How the country that invented many of the world's drugs turned against them – until now

Cocaine in 1859; heroin in 1888 – and a ban introduced in 1929. Now, however, times are changing – and more compassionate policies are taking root.

Johann Hari
18 July 2017

Kreuzberg's Görlitzer Park, Berlin. Merlijn Hoek/Flickr. Some rights reserved.In the mid-1980s, Timothy Leary – the American evangelist for drug use – came to visit Germany, and one day, he turned to the journalist who had volunteered to drive him around – Mathias Bröckers – and explained why he was thrilled to be here, of all places. “Germany is the fatherland of Rausch!” he exclaimed, using the German term for intoxication. “Heroin, cocaine, crystal meth – everything was invented here!”. Even LSD – his own most beloved drug – was created just a few miles across the border, in German-speaking Switzerland.

Germany gave birth to the world’s most feared drugs,   and then sought to drown its own baby. 

Matthias Bröckers had never thought of his country quite like that before – as the font of the world’s most feared and sought-after intoxicants. He had been smoking cannabis since he was sixteen, and he later became one of the founders of the newspaper, Die Tageszeitung (taz), which has the most honest coverage of drug policy in Germany. But he only later began to fully explore the strange story of his country’s relationship with the world’s most feared drugs: Germany gave birth to them, and then sought to drown its own baby. 

And then – after a long period of attempted infanticide – Matthias became a leader in suggesting to his country that there is another way.


This is never a popular thing for a British person to say, but I have always revered the current German political system. 

My parents lived in Berlin for many years, and my brother was born and grew up there. I’m a British social democrat – so I have spent years trying to get British people to look more closely at the extraordinary institutions of post-war Germany, from the highly federal and decentralised system of political power, to the high levels of democracy in German workplaces, to the expansive welfare state. British people don’t like to be told they should become more German – but I believe my country would be happier and freer if we did. 

So when I came back to travel across Germany to write an extra chapter for the German edition of my book ‘Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’, I found myself rather conflicted – for reasons that will become clear.


In Berlin, a few blocks from the tourist babble of Checkpoint Charlie, Mathias sat in front of me, outside a café, and chain-smoked at an almost heroic pace. He is a slim sixty year-old man, and he reels off facts about Germany’s drug war at amphetamine-speed. In the early 1990s – several years after he met Leary – Mathias returned one day from a vacation. When he got to his desk, where he was in charge of the culture section of taz at the time, he found lots of letters, and in the middle of it, a large photocopied book. It was called ‘The Emperor Wears No Clothes’, and it was written by an American called Jack Herer. It told the long story of how drugs came to be banned – including how the founder of the modern drug war, a US government bureaucrat called Harry Anslinger, first created the hysteria that led to the banning of cannabis

“At first,” Mathias tells me, “I thought – these are Californian hippies, talking bullshit. But then I started to research this and I found – hey, this is all true!” He decided Germans ought to know about this, and sent his proposal for his own translation of the book to every publisher he could. The big publishers said: “Oh, marijuana? No, no.” The small publishers said: “We have no money.” 

Finally, one of them agreed they would publish, provided he carried out research to see if any of this applied to Germany. He was reluctant – he had a lot of work commitments – but he finally said he would, if they would agree to indulge him on one thing. He wanted the whole book printed on hemp paper – from the same plant as cannabis, the very plant that Anslinger worked so hard to ban. 

As Mathias began to carry out extensive research – searching through court records and any other sources he could find, he discovered a story that fascinated him. It turned out Leary was right. Germany had been a major pioneer of the hardest drugs – the first to isolate and refine them from their natural components. Heroin was invented in Germany by the Bayer corporation in 1888, while a German chemist called Albert Niemann invented cocaine in 1859. They made German corporations rich, becoming some of the most commercially successful products in the world. “Cocaine and heroin were two huge exports for German industry,” he explains. So when there were early moves to ban them, Germany tried hard to resist – holding out against US pressure for fifteen years longer than Britain, for example. But finally, in 1929, they introduced a ban on cocaine, heroin and – although the drug barely existed outside a few tiny artistic circles in Berlin – cannabis.

Heroin was invented in Germany by the Bayer corporation in 1888, while a German chemist called Albert Niemann invented cocaine in 1859. 

These drugs stopped being exported to the rest of the world, but at home, little changed. There was no German drug war. The Nazis and their psychopathic vision started to rise – and their troops routinely used methamphetamine. It was released onto the German market in 1938 as Pervitin, and Heinrich Böll – later to win the Nobel Prize for Literature – was just one of tens of thousands of soldiers who wrote home from the front, begging his family to buy and send more meth, which was legally available throughout Germany

The drug war only really came to modern Germany in the smoking rubble and wreckage left behind by the Nazis. Harry Anslinger “became the chief of the United Nations drug office in 1948,” Mathias explains to me, “and then he implemented this American policy on the international scene. This is all Anslinger.” 

The first arrest for cannabis possession in German history took place in Berlin. It was of an American soldier, carrying an immense bag of weed with him, through the ruined streets. And as happened everywhere in the opening act of the global drug war, there was a crackdown on doctors who dared to prescribe heroin to their patients as part of their addictions.

But Germany’s real domestic crackdown came more slowly, and more stutteringly, than in the US – and never reached the same savage heights. In the 1960s, in response to the student movements, there was a tightening of the law. Then, in 1982, at the same time as Ronald Reagan was becoming harsher on users in the US, stricter penalties were introduced in Germany. The constant slow ratcheting to harsher punishments continued year after year, no matter which party was in power.

Mathias tells me: “When Gerhard Shröder and Joschka Fischer were in power, we thought, ‘oh finally, the Greens are now in power [in coalition with Shröder] and we’ll get some developments here.’ But nothing happened. Instead, they made another law that outlawed hemp seeds – the great danger of hemp seeds.” And then it got worse still. “Under red-green rule in Germany, we had a huge rise in police, prison and court cases on cannabis only – 150,000 cases on cannabis in one year,” Mathias explains. “Schröder was the harshest prohibition we ever had in Germany.”

Since then, there has been a small dip in prosecutions, and a surge in hope among drug reformers – for reasons I was about which I was about to learn.


I have now reported on how the drug war is playing out in seventeen different countries – twelve for the first run of ‘Chasing The Scream,’ and five more for subsequent foreign editions. In Germany, there are crucial similarities with the drug war I saw at its worst in the US and Northern Mexico – and crucial differences.

The most crucial difference is that – entirely to Germany’s credit – there is no mass incarceration of users or addicts. The brutal prisons I saw in the US – where I went out with groups of addicted women forced to march on chain-gangs while members of the public mock them – are unthinkable in Germany today. The vast majority of drug possession cases end with a fine of a few hundred euros.   

However, the recipients of these punishments still face serious consequences. The Bernau judge, Andreas Müller, has talked about his shame at being forced to give a criminal conviction to a music teacher who was found in possession of three grams of cannabis. She was then fired from her job. He told the newspaper Wirtschafts Woche: “The state destroyed a whole life.”

A destructive farce

I learned about the two most crucial similarities to the American drug war as I sat in the shadow of the vast cathedral in Münster, a city in Westphalia. The sun was setting, and the bells of the church were chiming slowly. Perky blonde-haired people were whirring past me on bikes, a tour guide was talking reverently about the Medieval building. But then Hubert Wimber arrived, and sat next to me. He is a very tall man with a long, rather sad face, but he cheerfully explained he was in his first week of retirement, after eighteen years as Police Commissioner for this city. 

In Germany, police chiefs are never recruited from within the police force itself. They are civilians – often sociologists, or academic experts in crime prevention. This creates a different kind of conversation.

In Germany, police chiefs are never recruited from within the police force itself. They are civilians – often sociologists, or academic experts in crime prevention. 

In all that time, Hubert told me, one thing had been more apparent to him than anything else. “When you look over organised crime and you see what they do, it’s drug distribution [that is] the most important thing. There are other things – weapons, prostitution – but the area where they gain the most profit is drugs, and most cases of organised crime is drug crime… It’s a great deal for criminal organisations. They make their profit because the market is illegal.” And it’s a lot, he adds: “The profit rate is enormous. The costs of growing and distribution are ten to fifteen percent of the market price… It is a very good business for organised crime.” 

Nobody knows entirely which criminal gangs control Germany’s massive market for illegal drugs. Some people told me it was largely the Russian mafia; other people told me the Russian mafia play a very small role; but in reality, everyone is ignorant. All we know is they are there, operating in the dark, establishing and defending their patches with violence. 

Wimber had a growing sense – throughout his time as police commissioner in Münster – that this was a destructive farce. “The police work for nothing,” he says. They would arrest people, to absolutely no end: there was never a reduction in the drug supply. Increasingly, he and his colleagues found themselves asking: “What do we really do? We don’t increase control. We don’t reach our goals. We aren’t successful against organised crime.” The more he learned about how legalisation could work in Germany, the more he became convinced it was the only real solution. “If it were legal – let’s go to Uruguay since 2014, let’s see what happened in Colorado… we can protect the children – in the illegal market we have no chance. No dealer asks – ‘how old are you? Give me your passport.’ Never. Never. And we can have product control.”

There are experiments within Germany today that show how well the alternatives work, Wimber tells me – but they don’t have proper funding. In eight cities now, German authorities have begun prescribing heroin to addicts, as they do in Switzerland, with the same remarkable results. As Wimber explains: “They normalise their everyday behaviour. They are able to go into jobs, and they don’t have to think – how can I find my next fix?” But only very small numbers of people are given space on this programme – around twenty-five people in each place. There is no money to pay for more. A remarkable 84% of Germany’s drugs budget gets spent on repression – a figure very close to that of the US – with only peanuts for harm reduction and compassionate care. 

Where does the money go instead? Wimber saw it squandered every day in his department, chasing drug users, who made up 75% of all arrests for drug offenses. This is happening all over Germany. Look at one notorious park in Berlin – Görlitzer Park, a lush patch of greenery in Kreuzberg, where locals and tourists flock to buy their drugs from street-dealers. The police spent half a million euros in January and February of 2015 alone arresting 1600 people, and charging 650 of them. The result? The park is still full of dealers, and people are still flocking there to buy. “We don’t have any success with destroying the structures, because the profit rate is so high, and when we arrest some people, in comes the next one,” Wimber explains. “There’s no change in the market.” 

Wimber grew ever-more frustrated to see money being squandered on an approach that doesn’t work – instead of being invested in a rational policy that does. Finally, he decided to become the first serving police commissioner to speak out and demand legalisation in Germany. His government minister tried to talk him out of it, and conservative politicians savaged him, but he insisted. He believed it was his duty.

As the bells on Münster Cathedral began to chime again, he started to explain to the public how things could be different. If Germany regulated and taxed the existing drug trade, as happens in Colorado, economists have calculated a new tax revenue of between 500 million and 3.5 billion euros. As one journalist has pointed out: “in comparison: the introduction of the car toll, experts calculate, would raise from 100 to 300 million euros.”

Safer spaces

I was curious to see how addicts are treated in Germany today. The first impetus to write ‘Chasing The Scream’, for me, came from the fact that there were people I love who had addiction problems, and it is the parts of the book that explain that addiction is not what we think it is that have gained widest traction. This animation I scripted gives a quick summary:

The picture in Germany – when it comes to addiction – is strange. In the early 1980s, hardcore addicts started to gather in the centre of the banking district in Frankfurt, to use drugs openly, in public, outside the vast glistening towers of the Deutsche Bank. There was widespread horror and revulsion – and the conservative mayor, Petra Roth, vowed to drive the drug addicts out. A huge amount of police resources were spent to clear the addicts away – only for them to move just a few blocks either direction, or to come straight back. 

This is how Germany – for entirely pragmatic reasons – became the first place in the world to pioneer harm reduction for addicts, under a right-wing mayor. Nowhere had tried legal consumption rooms before –  places where addicts could come to use their drugs, monitored by doctors and nurses – but they soon spread across many parts of Germany, as they reduced the death toll really significantly.

So the country that created these drugs was also the first to create safer spaces to use them. It’s a cause Germany can be proud of: it saved many citizens from overdose and HIV by starting so early, and it then inspired people all over the world to do the same. On my journey I’ve seen how the move for safe consumption rooms have inspired people all over the world, from Toronto to Sao Paulo, to adopt more compassionate policies.

It was obvious to him that addiction is a sign of terrible internal suffering that the addicted individual is trying to anaesthatise.

But these safe spaces – while a real improvement – stop far short of the places that have really significantly reduced addiction, like Portugal, where all drugs were decriminalised, and all the money that used to be spent on screwing people’s lives up was transferred to helping them recover. 

Frank Tempel is a big, meaty member of the Bundestag for Die Linke, and for many years, he was a police officer in Thüringen, in rural East Germany. As a social worker, he had known many alcohol and gambling addicts – and it was obvious to him that addiction is a sign of terrible internal suffering that the addicted individual is trying to anaesthatise. Yet when he began to work as a cop, he soon noticed that his colleagues viewed addicts very differently. “Other police officers tended to see it as a character fault, a moral weakness – they view it that way, and therefore treat it that way in their work,” he told me when we met. If you talked to them theoretically, they would admit this isn’t the case – “but you see it in the way they behave when the people are actually in front of them. They tend to view them condescendingly – they behave with them as though they are inferior.”

He saw this play out time and again when his colleagues came across addicts. “The way they look at it is – somebody who’s taking drugs, particularly hard drugs, is a criminal. They are doing something against the law and they should stop doing it and they have to be punished for it. They don’t ask themselves – can this person actually stop doing it? Are they able to? Are the other conditions conducive to that happening?” 

They don’t ask themselves – can this person actually stop doing it? Are they able to? Are the other conditions conducive to that happening?”

Frank told me he is haunted by the memory of one man who was addicted to crystal meth. “People knew – if you stopped him in his car, you’d be able to find something on him, and report him, and he would just accumulate these police reports, without anyone ever thinking: maybe we need to put this guy into some sort of programme to help him,” he says. “It was just like – he’s a criminal, he’s going to get charged again and again.” This attitude continues until today. The harm reduction can be quite good in some places – it prevents the very worst effects of addiction – but programs to actually turn addicts’ lives around are patchy. “They tend to be quite small,” Frank tells me, “and not have enough staff to handle things.” That means huge numbers of addicts whose lives could be turned around are left with no help from the state except police harassment.

Growing consciousness

When the journalist Mathias Bröcker began to try to persuade Germans of the case for ending the drug war, he felt like an echoing voice in the wilderness.

But he gradually began to think he had found a way to create a crack in the wall of German drug prohibition. In 1996, he went to California with Jack Herer – whose book had led him on this journey – to leaflet and turn out voters in a referendum. It was designed to legalise marijuana for medical purposes – for people with multiple sclerosis and other illnesses, where there is strong scientific proof that cannabis can help. The campaign won. It was the first electoral victory for cannabis since Harry Anslinger launched his crusade in the 1930s. And it began slowly to undermine the drug war. As people saw legal marijuana dispensaries open across California for people who were certified to have medical problems, they began to see they were not scary places – and they wanted to be able to go there themselves. It was a key part of the momentum that led to the later decisive votes for cannabis legalisation that have swept the US. 

He believed that making the case for medical marijuana within Germany would be similarly effective. It wasn’t just a tool for advancing the wider cause – he has a passionate belief that cannabis is an effective medicine, and he’s clearly finding an audience for this argument in Germany: his translated book is now on its forty-second edition. He began to campaign, and the German courts finally agreed to allow cannabis derivatives to be issued as medicine. But there was a catch. They wouldn’t allow people to grow their own. They had to buy it from pharmaceutical companies – at 150 euros for a tiny bottle, to get the same amount of THC (the key ingredient) as you’d buy in Görlitzer Park for ten euros. 

For Mathias, it was a reminder of what drove German drug policy right at the start of the twentieth century, when the country was pioneering the century’s highs for humanity. It would be allowed, but only if the pharmaceutical companies could make their fortune from it. They had to be in charge.

Gradually, more and more people have been challenging this – the patients have come forward to say they cannot afford the grossly over-priced pharmaceutical version, and want to be legally allowed to grow their own. The courts have now granted permission to around twenty people. “Now it’s going to change because there is a wide consciousness growing on the medical values of marijuana. Like in the US, this will be the first step,” Mathias tells me. “We have sick people, they have cancer and heart diseases, and to prohibit a plant which hasn’t killed anyone in 10,000 years – this is not okay. So this will change soon – I think in the next five years.”

This seems to be part of a wider tipping in public opinion. There isn’t much opinion polling on this question in Germany, but we do have two detailed surveys. In 2010, some 40% of German citizens wanted to continue with current approach, while 35% wanted to decriminalise personal use along Portuguese lines, and 19% wanted full legalisation – making the combined majority for reform 54%. In the next poll we have, taken in 2014, support for full legalisation had risen by 10%. This slow shift in public opinion probably explains why the Shröder years were the peak of prohibition in Germany, and prosecutions have somewhat declined under chancellor Angela Merkel – but there is still a long way to go.

Slowly, more and more senior people in German public life are reaching the same conclusion as Wimber, and joining his fight. A group of 122 German professors of criminology – half of all the experts in this field in Germany – wrote an open letter demanding legalisation in order to bankrupt organised crime. A group of many of Germany’s leading economists issued a similar plea in 2015. “Prohibition in Germany has completely failed,” the Dusseldorf economics professor Justus Haucap told WirtschaftsWoche.

It’s very hard to find anyone who will make a positive case for the way things are.It’s very hard to find anyone who will make a positive case for the way things are.

There is a growing debate within the SPD (the equivalent to the Labour Party) about alternatives to drug prohibition (look here, here and here), and even some senior politicians from the CDU (the equivalent to the Tories) have broken the taboo, and said a conversation about legalisation should begin now. This shouldn’t be overstated – there is a long way to go – but the process has begun, and there is lots of activist energy growing around the goal of getting us there: when a TV game-show called Millionärswahl allowed charities to pitch to viewers to see which of them would be given a million euros, and the public voted for a winner, they chose the Deutscher Hanfverband – the main group campaigning for cannabis legalisation.

Mathias has noticed another important shift in this debate. He goes on TV and radio to argue for legalisation the whole time, and the producers often ask him, with a furrowed brow, if he could recommend somebody to take the opposing position. Nobody, they explained, would come on to defend the existing system. 

As he said this, I realised I had found this all over the world too. It’s very hard to find anyone who will make a positive case for the way things are. In one recent debate, Mathias was pitched against a senior CDU politician who said that Germany cannot legalise cannabis because it is a Christian country, and Jesus turned water into wine, not into marijuana. “This,” Mathias says dryly, “is the quality of the discussion.”

Planting seeds

Mathias believes now a crucial part of the job in Germany now, just like in Britain, is explaining to people that there is nothing abstract about the alternatives to prohibition – and you don’t have to look far to see them. “We don’t [just] have to look to America,” he tells me. “Portugal is has a very successful drug policy – and this is a country in Europe. This is not America, this is not Uruguay. But in Germany – when I am going to speak anywhere – I ask, do you know a country where the decriminalisation of drugs has been done [more than] ten years ago? People in Germany don’t know anything about the success of Portuguese drug policy. They don’t know it. It’s not communicated here.” 

Prohibition doesn’t work, we have to make coffee shops.

But he is increasingly confident of victory. “Everything that is invented in America comes to Germany about five to ten years delayed, so I am quite relaxed now,” Mathias says, and laughs. He adds later: “In Germany – the tendency is going, quite slowly, in the right direction. People say – yes marijuana is a medicine, we have to give it to the patients now. Then they say – yes, prohibition doesn’t work, we have to make coffee shops.” And on and on it will go, stage by stage, in gradually extending more regulation to the drug trade, and reclaiming it from organised crime.

Mathias stubs out his dozenth cigarette of our long conversation, and looks at me quite intently. “I am now sixty years old,” he says. “I don’t know when I will die, but I am an old man – and I think finally we won.”

At least, he adds, he is now, at last, sure of one thing. On his grave, every year, his children will be able to come and plant some cannabis seeds – and they will be able to sprout legally, into a plant, in the middle of the homeland of Rausch.


‘Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’ is available now in paperback. The German edition is published by Fischer Verlage and is entitled "Drogen. Die Geschichte eines langen Krieges’.

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