Duped by Dope Reality Trumps Ideals in German Drug War

Germany's law-enforcement and legal apparatus devotes enormous resources to fighting illegal narcotics. But users are always a step ahead, and lawmakers seem uninterested in exploring alternatives to a broken system.

Germans ought to know who Mechthild Dyckmans is, but the politician is even more obscure than many actresses on afternoon television. Dyckmans makes a big appearance in Berlin every November, but soon afterwards people forget about her again. She is petite, blonde and a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative coalition government. But, most importantly, she is Germany's national drug commissioner.

Last November, Dychmans described the current state of the drug war at the Federal Press Conference building. Only about 20 to 30 attended the press conference, leaving the room almost empty. Drugs are no longer a big issue in Germany. Dyckmans sits in front of thick stacks of paper filled with figures she wants her audience to pay attention to, but the journalists listen with little enthusiasm. Speaking like a strict teacher trying to instruct a group of surly students, Dyckmans tells her audience that there have been no significant changes since the previous year.

The only real challenge at the moment, she says, is what she calls "problematic drug use." Cannabis products are the most-consumed illegal drugs in Germany, according to Dyckmans. The press conference ends after about half an hour, and there are few questions from the audience. Germany's drug and addiction policy seems to be relatively successful. The country spends an estimated €3.7 to €4.6 billion ($4.8 to $6 billion) a year on the fight against drugs, an effort that involves law-enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges. What unites them all is the common goal of achieving a drug-free country. But is that goal even attainable anymore?


A door opens slowly in one of the back hallways of the large courthouse in Berlin. Marcel P. sticks his head through the half-open door into room C 106 at the Tiergarten District Court and says: "Oh, sorry, but I think I have an appointment here."

The judge looks at him and then glances at a piece of paper, a schedule of sorts. He asks P. to wait outside as he is still busy with another case.

On this particular day, the judge has already convicted Michael S., a drug addict, for possession of a plastic bag containing 175 tablets of flunitrazepam, a sedative also known also known as Rohypnol or Roofies. Later on, he will convict Thomas J., who was caught buying a ball of heroin for his girlfriend. Fadi E., whom the police caught with four balls of cocaine in his jacket, will also be sentenced.

But now it's Marcel P.'s turn. The judge begins the trial, the second case he is hearing within two hours in room C 106. Marcel is charged with buying narcotics, specifically, six small bags of marijuana.

"Is that true?" the judge asks.

"Yep. Pretty much," says Marcel, a pale, 25-year-old man who works odd jobs and receives Hartz IV benefits for the long-term unemployed. According to the police report, he was caught with 17.8 grams of marijuana.

The judge leaves the room to confer with the jurors. After one minute and 43 seconds, he returns and pronounces the sentence: 20 daily fines of €15 each. The trial lasted 26 minutes.

The rest of the day is much the same in room C 106. Similar trials unfold in rooms 138 and D 107, the other courtrooms reserved for minor cases involving drug offences in Berlin.

The judges are also referred to as Schnellrichter, or "fast judges." To prepare for these types of cases, they usually do nothing more than read the police report. P.'s judge took 20 minutes to read his report, which means that by the time he had pronounced the sentence, he had spent 46 minutes on P.'s case. Afterwards, the judge wrote the sentence and sent a letter to the court office, which in turn sent a letter to P.

Major Costs for Minor Offenses

Cannabis possession has been illegal in Germany since the country's narcotics law was enacted in 1972. The law, which relies on repressive measures, was designed to reduce the consumption of cannabis, in particular, which had risen sharply in the late 1960s. But it didn't decline, and other drugs were added to the mix. In response, lawmakers made the law stricter.

The provisions on cannabis possession were relaxed in the early 1990s, partly in response to pressure from the environmentalist Green Party. Since then, the law's new Section 31a allows prosecutors to drop charges in some drug cases, at least those involving "small amounts" of cannabis. In other words, there are cases that are even more minor than the minor cases addressed in room C 106.

The police still have to write a report in these cases, which takes one to two hours. And the public prosecutor's office is still required to initiate proceedings.

Many of the folders containing these reports are lying around in the office of Thomas Leipzig, on the fifth floor of the court building, on his desk, on the shelf and on a table next to the door. He often has to pick up the files in the morning from the various court offices -- using a handcart.

Leipzig, a sturdy man with the appearance of a biker, has been a public prosecutor for 18 years. He reaches blindly into one of the stacks of files. "Here," he says, "this is actually a typical case."

The case involves 1.5 grams of cannabis in small bags. But even 1.5 grams of cannabis creates work for the prosecutor, and even dismissing a case takes time.

He reads through the file. It's an open-and-shut case. There was no dealer involved, and the perpetrator confessed. There are no prior offences. Leipzig pulls two forms out of a drawer. The first is to drop the case, and the second is to request destruction of the narcotics. He writes a few things on both forms with a ballpoint pen, stamps both documents and glances at the clock.

Five minutes and 13 seconds.

Every month, Leipzig writes up to 40 petitions to dismiss cases like these, or about 400 a year. That translates into up to three-and-a-half hours a month or 35 hours a year devoted to these small cases -- time he would rather use for bigger and more serious cases.

Legislative Chaos and Failure

After the trial in courtroom C 106 in Berlin, Marcel P., the pale young man, puts on his backpack and says that he works in the warehouse of an electronics store during the week, and that he likes to smoke a joint or two on weekends. He disappears down the hallway, while the judge continues to hear cases behind the door and prosecutor Leipzig struggles to fend off the onslaught of files.

The 17.8 grams P. was caught with are about 3 grams above the level at which it is still possible to dismiss a case in the city-state of Berlin. In Bavaria, he would be almost 12 grams above the limit. Thus, the answer to the question of what constitutes a "small amount" in Germany depends on the location. In Berlin, the threshold is 15 grams; in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, it's 10 grams; and, in Bavaria, it's 6 grams. If P. boarded a train in Berlin with 10 grams of cannabis in his pocket and got off the train in Munich, he would have started his trip as a non-criminal and ended it as a criminal.

As long ago as 1994, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court ruled that all German states were to pay more attention to the big cases and less to the small ones.

The so-called cannabis decision was designed to create order. It called upon the states to "provide for an essentially uniform practice of dismissing cases." It made it clear that citizens are to be protected against excessive criminalization. In addition, a number of states drafted an objective: They wanted "law-enforcement authorities, by being relieved of the burden imposed by a large number of minor cases, to be given the opportunity to focus their capacities on fighting the organized narcotics trade."

It's been 19 years since that decision, and yet the states of Saxony and Bavaria still do not necessarily dismiss cases involving the possession of less than six grams of cannabis. The total number of offences has not gone down in Germany since 1993. In fact, it has almost tripled.

"What's happening in C 106 is actually typical for Germany," says the attorney of Fadi E., the man caught with four small balls of cocaine in his pocket. "The addicts are criminalized, and the poor devils on the surface are mopped up because no one really has a clue."


Two men wearing bulletproof vests walk briskly across the courtyard. They have pepper spray in their pockets and are carrying truncheons and MP5 submachine guns. It's shortly after 6 p.m. on a heavily overcast day in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt.

The men, Lutz and Roland, plainclothes officers working in drug enforcement, get into a blue BMW. "We're the ones who deliver," Lutz says with a firm voice. "We turn everything over, just as we find it, to the public prosecutor's office."

Lutz spends four nights a week on the road, constantly traveling on the A 9 autobahn between Munich and Nuremberg. His territory includes two important autobahns that practically form a crossroads of Europe: the A 9, for north-south traffic, and the A 93, for east-west traffic from the Czech Republic toward the Netherlands.

The officer has a habit of looking into every car, even when he's on vacation. A photo of his biggest success hangs on the wall in the office, next to his boss's Borussia Mönchengladbach soccer team scarf. It's a picture of 37 kilos (82 lbs.) of cocaine, hidden in small packets under car seats. It was taken in 2009.

"Of course, you don't hit that kind of a jackpot every day," says Lutz, an athletic-looking, 44-year-old man with dark hair, wearing a Converse shirt, a tracksuit top and sport shoes. His nightshift lasts 10 hours. He has been a plainclothes officer for almost seven years, after working with the traffic police. When he started his current job, he used to chase after every expired emissions sticker, he says with a chuckle.

Hunting for Offenders

On the autobahn, he pushes the car up to 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph), driving through deep puddles, to chase the first car. He pulls up alongside the car and looks inside, "but it was nothing, a woman," says Lutz. The typical drug courier is male, slightly scruffy and travels alone in a rental car. After the first chase, the officers stop a black man from Ingolstadt, an Israeli engineer from Wiesbaden in the west and an Italian construction worker driving home from the industrial Ruhr region in the north. By 8 p.m., the officers have found exactly zero grams of narcotics.

They keep moving along the autobahn, like bear hunters chasing after sparrows. At the Holledau rest area, they pass a VW Golf from Austria with a couple sitting inside: a young man in the passenger seat and a woman at the wheel, wearing a hoodie, with short black hair and piercings. Lutz stops, looks into the car, parks and says: "She's pretty pale around the nose."

He gets out, asks the couple to get out of their car and inspects the vehicle's interior with a flashlight. In his report, the officer will later indicate the time of the crime as 8:30 p.m.

Lutz finds half a joint. He also discovers large, broad leaves and a marijuana grinder.

"Anything else?" Lutz asks.

The young man pulls out a small bag of pot, about as much as the parsley garnish on a schnitzel. The couple -- he paints cars for a living and she works the register at a gas-station shop -- are on their way home to the far-western Austrian state of Vorarlberg. They've just bought a Maine Coon cat, which is sitting in a carrier on the back seat.

Lutz calls the local police station in Pfaffenhofen to request backup. It takes a while for the patrol car to arrive.

Big Fuss for Small-Fry Offenses

The young woman is shivering. Her boyfriend will be taken to the police station in the patrol car, which she will follow in the Golf. Lutz's partner, Roland, also has to administer a drug test, for which the young woman is asked to urinate in a Burger King cup.

"Negative," says Roland. The three vehicles form a small convoy as they travel toward the town of Pfaffenhofen: the patrol car with the perpetrator in the back seat, his girlfriend with the cat, and the plainclothes officers.

Roland fills out the two-page transfer report at the police station in Pfaffenhofen, Lutz photocopies the couples' passports, and a third officer documents the young man's personal data and questions his girlfriend. A fourth officer weighs the marijuana on a micro scale and photographs it: 0.75 grams (0.03 oz.)

The young man is taken to the second floor, where a clerk takes his fingerprints. As the man stands there with inked hands, the clerk checks off boxes on several pieces of paper: Height? Weight? Facial color? Legs? Bow-legged? Knock-kneed? Limp? Cane? She takes front-view and side-view photos of the man's face and body. He stands against the wall like a dangerous criminal.

Would the procedure be different in a murder case?

"In murder cases, we also take DNA samples," says the woman.

The officers get back in their car and keep driving. They write the next report, their final report for the day, late at night. The night's narcotics catch is 0.75 grams of marijuana. Every other day, they find nothing at all.


In the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, the legal threshold at which a prosecutor is allowed to dismiss a cannabis case, under Section 31a, is set at three consumption units, or six grams. But new drugs are constantly popping up.

"Toad-licking, that's the latest thing," says Willi Stier, a police officer from Mannheim. He points to a photo of the toad he's referring to, a stocky creature from America that can be ordered online. The toad has glands that can be induced to secrete a psychoactive substance with squeezing. Young people pass the animals around at parties like joints. "Get high, have fun," says the police officer.

Stier has been on the force for 39 years and a traffic cop for 26 years. He has been giving talks on drugs at schools for the last six years. He introduces himself to students as "Will, the Drug Man." He also speaks to teachers and parents, telling them what he was able to find out on the subject of drugs during his school talks.

In Stier's office in an industrial area on the outskirts of the city, there is a table with all if the items he has collected in classrooms. He says that he feels that he has succeeded if he can stop one student in each class from taking drugs. Stier has five grown children of his own. During school vacations, he rides around the city in a patrol car and goes to techno parties to keep up with the scene. He is waging his battle against cannabis, but also against the many other things, whether new drugs or new ideas.

A Step Behind the Users

Stier says that some 80 to 90 new drugs have spread in recent years. They make people high, make them "feel good" or make them feel invulnerable. He believes that 28 new substances were classified under Germany's narcotics law over the last year, but there are more than that. The government is being duped by a few students licking toads. "Drug users look for alternative products or modify the recipes, keeping themselves a step ahead of lawmakers," says Stier.

Does this mean that the government should be allowed to capitulate? Is a seemingly superior adversary a good enough reason to give up? Stier says no and just keeps plugging away.

A few of the enemy's weapons are lying on the table in front of him. "The bong, the water pipe, everyone knows what that is. You can write that!" And then there are amphetamines, capsules, powders, tablets, "legal highs" disguised as legal mixtures of herbs, bath salts, aquarium cleaner, fertilizer, granola bars. He taps his finger against a few packages and small cans, and says: "The rest comes from areas like veterinary anesthetics, cosmetics and air fresheners."

Stier also finds these drugs on the Internet, on sites where all it takes to order is to click on an item and place it in your shopping basket -- just like ordering a book on Amazon.

"The worst thing at the moment is something from Eastern Europe," says Stier. He lists the ingredients, which everyone has at home. "Let's call it 'cheap heroin.' It rots the body from the inside, almost like crystal meth."

Different Laws, Similar Results

Stier has devoted his life to fighting drugs. In his school presentations, he also shows the students pictures of young people covered with their own vomit. For Stier, alcohol is just as dangerous as soft drugs. The following words are written in red lettering above one of the pictures: "Graduated high school with a 1.7." It's a double entendre, as the number represents both a very low grade point average and a very high blood-alcohol content of 1.7 per mille.

He talks about something called a "Stürzer," or plunger, a sort of beer bong consisting of a bottle with a tube attached to it, which opens the larynx and makes swallowing unnecessary. And then there is "tampon drinking," which means "soaking a tampon in vodka and sticking the tampon in the vagina, so you can get drunk without having alcohol on your breath," says Stier. Another method is called "port-a-potty drinking," which calls for taking washing lotion from a port-a-potty and mixing it with Coca-Cola.

When he gives his talk to parents and teachers, they sometimes go home feeling helpless. Some also ask him for a written version of his presentation. He tells them that he doesn't have a written version because things are always changing -- every two weeks, in fact.

And what about the Netherlands, a country widely known for its more liberal drug policy? People there don't consume drugs any more than anyplace else, and the situation there isn't any worse than it is in Germany.

It sounds as if a liberal policy is no less effective at protecting people than the tenacity of Willi Stier or the precision of the two plainclothes officers traveling up and down the A 9 autobahn. Perhaps the only difference is that a liberal policy creates less work.

Searching for Alternatives

When Leipzig, the prosecutor in Berlin, is asked for his opinion, he says that he could imagine a system in Germany involving the controlled administration of soft drugs, such as cannabis, to adults. The problem is that there is no political pressure in Germany, nor does the federal government have a drug czar who wants things to change.

On the other hand, since 2006, some 60,000 people have died in the cocaine war in Mexico alone. There is a connection between each of these victims and each individual drug user during a night of partying in Berlin. So what could be the solution?

Ethan Nadelmann , a narcotics expert from New York, is even more specific than Leipzig, the prosecutor. First of all, under his liberalization proposal, drugs are not completely free from constraints. There are maximum amounts and age restrictions to prevent adolescents from gaining access to marijuana or cocaine. Any adult can legally buy small amounts for personal use. Second, the government regulates drug providers. Third, the billions that are spent on the drug war today -- for soldiers, prisons and criminal prosecution -- should be spent on education and prevention in the future.

It would be an enormous experiment.

And what is the counterargument?


But perhaps fear of the unknown isn't as bad as the certainty that if nothing is done, things will never change.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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