Opinion Görlitzer Park is making national and international headlines because the brisk trade in cannabis and other illegal substances there has led to very repressive reactions on the part of the police after two suspected weed sellers were stabbed by a publican in November 2014. While the Berlin senate attempts to regain control of the vast area with increasingly bizarre measures, district mayor Monika Herrmann would prefer to open a coffee shop trial model in the very same spot. Reason enough to take a look at the current situation in Görlitzer Park.
Görlitzer Park on Scheideweg
Görlitzer Park is making national and international headlines because the brisk trade in cannabis and other illegal substances there has led to very repressive reactions on the part of the police after two suspected weed sellers were stabbed by a publican in November 2014. While the Berlin senate attempts to regain control of the vast area with increasingly bizarre measures, district mayor Monika Herrmann would prefer to open a coffee shop trial model in the very same spot. Reason enough to take a look at the current situation in Görlitzer Park.
An afternoon in ‘Görli’
As you as you emerge from Schlesisches Tor, an underground station a long way from the actual action, pushers greet their potential customers on the underground steps: “Do you need weed?” “Or would you prefer something else?”.
On the way to the ‘Görli’, it feels like a dozen potential sellers are trying to make eye contact – they are best avoided unless you are looking for a smoke. There has been a massive increase in police presence for a few weeks and there are uniformed and plain-clothed policemen on every corner, looking on powerlessly. Since (or because?) Görlitzer Park has been making it into the headlines more frequently, the mood has shifted. For years, ‘Görli’ was one of several public parks in Berlin where cannabis was available. There was occasional police intervention here and there but in the public perception the park was no worse than Hasenheide or Stuttgarter Platz where illegal substances were also available.
The trees are guilty
In 2013, the colourful goings-on in ‘Görli’ came to the media’s attention when a refugee camp was established at Oranienplatz in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. When a package of cocaine was found in a neighbouring children’s play area at around the same time, everyone expected the standard response from politicians and the police: chase away the sellers, more intensive controls and wait to see which spot will emerge as the new trading point. However, the district mayor called for a coffee shop trial model to resolve the problem. She is not keen on more intensive repressive measures and even tried to enter into discussion with the local dealers.
The police in Berlin, however, are listening to a CDU Home Secretary who has little time for his Green colleague’s ideas and isn’t even open to discussing them. More police have, therefore, been deployed at the same time as representatives of Kreuzberg’s district parliament are talking to NGOs such as the German Hemp Association about the actually implementation a coffee shop trial model. Since 2013, increasingly rigorous measures are being used against the cannabis sellers. On arrival at the park, you can see that the trees have been cut back everywhere and offer no nesting places for the birds next spring. The police believed it necessary to prevent the trees from being used as a bunker for weed. Even the path to the swimming pool next door is gone; it’s been dug up. They say it was necessary to cut off the line of supply. Since the stabbing a few weeks ago, there are now more uniformed officials than sellers in the park but this has done nothing to make the atmosphere more pleasant. Trading has spread to the neighbouring residential streets and underground stations and now, all around the Görlitzer train station, Schlesisches Tor and Warschauer Strasse, you will be offered weed or harder drugs on every corner. For it’s not just the police that have armed themselves: the dealers are keeping nicely to the background now and do not speak directly to customers anymore; instead they have appointed pushers as sub-contractors to make the initial approach, and other people to keep a look-out on what the omnipresent police forces are up to. A man in his mid-30s, let’s call him Andre, who has just bought €20 of weed, is happy to talk:
I am an event manager from West Germany and I have been living in Berlin for a year. I don’t know anyone who sells privately so I come to Kreuzberg around once a week. Since the cops started creating such stress in Görlitzer Park, I get off two underground stations earlier and then I walk a few metres until someone approaches me. Last time, I got 3.8 grams of really good weed for €50. I had to negotiate hard for it though, they usually start out at one gram for €50. Sometimes there’s some dross but this looks like good gear again today.”
Sales have thus moved from one single place and now in principle take place across half the district, which has left many residents more disgruntled. Apart from the law enforcers, Görlitzer Park itself is now used only by a few hardened individuals and tourist groups who come to chill out; anyway it is too cold to smoke week outside in Berlin shortly before Christmas, and not particularly to be recommended given the current situation – not around ‘Görli’ at any rate. Berlin’s chief commissioner of police is even considering lowering to six grams Berlin’s liberal interpretation of the Narcotics Act whereby individuals are not prosecuted if they are found to be in possession of 10-15 grams for personal use. A policy of zero tolerance around Görlitzer Park is also being considered. In the future, ‘Hash-Hater Henkel’ would like individuals caught close to Görlitzer Park in possession of cannabis for personal use to be prosecuted rather than no further action being taken, which is generally what has happened in the past. The ‘exception to the exception’, as Henkel’s spokesman Karsten Heilmann called it when speaking to the Die Tageszeitung national daily, would render Paragraph 31a of the Narcotics Act invalid and buyers and sellers would no longer be able to claim personal use in their defence. Not only is that legally problematic, because ultimately it concerns a federal law, but it is also unnecessary. After all, even the liberal interpretation in Berlin still allows for prosecution even for small quantities of cannabis as soon as an individual
- is caught dealing or handing drugs over,
- is found in the possession or using publicly close to play areas, kindergartens or similar institutions,
- smokes week in front of or with a minor.
Fortunately, the SPD as coalition partner has to-date been against Henkel’s plans, and some of the social democrats even seem to be having a re-think. This is what the SPD’s health spokesman Thomas Isenberg (47) told the Berlin daily B.Z.:
I want to see a move towards controlled liberalisation. We need an open debate.”
Cannabis culture or drugs dump?
The coffee shop idea is still in the planning phase, even if everything progressed as well as it could, it would be 2017 at the earliest before one or more selling points were in place. Should the Federal Opium Agency reject the pilot project, leaving Frankfurt or Kreuzberg to take legal action, it would take even longer. While Frankfurt is more in agreement with the pilot project, like Berlin it depends on the discretion of the BfArM (Federal Opium Agency). Frank Henkel’s law and order policies are already resulting in decentralised dealing. Police officers are complaining anonymously that they are receiving little support from the community. Plain-clothed officers are regularly exposed by citizens when they are at work. Who can be surprised in a district where most people see cannabis as an enrichment rather than a threat? However unlike the residents of Berlin, the police in the capital are not necessarily known for being liberal. In Frankfurt, the police fully support liberalisation and two German police associations say they do not want to be used to further fuel the hunt for users. Both the Federation of German Police Officers (Bund Deutscher Kriminalbeamter) and the conservative German Police Union (Deutsche Polizeigewerkschaft) have spoken out in favour of a re-think on the drugs policy, and Wimber, the superintendent of the Münster police, even wants to form LEAP Germany (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) by 2015. From Berlin, conversely, we hear little other than reports of assaults and complaints about uncooperative citizens, lax laws and dirty dealers. Furthermore the Executive, with its uncompromising attitude and ongoing crackdown, cannot claim that it is innocent of aggravating a situation that is equally being fuelled by the drugs debate and the discussion on racism. Anyone who gets seriously worked up about not being able to lock up or deport a small-scale dealer with five grams in his pocket not only has a problem with cannabis, he also has a deep problem with humanity. The media are doing the rest to increase divisions. The tabloids perpetuate the cliché of the dirty black dealer while the free press focuses on the story of the poor refugee forced to sell weed just to survive. The reality generally falls by the wayside.
In the park, you now need to take a diversion to get to the swimming pool or the underground station. It’s just that on the way here, there are at least as many sellers as there used to be across the entire park. It is high time to oppose this illegal dump and its lack of youth protection, Mafia-like structures and stretch of cannabis flowers with an alternative cannabis culture, rather than criminalising almost 300,000 Berlin users. Berlin doesn’t need one coffee shop, it needs 1,000 of them.