not to say these dealers won't just move to other curbs or districts, deeper underground, or start selling harder drugs. At the end of the day, these selling points can't be the only solution. The government needs to tackle the heart of the problem, and to do so, at least initially, they would have to change asylum laws. Asylum seekers coming to Germany seeking a better life are being forced to jump through a seemingly endless queue of hoops before they hear whether they qualify for asylum, and while they play this waiting game, they are only permitted to work €1 per hour jobs and collect €346 per month, which is hardly enough for anyone to sustain a living for themselves and their families - making the drug trade a desirable option. To make matters worse, there is a shortage on official housing and support programs to help these refugees integrate into German society, such as language schools, job recruitment centres and cultural education programs.
Kreuzberg's "Problem Park" has become an increasingly delicate subject in recent years, where people feel they must tiptoe on eggshells when discussing it, in fear that they could easily be mistaken as being intolerant to immigrants or refugees, too uptight, as a Yuppie who doesn't understand the true essence of what Kreuzberg is about, or worse, as a racist, because the dealers are mainly Africans or Arabs.
In a sense, the park is a microcosm of the issues facing the entire capital. As the pro- and anti-cannabis liberalisation forces go head to head, a growing conflict over the neighbourhood's identity comes to light. With Kreuzberg rapidly gentrifying, the people who originally moved to the district for its "multicultural flavor, liberal attitude and edgy vibe are growing older and starting families" (Global Post) - and want Görlitzer to be cleaned up so it can become a place where they can watch their children play, walk their pampered pets and grill vegan sausages in peace. On the other hand, leftist Berliners believe the scruffy, nitty grittiness of Görlitzer is what gives the park, the neighbourhood and the city for that matter, its unique, multifaceted, "beauty by mistake" quality.
Andreas Teuchert, who runs "Our Gorli - One for All", where he plants flowers and vegetables in the park, hoping to make it a place for all Berliners to enjoy, believes that even if the proposed selling points came into effect, the rough and disheveled "Görli" will always remain. "It is a quality of the place - that social contradictions are visible here," he said.
At any rate, if Hermann's proposal gets approved in the near future, the "Berlin Wall of Pot" dividing the city's residents will come down, tourists will flock to the culture capital not just for the cheap living and turbulent nightlife but for cannabis cafes, and everyday Berliners will be able to pick up their ganja from a store counter, along with their milk and brötchen.