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."


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jway 03/21/2013
1. Legalize cannabis like wine
We should NOT have policies which create more harm than they prevent! And that is exactly what the cannabis prohibition does - it creates a massive black market for cannabis which draws drug dealers into our neighborhoods, making our children LESS safe. We need to let our stores sell legally-grown cannabis to adults at a price low enough to prevent illegal competition! Cannabis is significantly milder, safer and less addictive than alcohol and we could prevent a lot of the harm that alcohol causes by letting people choose cannabis instead of alcohol. We need to legalize cannabis like beer and wine!!
MissMarcia 03/23/2013
There is nothing "safe and mild" about pot. Anything that turns the brain into a state of stupor is not safe for you. And it is far, far more harmful than cigarrettes--there are 50 to 70% more carcinogens in marjuania than in tobacco. It is very very harmful. As for alcohol, give me a break. Every day, every evening I pass by restaurants in my neighborhood where people are enjoying wine and no one is stumbling around, drunk, violent or in a state of hallucination. But they are enjoying a form of art: wine cultivation. I have been drinking a glass or red all my adult life and have never ever been drunk. Alcohol is dangerous if it is abused. So is glue. The Swiss experimented with drug legalization in the cantons back in the seventies. It proved to be a total failure. Violence did not go down, it went up. Once taken off of the black market, competition among dealers increased because prices became lower. There was more aggressiveness in pushing the stuff, hence more violence...and wasted lives. But, to my mind, there is only one answer to this whole drug debate: getting high is for idiots. And no healthy community should even think about making this crap legal, drug war failures or not.
the_squire 04/10/2013
3. everything is harmful if abused
@Miss Marcia: People who smoke a joint do not stumble accross the place or are incapable of doing everything someone with a couple glasses of wine would be able to do. Alcohol kills about 70.000 people every year in Germany alone. Cannabis? None directly, I am presuming that the only deaths occur in car accidents and/or drug related crimes. Of course in the end everything is harmful if abused. If you drink enough water it can kill you as well. But please look at the deaths every year related to: Tabaco: approx. 110.000 people/year Alcohol: approx. 70.000 people/year Illegal drugs: approx. 1000-2000 people/year I think it is quite clear what is harmful here. Illegal drugs cause so much destruction because they fund organized crime. If the law would change, this systematic finance system could be destroyed, saving the taxpayers a lot of money and making communities a lot safer. I would suggest reading the German or European drug reports. The facts become pretty clear.
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