by David Hewson
Guten Tag from Berlin, Germany. It’s a great city and the weather is gorgeous, so the lure of a patio beer was unavoidable.
I’ve been in living and working in Germany since September, which has given me the opportunity to see another country’s drug policies first-hand (check out the blog post I wrote last fall, about the relative peacefulness of drunken Oktoberfesters).
I’ve also had the chance to travel and meet a lot of different people in the drug policy reform movement. It brought me to the UK last month (full update coming!), and it’s why I’m in Berlin now.
My trip has also shown me the power of putting yourself out there and making connections, and the role that students can play. So apart from just telling you what I’ve been up to, I also want to tell you how things came together in the first place.
Here’s what’s been happening:
Meeting with Frank Tempel
Wednesday, May 23
photo credit: Frank-Tempel.de
My trip to Berlin happened because Annie Machon, the director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) Europe, invited me to join her in a meeting with Frank Tempel, drugs spokesperson for “Die Linke” party in Germany, and a former police officer who has become one of the outspoken critics of drug prohibition in German politics. He seemed like a natural ally for Annie and LEAP Europe – like LEAP members, Frank has used his own personal story to show people the harm caused by his actions as a drug law enforcer, and the need for change.
Apart from the fact that I speak German and could help translate, Annie was also excited to have someone from Students for Sensible Drug Policy present, because of the way LEAP and SSDP have worked together in North America. Many LEAP speaking events in the USA and Canada are set up as speaking tours at SSDP chapters, and a complementary relationship has emerged: LEAP speakers provide an element of authority and credibility to the students’ drug policy reform message, while the SSDP chapter structure make speaking tours work financially (speaking tours instead of individual engagements brings down costs) and the energy to make the events a success. LEAP is hoping that something similar can happen in Europe.
The meeting went very well: Annie and Frank quickly saw eye-to-eye on the issues and the role that law enforcement officials can play in the drug reform debate. They agreed to stay in contact and take advantage of the different things they’re working on, including LEAP co-founder Jack Cole’s visit to Berlin in June.
Click here to see what Frank’s website had to say about our meeting (in German).
How the meeting happened
Annie (left) and Jason Reed, director of LEAP UK (right), spoke at the SSDP UK conference in London, which I attended (full update coming!).
photo credit: Joseph Tynan
At the conference, I made it my goal to ask at least one good question per speaker, so that people would:
2. remember me, and
3. see that I had something intelligent to say.
I asked Annie a question and then talked to her in person at the end of her session; she found out I was living in Germany and spoke German (ding ding ding!), and asked me to join her on her trip to Berlin.
If I hadn’t spoken up, I never would have had this opportunity.
Sometimes what you know can seem completely obvious – but to someone else, it’s a revelation. All Florian did was throw his idea out there in the world. Again, if you don’t speak up, nothing happens.
(Final, interesting note: there’s a Canadian connection here – Annie was recruited into LEAP by David Bratzer, a Canadian LEAP member in Victoria, who has spoken at our CSSDP conferences! Here’s a video of him discussing LEAP at our 2009 Vancouver Conference.)
Meeting with the German Hemp Association (Deutscher Hanf Verband)
Thursday, May 24
photo credit: Deutscher Hanf Verband
On Thursday, May 24 – i.e. today – I met with two members of the German Hemp Association, Georg Wurth (left) and Max Plenert (right – I’m in the middle). Both have been working in drug activism for over a decade, and accumulated a ton of experience along the way.
We discussed the situation in our different countries (I got a familiar “what the heck is Canada doing?!!!” when I told them about Bill C-10), LEAP in Europe, and the role Germany and Canada can play in what happens next.
Some interesting points to pass on:
1. Because of its own experience with Nazi authoritarianism, Germany has developed excellent freedom-of-speech legislation, and its citizens tend to be much less complacent about free speech issues in the UK or America. This makes it attractive to organizations like LEAP Europe that have a controversial message.
That said, there are still things that get in the way of people speaking out. German police unions can be very hierarchical, and lower-level police officials that speak out against drug prohibition are often harshly rebuked. This, of course, shows the role that LEAP can play in providing a platform for law enforcement officials to “come out” against prohibition.
2. German society is, in some important ways, very decentralized. This creates challenges for drug reform advocates, but also provides some opportunities.
Firstly, Germany’s different regions seem to go their own way on drug policy issues, so there are different things happening around the country. If you’re the German Hemp Association, this makes it hard to coordinate things nationally, and if you’re Annie Machon, it’s hard to know who to talk to as you get LEAP Europe started. There’s also not one, but TWO national police unions – one that’s more progressive and open to a new approach on drugs, and one that’s more conservative, and isn’t.
But the regional differences also provide opportunities. For example, while very conservative parts of the country like Bavaria seem completely uninterested in drug policy reform, Hamburg has a safe-injection site, and the conservative mayor of Frankfurt has defied her party and promoted more humane drug treatment policies.
Another difference: universities.
North American students’ lives are often centred around their universities; in addition to studying, they often live on-campus, play sports, go to parties – and attend events like the ones held by SSDP. They are a natural recruiting opportunity for activist organizations, and even non-students from around the university often get pulled in.
German universities tend to be more academics-only; the students live off-campus, play sports in unassociated clubs, and have fewer on-campus events. For Georg and Max of the German Hemp Association, it means that they’ve had to hustle for every new member, since they don’t have the natural funneling opportunity that universities provide for SSDP in North America. But the way I see it, the people they do get are more likely to stay engaged once they graduate, which is an issue for SSDP.
3. Like many reform activists I’ve met, Georg and Max are frustrated by the fact that people just don’t seem to get the injustice of it all.
Getting people to see that it’s unjust to criminalize people for nonviolent drug offences is a German problem too. From their perspective, the only recent example of the public outcry against law enforcement actions was when police used water cannons and pepper spray against people protesting the placement of a new train station in Stuttgart. The reason? The injured were largely middle-class, and that’s different – and newsworthy.
Again, this is where LEAP Europe can play a valuable role, by bringing attention to injustices that are often ignored.
How the meeting happened
Quick updates were key.
Two hours after our meeting with Frank was over, I logged onto Twitter and found this:
— Maximilian Plenert (@mind_shifter) May 22, 2012
2. Georg and Max tweeted it, then found me on Twitter, and wanted to know if I could meet with them.I called them, set a time for today, and that was it.