BYO Heroin

German junkies get clean, safe places to shoot up -- courtesy of their city governments.

| Fri May 5, 2000 2:00 AM EDT

FRANKFURT, Germany -- "Bleib immer locker" (Always stay mellow) says the sign in the door, an oddly glib piece of advice for the junkies entering a government-funded center to shoot up drugs.

A cross between a youth hostel and a run-down hospital clinic, the place has an antiseptic stench. German hip-hop is playing on a small boom box in the corner. In the waiting area, a dozen men and women are passed out in chairs or on the floor or else twitching nervously, awaiting their turn to inject. Once their names are called, each receives a steel tray containing a new syringe, cotton pads, a sterilized spoon, and a packet of distilled water -- everything needed to prepare and inject heroin or cocaine. This they do in the next room, sitting in plastic chairs where others are stripping off their pants in search of a spare vein, or just leaning back and letting the high set in.

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The room is one of Frankfurt's four controversial "Druckraum" or injection rooms, where 1,000 times a day, some 600 "clients" inject their own street-bought heroin or cocaine in a safe and clean environment. The rooms are a pragmatically German attempt to create social order, a kind of domestic realpolitik.

"The goal is to get people off the streets. They would be doing this in train station toilets otherwise. Here the risks are minimized," says Wolfgang Barth, the director of one of the injection rooms.

Operating under semi-legal status since 1994, the city-funded rooms were finally legitimized by the German parliament in February. That move has appalled German conservatives and prompted an outcry from the United Nations, which contends that the policy behind the rooms clashes with international treaties on combating the drug trade.

While such centers have existed in the liberal Netherlands for several years, they are more surprising in straight-laced Germany. The appearance of the rooms across the European Union's largest country -- several other cities have by now copied Frankfurt's example -- has attracted considerable international attention. Spain and Australia are now setting up their own trial injection rooms. Switzerland has even gone a step further with an experimental program in which addicts are administered pharmaceutically produced heroin which they inject under medical supervision. Frankfurt is reportedly also considering such a program, which would cut off injection rooms from the black market supply chain, eliminating the need for addicts to commit crimes to pay for their drugs.

There's little doubt Frankfurt's drug policy -- of which injection rooms are merely a part -- saves human lives. Juergen Weimer, a laid-back city drugs official, says drug deaths have dropped from 147 in 1992 to 26 last year. In contrast, drug deaths went up eight percent last year in Germany as a whole. Cheap, impure Afghani heroin flooding the market has led to a rise in addiction in most of Europe -- but not in Frankfurt.

Weimer also says that the average age of addicts is getting higher, with virtually no Frankfurt youth getting hooked on heroin. He attributes the success to the city's all-around approach, which includes not only injection rooms, methadone treatment and "rest centers" for addicts, but also a comprehensive youth education and prevention program.

This approach to the drug problem, however, doesn't go down well with the UN. "Treaties require that drug abuse be prevented," says Akira Fujino, deputy secretary of the UN-affiliated International Narcotics Control Board in Vienna. Injection rooms, he says, facilitate the overall traffic in drugs. Conceding that the rooms do save lives, Fujino maintains they could have negative consequences internationally. "Just imagine if other countries started to do the same and the impact (that would have) on international trafficking," he says.

Not that there is a consensus in Germany on injection rooms, either. In other cities where the conservative Christian Democrats are in power, such as Berlin, the authorities staunchly oppose injection rooms."It cannot be the state's job to get people high," said Stefan Paris, Berlin's spokesman on social issues. "Our political stance is to encourage a drug-free, abstinence-oriented life."

In the waiting area of a Frankfurt injection room at 49 Niddastrasse, S. Von Diezelski, 35, is doing her nails, killing time. She's waiting for an appointment with her nearby doctor, to receive her methadone treatment. At any moment she could get up, sign a piece of paper at the reception desk, and shoot up.

Von Diezelski injects heroin here about every four or five days, even though she's on methadone, which means technically she's not allowed to use the injection room. A former prostitute, she comes here to pursue her habit safely.

"The advantage of this place is that you get a clean needle," she says. "Since junk is getting cheaper, and dirtier, and more dangerous, it's good they have medically trained people who can call an ambulance."

There's no registration procedure for junkies here, just an ID check and a few questions to make sure they are over 18 and not first-time users. Dealing or sharing drugs is banned. "Even if a couple comes in they are not allowed to share," says Josch Steinmetz, head of the Niddastrasse center. Dealing is forbidden inside, but Von Diezelski says it's easy to score just outside the door.

Two hundred yards around the corner, on Elbestrasse, amidst sex-shops, brothels, and kebab stands, is the "Drogennotdienst" -- the "drugs emergency service," offering another injection room, a needle exchange station, medical check-ups, methadone clinic, and a cafe with free food. The atmosphere is rowdier here -- men are rolling joints and smoking crack pipes on the sidewalk. Relatively new to Germany, crack has made the local drug culture more violent, says Weimer, and it is strictly forbidden inside the centers.

Despite the ruckus out front, Weimer says the number of people shooting up in public spaces in the city has been reduced to nearly zero. He remembers ten years ago, when up to 1,000 addicts would hang out everyday in the park opposite the Deutsche Bank headquarters, littering the area with needles and trash, dealing heroin, selling their bodies for money.

"AIDS changed everything," says Weimer. Soaring HIV rates, caused largely by shared needles, forced the city in the early 90s to begin radically overhauling its drug policy. According to Weimer, social workers sat down with police and had "a non-ideological, pragmatic discussion on what we could immediately do to help users survive." Injection rooms were introduced in 1994 under a liberal mayor; surprisingly, they were continued under the following administration headed by a conservative Christian Democrat, against the will of her own party, which still vehemently opposes injection rooms.

The Frankfurt police have supported injection rooms from the beginning. Junkies still buy their drugs on the street, but no longer have to do them there; and because they are offered treatment programs and advice at the injection rooms, the rooms will likely contribute to a drop in heroin use overall, and a consequent drop in drug-related crimes, says police spokesman Peter Borchardt. Thanks to the rooms, says Borchardt, "Things have improved considerably on the streets here."