Art Imitating Life: New Exhibit Highlights Germany's Growing Meth Problem

By Joel Stonington

A new art exhibit in Germany highlights the work of US artist Zefrey Throwell, who created a portrait of his father, who died of a meth overdose, out of his cremated remains. The show puts the spotlight on Germany's own rapidly growing problem with the highly addictive stimulant.

Zefrey Throwell's portrait of his deceased father, using his cremated remains. Zoom
Zefrey Throwell

Zefrey Throwell's portrait of his deceased father, using his cremated remains.

They are far from the kind of portraits a son typically makes of his father. Haunting, almost somber, Zefrey Throwell created the images using his father's cremated remains following a meth overdose. They offer a stark portrayal of a life destroyed by drugs.

The fate suffered by Throwell's father six years ago is far from unique in the US. But starting this week at the Leopold-Hoesch Museum near Cologne, Throwell's portraits make for uncomfortable viewing in Germany as well -- a country with a rapidly growing meth problem of its own.

"This is just reaching Germany right now," Throwell told SPIEGEL ONLINE in a phone interview. "It's a pressing issue. This is a warning of what's to come."

Evidence from German law enforcement agencies suggests that it may already be here, with rapidly increasing amounts of methamphetamine being trafficked and used in the country. With few statistics to go on beyond those from police, the numbers of drug users with first-time contact from law enforcement take on great significance. The number of meth and amphetamine users seen for the first time by police has now increased for eight straight years and jumped by 19.6 percent in 2011. The rise in first-time crystal meth users known to police rose by a whopping 163 percent.

Furthermore, police seized a record of 1.4 tons of meth and amphetamines in 2011, with the total number of such seizures increasing by 21.8 percent. In combination with stronger meth available on the street, the problem looks daunting.

'A Massive Increase Here'

It is an impression that those who treat drug users quickly confirm. "We are flooded with patients," said Roland Härtel-Petri, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who works in addictive medicine at a district hospital in Bayreuth. "Since 2010, we have had a massive increase here."

Even still, experts say there is a lack of reliable data on the problem in Germany. Ingo Kipke, a psychologist at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, says there is little in the way of current "valid information" on meth in Germany beyond the police statistics. "The reason we couldn't provide a sufficient statement on methamphetamine is because honestly, we don't know," Kipke, who focuses on drug use in Germany, said. He is hoping that a study set for completion by September will provide greater insight.

Zefrey Throwell's childhood was a mixture of violence, as his father beat his mother, random moves around the US to escape those blows, and later, a confusing rush towards drugs. Throwell himself spent years battling addictions to cocaine and alcohol. "I romanticized drugs heavily when I was young," said Throwell. "I thought that lifestyle was for me."

Now, seven years sober, his art takes on tough topics that range from consumerism to big business. He gained recent notoriety for a performance featuring dozens of naked people acting out roles on Wall Street last August that was meant to question consumer culture. Other works have been featured at New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum.

He said part of coming to terms with his own addiction has been to try and understand his father, who ran drugs for the Hells Angels and struggled with addiction until his overdose at the age of 59. Throwell stopped using drugs just a year before his father's death.

A Hotbed of Meth Trafficking

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive member of the amphetamine family. It's cheap to make and more potent than the amphetamines that are prescribed as diet pills or for attention-deficit disorder. Crystal meth is a crystallized version of meth that can be a more pure variety of the drug.

In America, the drug remains heavily used by truckers, or bikers, like Throwell's father. And it has become fashionable in America's club and bar scenes. Sometimes called crystal or crank, meth gained a much wider following in the 90s.

The distinction between crystal meth, meth, and amphetamines can be blurry, especially on the street. And the three are often grouped together statistically. For a user, it's the same euphoric rush, the same feeling of a quicker wit, stronger muscles, and intense focus. It also delivers the same plummeting fall when it wears off.

The meth wave that hit the United States back in the 1990s also, to a lesser extent, affected Germany and the rest of Europe. But with only a few legal producers of the drugs used to make meth, limiting use was less of a challenge. Enforcing controls on the ingredients meant that prices for meth went sky high, making it difficult for most drug users to access it. Härtel-Petri said that five or six years later, in the mid-2000s, meth became cheaper as enforcement backed off and the number of users increased.

After a major increase in 2010, half of the people seeking treatment at Härtel-Petri's hospital in Bayreuth are now looking for help with meth addictions. That's up from an estimate of just 10 percent of his patients in the middle of the last decade.

Härtel-Petri's hospital is not far from the Czech border, a hotbed of meth trafficking. More than half the crystal meth seized in Germany in 2010 was confiscated in the state of Saxony, which borders the Czech Republic. Amphetamines, on the other hand, are found across the country, according to the 2011 annual report produced by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

The damage of a meth addiction can be seen first-hand at Düren's Leopold-Hoesch Museum this summer.


The exibit "Zefrey Throwel: Sucked Up in the Devil's Blood can be seen from June 3 to Aug. 12 at the Leopold Hoesch Museum & Papiermuseum in Düren, just west of Cologne.

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