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For years now, the number of people dying from illegal drug use in Germany has been on the rise. Many of them were commemorated in Hamburg on Wednesday.
Spoons, syringes, patches: the Hamburg facility ‘Abrigado’ provides all the tools
“A lot of the people I used to know are now dead,” says Gonzo, a very slim man with watery eyes and tidy clothes. When he spoke, it was easy to pick up a Hamburg accent. Gonzo himself has been using drugs since he the age of 16. Today, he’s 55.
He was sitting in what is part of a so-called consumption room in Hamburg. The name of the project — Abrigado — translates from Spanish as “sheltered.” It’s a space where people who need drugs — mostly heroin and cocaine — can consume them in a clinically clean environment.
They can also take a shower, get any wounds treated by a health worker, or grab something to eat and drink. What’s more, they can link up with a social worker who will accompany them on one of those visits to local government offices that can be so distressing.
Oli (l) and Herman are social workers at the ‘Abrigado’
Herman and Oli are on staff and part of their job is to get things prepared for the afternoon when up to four people at a time can take drugs they’ve brought with them. Oli was washing the spoons that had been soaked in a disinfectant solution overnight. Herman prepared the sealed syringes, alcohol swabs, and plasters.
After a short team talk, the doors opened at around 13:30. Dozens of people were already waiting in the yard. Some disappeared quickly into the room where they are allowed to consume the drugs they’ve brought with them. Most people come here regularly and know the rules. The first thing is to put on a mask, then to get signed in, and, if the room is full, wait patiently for your turn.
Gonzo was among the first to turn up. Not surprising given that he’s been coming to Abrigado since it was founded 28 years ago: “I think I’d probably be dead if this place had never existed. I’d have been in some filthy backyard brewing up my heroin. I never used to clean my hands. Or use disinfectant. But here they make sure you do. They keep an eye on what you’re up to.”
The number of drug-related deaths in Germany rose for the fourth year in a row in 2021. A total of 1,826 men and women. The main lethal drugs were heroin and opioids.
“These numbers make me very sad. They’re shocking. And they make it very clear that we can’t just go on as ever before in our policies on drugs,” said Burkhard Blienert, the German government’s narcotics commissioner.
‘I so loved laughing with you! We miss you. RIP” reads one of the messages in the condolence book
It’s a problem that is far from uniquely German. For years, the US has also been plagued by an opioid crisis, in which one life is lost to an overdose every five minutes.
At Abrigado this year, the first months of spring — March and April — were particularly distressing. Users prefer to call each other “guests” and the social workers create a book of condolences for each “guest” who passes away: “The problem was, we couldn’t keep up: the books were just lying there. It was awful,” said Oli. “Really tough,” Herman agreed.
Each year, the community marks International Drug Users’ Remembrance Day on July 21. A grief speaker delivers a funeral address. The guests and staff lay down stones bearing the names of those who have departed.
There have so far not been any fatalities inside the rooms that make up Abrigado. It has always proved possible to avoid emergencies of the worst kind by employing trained staff and rehearsed strategies and making sure that crucial equipment such as pulse monitors and ventilators are on hand: “The first emergencies I experienced really pushed me to my limits,” remembered Herman. “Now I know what I need to do because I’ve been there before. So, I know I can find a solution.”
There are, however, fatalities that take place outside the project and can’t be prevented. That is a real real burden for Oli and Herman. Oli recalled the death of the first person whom he had looked after becoming a qualified social worker. “It hit me really hard. I can still feel it.”
His colleague Herman put it like this: “A person you’ve been involved with on a more or less daily basis suddenly becomes just another case in a file.” Often, the social workers only find out what’s happened to someone through other guests, he said. They might not know how they died or where they are buried.
It’s often said that stricter drug policies lead to more deaths. But it’s not that straightforward. As became clear in a recent fact-checking report by the Bavarian broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk, which found that strict laws do not necessarily mean more deaths. However, it also stated concluded that indirectly more liberal laws and easier access to support systems could and did save lives.
Heino Stöver from the Institute of Addiction Research in Frankfurt is an expert on addiction prevention. He advocates policies that do not criminalize small-scale drug use.
“In Germany, we have on the one side very permissive policies on alcohol and tobacco. Very liberal I would say. Very unregulated. But then there’s the other side. And when it comes to illegal drugs, we are very repressive. This divided approach is to be found right at the heart of Germany’s drug policies,” Stöver told DW.
Whilst consumers of small quantities of cannabis could find themselves confronted with the full force of the law, there was no strategy for tackling mainstream drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, he said. “Each year, an estimated 127,000 deaths are linked to tobacco and some 74,000 deaths are due to alcohol. And they too are drug deaths,” he insisted.
But maybe change is coming. A new government came into office in 2021 and the legalization of cannabis is on its agenda.Pilot projects are probing the impact of Naloxon, a nasal spray that can stop a heroin overdose with immediate effect.
Meanwhile, Drug Checking — the evaluation of drugs from the street to verify their declared purity — is being conducted in consumption rooms for a trial phase. So, the new government does appear to be open to rethinking drug policies and moving away from the mere criminalization of users. However, the conservative Christian Democrats remain critical, saying that cannabis poses a danger and arguing that legalization will open the way for harder drugs.
This is the hemp plant of legend. Intoxicating cannabis can be obtained from certain varieties, so its cultivation is strictly regulated in Germany. Unlike 200 years ago, hemp plants in the country are completely out of the public eye, paving the way for myths generated from the camps of supporters and opponents alike.
The use of hemp as an intoxicant has a comparatively recent history in Europe. French soldiers, who took home hashish made from the resin of female cannabis plants from Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign in 1798, played a key role in spreading it. While Napoleon banned hashish in Egypt, it became popular in Paris.
Since the 1990s, the UK has been discussing the legalization of cannabis. There was a rumor at the time that Queen Victoria was prescribed cannabis for menstrual cramps. The only evidence: in 1890, her personal physician John Russel Reynolds noted in a medical journal the “great value” of cannabis in treating an array of conditions.
Urban legend has it that the American Declaration of Independence was written on paper made from hemp. That’s not quite true: the document, vacuum-sealed and behind thick panes of glass at the National Archives in Washington, DC, was written on parchment paper. The first two drafts, on the other hand, were probably written on hemp paper.
“Reefer Madness,” originally financed by a church group under the title “Tell Your Childen,” was a 1936 US propaganda movie that depicted young people as immediately addicted, violent and crazy after consuming cannabis. With its almost comical exaggerations and misconceptions, the film is a historical testimony to the fear-mongering of that era.
Back then, Harry Anslinger, the racist head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, had been fighting for prohibition since the 1930s. Allegedly, Mexicans and African Americans in particular consumed cannabis, but Anslinger wasn’t concerned about their health. Weed makes Black people think they’re as good as white people, he once said. For over 30 years, he set the tone of US drug policies.
Other cultures are perhaps more open about the intoxicating effects of cannabis. Sacred texts about the Hindu deity Shiva state that he renounced all life’s pleasures — except cannabis. Contrary to often repeated claims, cannabis use can very well be addictive.
Author: Matthias Beckonert
The social workers at Abrigado welcome the changes: “I’m optimistic,” said Oli, while deploring the lack of funding for projects such as his own and others.
Abrigado doesn’t try to convince the guests in its consumption room to choose a life without drugs, he explained. “And if someone does pass away — be it due to an overdose or because of long-term consumption — then the team doesn’t see it as their personal failure to get that person off drugs before it was too late. Instead, they see it as another sad story: someone has died and gone from among us. And I believe that should be one’s first thought.”
Nevertheless, both Oli and Hermann insist that the “guests” are well aware that their lifestyle can lead to an early death. Gonzo, too, sees people around him dying. People he has known for many years.
“I know that I’m not going to live to 90,” he said, adding that he would use the memorial ceremony to remember those who had died of drug abuse. It was only a couple of months ago that he had found an old friend dead in his bed. He still doesn’t know what the exact cause of death was. Or where he lies buried.
This article was originally written in German.
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The World Health Organization has warned that many young Africans are turning to substance abuse. The UN predicts that by 2030 the number of drug users in Africa will have increased substantially.
Whether the Chinese emperor, the prophet Moses or the US founding fathers: the hemp plant has been part of people’s everyday lives for millennia — and not just as an intoxicant.