Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The discovery of 700 marijuana plants is just the latest in an ongoing saga in and around Kreuzberg’s Görlitzer Park.
There’s something special about the illegal Berlin cannabis plantation uncovered Monday. The 700 plants the city’s police just discovered were not hidden away in some attic, but growing outside at one of the busiest intersections in all of Berlin.
Police discovered the young plants—already reaching up to 15 inches high—on a green patch at Kottbusser Tor in the Kreuzberg neighborhood. Hiding in plain sight (though apparently not that well), they were growing next to a packed subway station, apparently overlooked by both a daily market and an ever-present crowd of street drinkers.
In some ways the find is pretty funny. Alternative Kreuzberg is a pretty cannabis-tolerant place, where you’ll find a fug of weed smoke wafting off many café and bar terraces. But there’s a serious story behind these plants. Right now, Kreuzberg and Berlin in general are going through an extremely messy fight over how best to control the weed trade. It’s a fight where police raids and dealer violence are turning parts of the area upside down, without delivering much in the way of results.
The problem arguably lies in Berlin’s unhappy compromise between legalization and criminal control. The city (which has powers akin to a U.S. state) allows citizens to possess up to 15 grams (a substantial half ounce) of marijuana for personal use, and has a pretty laissez-faire attitude toward public consumption. Openly supplying cannabis remains illegal, however, so demand is substantially fed by street dealers ducking and diving around police patrols.
The heaviest, most obvious concentration of these is in Kreuzberg’s Görlitzer Park. This long, narrow green strip surrounded by cafés and handsome art nouveau tenements has become so overrun with dealers that even Kreuzbergers who smoke cannabis themselves have started avoiding the place’s hassle and hard sell. In an attempt to supplant the dealers, the Green-controlled local borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg wants to set up a weed-selling coffee shop by the park. But the city as a whole remains against the idea. Berlin is not as universally liberal as its international reputation might suggest, and many locals don’t want their home turned into a drug tourism destination like Amsterdam. Frustrated Kreuzbergers retort that the city is already thronged with drug tourists as it is, and that blocking the coffee shop plan is easy for people who don’t have illegal dealers squabbling on their doorstep daily.
Of course, one way out of the standoff is to use the police to flush the dealers out of Kreuzberg. Since November last year, law enforcement officials have been trying to do just this. They’ve raided the park 40 to 50 times every month, using up 41,000 officer work hours and starting legal proceedings against 245 alleged dealers. And on the 31st of March, the city declared the park a drug-free zone, where the city-wide right to possess up to 15 grams of weed has been waived. This has had some temporary success—the phalanx of dealers waiting outside Görlitzer Park’s subway station has at least disappeared.
Kreuzberg’s mayor, Monika Hermann, however, has declared herself unimpressed. As she told the Tagesspiegel newspaper:
“I understand success as something else. Displacement isn’t a success, it’s just shifting the problem elsewhere.”
She seems to be right. Dealers haven’t shut up shop, they’ve just partly relocated to two sites less than a mile away, a warehouse district and another nearby park, both pretty prominent locations where they are still rubbing up close against residents. What’s more, it seems like they’re already returning. Locals have been complaining that dealers resurface the moment police disappear, and that they are just moving into surrounding streets that, unlike the park, local residents aren’t able to avoid. They’re also becoming increasingly aggressive. Just last week, a 20-year-old man was severely injured in the park when a dealer allegedly attacked him with a machete.
The Kreuzberg dealers are so hard to dislodge because they are almost never found with any drugs on them. Typically they bury their supply and only dig it up from hideouts in the bushes when customers hand over their money. With lookouts circling the park on bikes, they have plenty of forewarning of uniformed officers turning up. A heavily concentrated police presence continuing indefinitely could probably dislodge a few more of the park’s undesirables, even if it raised the ire of a small band of pro-liberalization demonstrators who staged a “toke-in” last month. The huge drain on resources would nonetheless prove hard to stomach.
So far, the standoff shows few signs of being resolved. Indeed, Kreuzberg’s problems show the pitfalls of half measures when it comes to cannabis. If you’re going to ban dealing, it only makes sense to ban consumption. If you’re going to allow consumption without legalizing supply, you end up pumping money into the illegal trade. If anything, the cheeky cannabis plantation discovered this week makes one thing clear: Even if you crack down on cannabis across an area, it can still somehow end up growing through the cracks.