One image sure to shape our memories of the football World Cup in Brazil for years to come is the “fan mile” at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and its veritable sea of black, red and gold – swimming not just in the colours of the German national team, but also in alcohol. A ‘match’ made in heaven? Goals are celebrated with alcohol, while the omnipresent advertising at major sporting events celebrates it. Following the victory by Joachim Löw’s side over Brazil’s Seleção, a video was circulated on social media showing a delicate cocktail glass with the Brazilian flag being smashed by a sturdy, beer-filled stein featuring Germany’s national colours. Taking an entirely humour-free look at this, it suggests we feel comfortable being represented by a narcotic as a kind of national symbol. Of course, national symbols are open to debate. But it is significant: Beer. Not an eagle, not national dress, not a cuckoo clock, but beer. This, despite the fact that alcohol has an almost unparalleled potential to cause damage to individuals and society as a whole. In Munich, we celebrate unrestricted consumption of alcohol not only every four years, but each and every year on a grand scale. In the Rhineland, Koelsch and Alt beers are as much a part of Karneval season as the Dreigestirn and red noses. The more steins and glasses sold, the greater a success Oktoberfest, Karneval or Fasching is heralded. Previous years‘ figures are regularly surpassed. However, it is not our intention to demonise alcohol and preach complete teetotalism – each individual should have the freedom to make informed, independent decisions, while being fully aware of the risks and effects of consuming stimulants that cause no harm to others. But how free are we to consume, really?
We need an honest drug policy free from ideology
Well, that depends to a very large extent what we want to consume. The debate is more topical than ever before – and I’m sure there are three people in particular who have quite a lot to say about it at the moment. A few days ago, the Administrative Court in Cologne upheld these individuals’ claims, meaning that their applications for a licence to grow their own cannabis cannot simply be rejected by the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM). All three claimants are patients with chronic pain, who have a permit to buy and consume cannabis for therapeutic purposes. Around three hundred people across Germany possess such an exemption permit. As statutory health insurance funds do not pay the costs of purchasing cannabis from chemists, there were a number of cases in which patients were effectively denied the medicine they relied upon due to the high costs involved. The court in Cologne has now shown these three individuals a legal way out of this situation by making it possible for them to grown their own cannabis. Applications must still be checked individually and hurdles are high, as the two rejected claimants show: those who have not already exhausted all alternative treatment methods, or whose living arrangements do not categorically rule out access to the plants by third parties still do not meet the requirements for a home grower’s licence. Relaxing the highly restrictive rules for precisely three individuals initially may not necessarily seem like a particular milestone on the road to a more liberal drug policy. It should also not become standard for patients to simply be issued a licence to manufacture their own medicine when the health insurance system falls short. But in any case, the Cologne ruling represents one thing, as the FAZ newspaper observed: an attempt to proceed with common-sense, rationally justifying the reservations and risks, and freeing ourselves “from policy-makers’ perspectives mired in ideology”. And that is precisely the point.
After many years and decades of debate regarding drug policy, we don’t want doctrines and opinions, but rational scientific arguments. We want to know why our authorities appear to have so few reservations when it comes to alcohol on the one hand, while on the other, concerns regarding cannabis are so great that the Federal Ministry of Health has deemed the vague “protection of the interests of the population” from hemp plants, inevitably to be interpreted as protecting the population from itself, as having higher priority than the health-related interests of an individual, already declared legitimate, regarding “treatment with home-grown cannabis at his or her private residence”. We also want to know which criteria are used to determine the legality or illegality of substances, whether this distinction is constructive, and, indeed, how “constructive” should be defined when it comes to drug policy strategy. Justification of discrimination against different substances must be rooted in principles that are non-ideological, scientific and comprehensible, because they are applied equally to all substances. We have doubts about a drug policy in which success is defined by an unrealistic ideal of complete abstinence, at least in terms of illegal substances. Our main objective surely cannot be to fight drug use as effectively as possible using all means at our disposal. Instead, we need to ask ourselves whether drug policy is able to keep the risks and damage associated with drug use for users and the negative effects on society in general as low as possible, without creating additional problems. Valid proof of the effectiveness of prohibition is yet to emerge – a position backed by the German Centre for Addiction Issues. If the criminalisation of consumers had any relevant impact on drug use itself, the bans in place for decades and the ongoing expansion of drug-related law enforcement resources would have long shown clear signs of success. We therefore desperately need an honest evaluation of drug policy.
From stigmatisation to the subsidising of the black market: let’s listen to the critics at last
There are enough indications that the results of this evaluation would not necessarily be positive. At least 74,000 people die each year in Germany from alcohol abuse, while irresponsible consumption of alcohol costs our economy 26.7 billion euros a year, according to the Drug and Addiction Report. We are inclined to doubt that these figures represent the absolute minimum amount of damage to individuals and society as a whole achievable under a policy of legal drug use and direct government control with sensible drug strategies. The situation is even more alarming when we look at illegal substances, with failed drug bans resulting in dangerous consequences. If illegal activities cannot be stopped outright, all control attempts inevitably fail. The black market rules when it comes to illegal drugs. The money that the government invests in repression and prosecution therefore subsidises mafia-like structures, drug-related crime and other criminal activity. This causes major health problems for users, often with fatal consequences due to products being cut with dangerous ingredients, infection or overdose brought about by the constantly fluctuating and unpredictable quality of the substances. Furthermore, even low-level, controlled use of narcotics can lead to stigmatisation through job loss, bans from public-sector work and rapid accusations of addiction. It’s hardly surprising that the Schildower Kreis, a network of over a hundred professors of criminal law, described drug prohibition as “failed, socially harmful and uneconomic” in their open letter to Members of the Bundestag. A similar view is held by police and police unions who spoke out last year. A sensible approach to drug policy would listen at last to its many critics and, after taking a long, hard look, be able to admit failure.
An appeal for a new, pragmatic approach to drug policy debate: taking stock free of ideology and promoting personal responsibility
We are appealing for a new, pragmatic approach to the debate on drug policy. The Administrative Court in Cologne has taken the first steps in this direction. It is as wrong to stigmatise users based on unfounded concerns regarding particular substances as it is to romanticise drug use or view the lifting of all bans as the only viable way. We are calling for the success of drug policy to stop being defined purely by how well it curbs drug use, and instead for instruments to be re-evaluated on an ongoing basis in the interests of analysing the problem as a whole, taking into account the growing pool of experience with other strategies – a cost-benefit analysis of resources used and what they cost. It is impossible to understand why this approach is taken in almost all other policy areas, but not with drugs. We are appealing for a policy based on the principles of education, proportionality and responsibility – principles that are often forgotten in this debate.
As it stands, drugs policy is discriminatory, patronising and does not accommodate people’s needs. The claimants at the court in Cologne will not be alone in confirming this. Too often, policy focused purely on criminalisation results in curtailing freedom of choice and restricting individual liberties. This is by no means proportional to the low-level negative effects generally associated with responsible use of narcotics by most adults who use them. Recognising that controlled consumption of illegal substances exists, and neither leads to dependency immediately or in the long-term, nor causes users any greater health-related or personal harm than those who consume alcohol or tobacco, is part of a new, pragmatic approach to the debate on drug policy. It is worth remembering that there is no existing legalisation model for cannabis that goes anywhere near as far as the current status of alcohol. Nobody wants marijuana leaves on huge billboards or television commercials featuring guys in suits enjoying a joint on the beach.
Let’s consider alternatives – there are plenty of examples
And lastly, we want to appeal once again for existing alternatives to finally be considered. Competitors in this year’s football World Cup included several countries with a much more liberal understanding of drug policy. Uruguay first and foremost, but also the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium and the USA, where the State of Colorado introduced the legal sale of cannabis at the beginning of the year, with Washington State following suit a couple of weeks ago. None of these countries have experienced new and unforeseen dimensions of drug abuse or crime as a result of the relaxed legislation – quite the opposite. We should therefore consider alternatives, not only within the framework of existing international law, but also take into account the global discussion on drug policy currently being held. In this context, it has been long been accepted that criminalising the use, and therefore also the manufacture of and trade in certain substances has never curbed supply and demand, but instead led to shifting production sites and wave after wave of new smuggling routes. The failed policy of prohibition has resulted in outright war and, in some countries, the emergence of criminal parallel structures. First steps to change this have been made by Kofi Annan, Javier Solana, Ruth Dreyfus and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, comprised of further former heads of state and government. Let us now pick up this debate here in Germany and finally review our existing drug policy, without having our judgement clouded by ideology. The German Länder can do this in tandem with the Federation, for example by raising the non-prosecutable personal use limit for cannabis or supporting local authorities with pilot projects for legal use. We need to move on from the abstinence ideology and the existing policy of prohibition. There is a long way to go from applications examined on an individual basis to individual responsibility. We cannot proceed without education based on common sense, and greater trust in citizens’ personal responsibility. That is what is required when we leave behind a patronising policy and genuinely uphold the principle of self-determination.