by David Hewson

photo credit: Muenchen Kotzt

Hi all, I'm writing this from Germany, where I'm doing an internship at the moment.

One of the most natural, and enjoyable, things to do when travelling is to just stop, look around, and realize that you're in a foreign country. Sometimes the differences are subtle. But in the case of the Munich Oktoberfest, which I was able to visit this year, they're about as subtle as a frying pan to the jaw.

I grew up in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, which has its own Oktoberfest – the world's second-largest, after Munich. But it just can't compare to number 1. Here's why:

1. The sheer scale of the proceeedings: 6.9 MILLION people visited the Munich Oktoberfest this year (still less than the 1981 record of 7.1 million).
2. Beer is consumed exclusively in 1L glasses.
3. There are a bunch of roller coasters and other stomach-turning attractions…right next to the beer tents. Where people have just been drinking 1L glasses of beer. You might think that would be a bad combination, but the people of Munich seem to disagree.

Of course, when 6.9 million people put their efforts towards drinking beer in 1L intervals, there are bound to be consequences. Starting in the late afternoon, you start to see people who have had far too much to drink scattered around outside the tents, resting, recovering, and um…taking care of business. It's not a pretty scene. If you're up for it, click here to get a sense of the mayhem.

Despite all the drunkenness, I couldn't help but think: where's the belligerency? Yes, wherever you looked, there were people in lederhosen and dirndls dropping like flies. But in the 4 days I was there I saw evidence of only one fight – a guy outside a beer tent had a bloody nose and was being restrained by bouncers. That was it. I remember thinking: in Canada, you just couldn't get this many drunken people together, and have so few problems.

Why is this?

One theory is that there is a special spirit to Oktoberfest, one of Gemütlichkeit or togetherness, that sets a friendly tone the proceedings. There might be something to that, but since Oktoberfest I've travelled to many other parts of Germany and found the same lack of belligerency, so that can't explain it completely.

A second explanation is that different types of alcohol lead to different types of drunk – an idea that the show “How I Met Your Mother“ had some fun with recently. As the theory goes, the Oktoberfesters – and Germans in general – tend to drink beer, so they are therefore friendlier.

Maybe there's something to that too. I have a friend whose mother has banned Jack Daniels whiskey from her house, after seeing generations of men in her family become a different kind of angry drunk after they've been drinking it.

A third theory has to do with alcohol policy, where Canada and Germany vary enormously. In Germany, the rules around alcohol are much more relaxed than Canadians are used to. Here are some differences:

– Germans can buy alcohol at grocery stores during the day, and when the stores are closed they can go to the convenience stores at gas stations. You can buy alcohol at any hour of the day.

– There is no set closing time for drinking establishments, although there are some local bylaws, and by 6am the staff usually kick you out because they want to clean up and go home.

– There's also a two-tier drinking age (16 years old for anything less than 13% alcohol, 18 years old for anything more concentrated) designed to encourage young people to start with beer and wine instead of hard liquor, which is easier to sneak around with but also increases the risks of alcohol poisoning. The argument is that this openness towards alcohol leads to Germans, on the whole, developing a more mature relationship with the substance than the more repressed Canadians.

Of course, policy questions like these are the sorts of things that we CSSDP members like to consider. What kind of relationship with drugs is best? What kind of legislation – laws, taxes, social programs, etc – is the right mix?

But here's the tricky part: since policies tend to vary on a country-by-country basis, when we compare different policies, we are also comparing between countries and the cultures that go with them. It's hard to tease the two apart. And that makes things complicated.

At the end of the day, I don't know why Oktoberfest was as (relatively) peaceful as it was. What I do know is this: when it comes to drugs, each culture is unique.

Germany has a long and storied history with alcohol, including the beer purity laws of 1516 and festivals like Oktoberfest – which began when a Bavarian Crown Prince invited everyone to come drink beer with him to celebrate his wedding. Fond memories for the people of Munich, indeed.

Canada has its own narrative, including the whiskey that was used in the fur trades, to Al Capone bootlegging Canadian Club into Chicago, to Bob and Doug McKenzie's stubby bottles. Untwisting the tangled threads of history, culture and drugs is no easy thing to do.