There’s nothing spectacular about Görtlitzer Park in Berlin. It’s green and manicured, rundown and sketchy. It’s full to its grassy brim with trash, like plastic water bottles and newspaper pages rolling around like inky tumbleweeds. And, by no means a redeeming quality, it’s more or less a non-designated public toilet for the city’s homeless population.
It’s an eclectic piece of German history; that part is certain. The “Gorli” was once a train station and was one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite places to speak during his campaigns. The former train station, however, was destroyed during World War II’s Battle of Berlin in 1945. And what was leftover was demolished in 1962, minus a small piece of the tracks.
Today, its heritage aside, it’s the easiest place for tourists in Berlin to purchase cannabis.
That’s what my friend and hostel bunk buddy Michael told me as we walked over the Oberbaum Bridge, the sun setting over our right shoulders, casting itself across the wild splash of colors intermingling on the East Side Gallery collage. By then, he and I had been awake for two — maybe three — days. Berlin’s iconic club culture had taken its toll on us, and the days had begun to blend into nights, and then the nights into days.
“These guys,” Michael said, as we rounded the corner of the park. He pointed to a group of African men mingling around the edges and said that was who we were looking for.
“Hallo!” one of the men yelled at us. He wore a blue hat with a soccer ball logo on it.
If we greeted him in return, Michael said, that means we’re down to make a buy.
So we did and the man approached us.
“Hey, mate, do you have any buds for us to buy?” Michael asked.
We immediately realized we were dealing with a language barrier, although it was nothing a quick game of weed-smoking charade-like simulations couldn’t fix, and the man agreed.
But the man in the blue hat didn’t reach into his pocket. Instead, he put his fingers to his mouth and whistled loud, as if he were calling a herd of hungry marijuana salesmen. A little man ran out of the bushes to our right and then disappeared behind another bush. Another African man ran out of that bush and into another. The weird pattern continued.
Two darting African men later, a final walked up to us and handed us a bag in trade for a few Euros. It was cheap weed, but we were cheap tourists. It sufficed for the time being.
“That was weird,” I said.
“That’s just Berlin, mate,” Michael replied.
If Germany actually legalized cannabis, researchers at the University of Dusseldorf estimate that 200 to 600 tons of cannabis would be consumed annually.
That’s a lot — the equivalent of the weight of 20 humpback whales. It’s a surprising fact considering how deeply ingrained alcohol is to Germany’s culture (and drugs-at-large in Berlin's subculture), much like in the States.
A 2014 report from the Federal Center for Health Education offers something similar. Its researchers estimated that nearly 18 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds in Germany had smoked cannabis at least once over the previous year, up from 11.6 percent in 2008, while about five percent included in the survey said they used cannabis regularly.
In 2017, the Bundestag — or German parliament — legalized medical cannabis. Since then, some estimates show that the number of folks who have opted for marijuana prescriptions has leapfrogged from roughly 700 to more than 20,000.
The law allows for medicinal marijuana to be prescribed to certain ill patients, such as those suffering from multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, serious appetite loss or chemotherapy-induced nausea. But it doesn’t define “seriously ill.”
That might sound familiar to some Americans living in certain geographic regions.
As is the case in many states and municipalities throughout the U.S., Germany has yet to decriminalize marijuana. Germany’s Narcotics Act classifies cannabis as an Appendix III drug, which means it’s not too dangerous to market to the public, nor is it too dangerous to prescribe. Even so, there’s a push to end prohibition among a coalition of German politicians, including members of the Free Democratic Party, the Green Party, and the Left Party, most of which are often described as liberal or progressive.
Surprisingly, some members of German law enforcement have called for the same.
In February 2018, Andre Schulz, the head of the Association of German Criminal Officers, called for the “complete decriminalization of cannabis consumers.”
Schulz told the German tabloid Bild that the current prohibition system “allows criminal careers to start,” and that “the prohibition of cannabis was, viewed historically, arbitrary” and is “neither intelligent nor expedient.”
“In the history of mankind there has never been a society without the use of drugs. This is something that has to be accepted,” he added. “My prediction is cannabis will not be banned for long in Germany.”
Perhaps Schulz has a point. After all, as my friend and native Berliner Maritza Kompatzki says, the general sentiment towards cannabis is casual.
“There isn’t a high stigma against it,” Kompatzki told me. “I think the last generation that was not ‘cool’ with it was my grandparents.”
“It’s not legal last time I checked, but people smoke everywhere all the time, depending on the part of town, of course” she added. Kompatzki says her mother recently asked her who to buy cannabis from because she and her friends wanted to partake.
Once Michael and I had made our way back across the Oberhaum Bridge, following our short escapade among the African immigrants in the Gorli, we stopped to roll a joint as the last bit of the sun dipped below the river’s shiny surface.
We sat down and lit the tobacco-laced spliff, both of us taking long tokes as if this would be the long-awaited cure for our days-long bender. A cop passed us; surely he could smell the cannabis and not just the tobacco. He never even glanced in our direction.