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The Strange Politics Behind a Berlin Neighborhood's Plan to Legalize Pot Dealing

The Strange Politics Behind a Berlin Neighborhood's Plan to Legalize Pot Dealing
Reuters

First Copenhagen, now Berlin. As a new wave of debate on Cannabis legalization sweeps across Northern Europe, the German capital has become the next city where pro- and anti-cannabis liberalization forces are going head to head. The Green Party's Monika Herrmann, who became mayor of the Central Berlin borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg last month, recently announced that she wants to set up a coffeeshop selling weed and hash in her patch of the city. Using the word coffeeshop (as the German press has), perhaps shows up the current limits of the legalization lexicon, as Herrmann insists that what she has in mind will be nothing like the social hubs selling coffee and grass that Amsterdam is known for. 

"No one would be standing there with a latte macchiato in one hand and a joint in the other," she told Spiegel magazine. What the mayor has in mind instead is a straightforward shop-style operation, with a minimum age for buyers, medically-trained staff and security guards and a location right next to the district’s main spot for street dealing.

If there’s any borough of Berlin where such a move is likely to pass largely unnoticed, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg is it. Created in 2001 by amalgamating two central districts once divided by the Berlin Wall, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg has a longstanding reputation as a counter-cultural stronghold, albeit one that’s being steadily diminished by gentrification.There's already plenty of semi-public dope smoking here, as Germany allows possession small amounts of cannabis for personal use. While it’s a legal grey area, you not uncommonly find the smell of weed smoke wafting around one of the many local bars here that have opted out of the smoking ban. On some occasions I’ve noticed, it’s the staff themselves who are lighting up.


A marijuana legalization protest in Berlin. (Reuters)

Dealers, while far from omnipresent, are also a common sight, notably around Kreuzberg’s Görlitzer Park. Founded on the site of a railway station demolished in the 1960s, it’s understandable that police have problems controlling dealers here. The park is long, narrow and fenceless, making it very easy to hide or scatter into the busy surrounding streets should a police raid turn up. While dealers work in plain sight, the park is still very popular with the public, though there have been complaints of dealers' aggressive hustling for customers making people uncomfortable, and even some fights. It has developed a reputation as a place to avoid at night, a choice that might sound like obvious common sense but which, thanks to Görlitzer Park’s position bisecting a chunk of its neighborhood, can make foot journeys quite inconvenient.

Local politicians of all parties acknowledge that current measures to control street dealing aren't working. Opening a coffee shop has strong support as a way to undercut roaming dealers and thus make locals feel safer around the park. The borough’s Christian Democrats, currently leading Germany’s coalition government, favor only more policing and fencing, but having won under 8 percent of the vote in the last local election, they're a minority faction trailing behind the more pro-legalization parties, the ruling Greens, the Social Democrats, the Left and the Pirate Party.

Local support alone, however, won’t be enough. Berlin’s boroughs may have their own mayors, but their only way to challenge and overturn decisions made by the city as a whole is through holding a borough-wide referendum. A referendum could overturn decisions made in Berlin’s parliament (through which the city has a degree of autonomy akin to that of a U.S. state) but not pre-existing laws. It's likely that Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg will instead bypass the city's government and apply next year to Germany’s Federal Institute for Drugs, which has some wriggle room to allow cannabis sales on medical or as yet untested public interest grounds.

They're possibly hoping that their application creates a snowball effect encouraging other boroughs to apply to. In fact, they'll probably need this to happen. While it’s easy to understand Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’s enthusiasm for the plan, its appeal for a government body overseeing a wider area is less clear. Changing rules in one area alone could displace rather than resolve the problem – there is another park busy with dealers just beyond the borough’s edge. But in a city where cannabis use is already visible and tolerated, it makes sense to challenge the sleaze that the drug’s quasi-legal status creates.

Top image: A woman with marijuana plant leaves in her hair smokes during a protest march in Berlin. (Reuters)

Feargus O'Sullivan covers Europe for The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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