Public Undergrounds: The rise of alternative drug cultures and the invention of the “Scene” in West-Berlin in the early 1970s
In the early 1970s, the emerging narcotic cultures of West-Berlin not only drew the attention of the public and the media, but came into the focus of academics and public health institutions, First studies and surveys were conducted with one paper standing out in particular. It was entitled “Drug Consumers Underground” [Drogenkonsumenten im Underground] and authored by a collective of young social workers, drug users and educators, some of them with aliases.
While remaining unpublished for quite a while, it eventually found its way into the archive of the Federal Centre for Health Education (Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung). Consisting of more the 160 pages, and including drawings, cartoons, and press clippings, it marks the first ever in-depth description of these new public drug scenes of West-Berlin.
In the early 1970s, the emerging narcotic cultures of West-Berlin not only drew the attention of the public and the media, but came into the focus of academics and public health institutions, First studies and surveys were conducted with one paper standing out in particular. It was entitled “Drug Consumers Underground” [Drogenkonsumenten im Underground] and authored by a collective of young social workers, drug users and educators, some of them with aliases. While remaining unpublished for quite a while, it eventually found its way into the archive of the Federal Centre for Health Education (Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung). Consisting of more the 160 pages, and including drawings, cartoons, and press clippings, it marks the first ever in-depth description of these new public drug scenes of West-Berlin.Berndt Georg Thamm and Walter Schmetz
In it, the authors not only give a detailed analysis of the spatial and social dynamics of drug consumption und trade in the city, but also offer insights into the daily lives of its users. They also give information on drug ideologies, such as psychedelics, music, and the specific slangs used within these scenes.
Image 1: Example pages from the study “Drug Users in the Underground” by Berndt Georg Thamm and Walter Schmetz, 1973. (Original: Drogenkonsumenten im Untergrund: Drogengefährdete und -abhängige Jugendliche in ihren subkulturellen Umfeldern der Drogenszene im Untergrund West-Berlins).
Moreover, inspired by an initiative of the Amsterdam underground magazine Aloha, they provide a detailed price list of cannabis, available in West Berlin, including fluctuations and price dynamics, termed the “Cannabis-Börse” [Cannabis stock exchange) (Image 2)
Image 2: The street prices of different cannabis strains in West-Berlin in 1971/72 including price range (p.42).
Even most interestingly, however, the authors of the study argue for adopting a novel approach to dealing with these “drug problems”, which goes beyond repression by local authorities. For them, the criminalization of such drugs, mainly through new regulations and laws such as the revised Narcotics Law of 1971 (updating the German Opium Law of 1929 – see timeline), has pushed its consumers further into illegality. This resulted in a “black box” of the drug underground, making it almost impossible to reach users to offer help and rehabilitation.
Instead, the authors propose focusing on a new method, which they call “detached youth work”. It aims to implement a “therapeutic chain” which allows social workers to interact directly with drug users on site, providing information and eventually channeling them into rehab via contact centers and walk-in clinics.
While being a rather unconventional yet very promising approach, they argue, it requires a very different strategy and skill-set of the authorities and personnel, especially establishing contact points in public places, clubs, parks etc. where drug use is considered the most prevalent. Furthermore, the embedded street workers need to be given in-depth training (e.g. regarding vernacular, style and habits) as well as great autonomy in their work, including the right to refuse to give evidence (Zeugnisverweigerungsrecht).
While arguing for the advantages of this strategy, the authors also do something crucial: they identify and construct a social as well as spatial configuration of public drug use as the potential work place of the street workers : the so-called “scene”. They describe this scene as follows:
“Many young people can hardly be "registered" by official institutions because they do not visit them and do not make use of official offers (e.g. youth centers). Instead, streets and corners, parking facilities and parks are their meeting places, and little-known clubs, pubs and underground locations are their regular hangouts. The action takes place between the afternoon and early morning. Very often dialect is spoken, interspersed with elements of its own language (e.g. drug terminology). This is where rumors are born and circulated; this is where the toughest confrontations take place, both among themselves (e.g. rockers versus stoners) and externally (e.g. raids, searches) ; this is where laws of their own emerge, known only to the initiated. In terms of our work, this field of work is called: SCENE."
This scene, they claim, is the site of a rapidly growing group of users – from 1970 to 1973, the number of opioid addicts alone has grown from 1.500 to around 5.000. Moreover, it is comprised of smaller, functionally differenced scenes, with regard to substances, markets, time of the day, etc. While being rather fluid due to police interventions, shifts in dealer groups and other factors, these spatial formations of the scene can be at least temporarily identified and categorized.
In doing so, the authors develop a complex topology of the spatial networks of the “scene”, comprised of “commercial hang-outs”, such as bars and clubs, parks, streets or squares; “private hang-outs”, e.g. private apartments or shared flats, empty factories, public toilets (often called “shooting galleries”); as well as “public hang-outs”, such as university facilities, event locations, or – to a lesser extent – schools. Additionally, they list institutions such as mental hospitals, rehab facilities, prisons and juvenile homes as also being a part of the scene.
As the authors emphasize, these complex spatial networks of drug use are often dispersed, but also have central locations, which serve a variety of functions, including socializing, trading and collective consumtion. Besides parks and squares, these are usually bars and music venues, such as the Zodiak, Park, or Mr. Go.
In the early 1970s, it is the club “Unlimited” at Genthiner Strasse, which can be considered a central hub of the “scene”. In front of its doors, dealers for every illegalized substance variable as well as clothes and stolen vinyls attrached large crowds, who would also consume drugs, drink, dance and socialize inside the club. As the authors draw out based on frequent visits, the crowd was very international and diverse:
"Turkish guest workers sat together, well dressed and always with dope ready to hand; American soldiers in civilian clothes moved near them, looking forward to a shared marijuana experience; the fixers were together, the Persians, the Africans; here and there a mini-rocker squad; runaway kids looking for a place to stay; eccentric artists, struggling students - they all somehow harmonise with each other. The unifying elements are the drugs and the music. Skin color, language, clothing and origin are of no interest."
However, such locations are the frequent sites of massive police raids, which is highlighted in a long eyewitness account of a raid in the “Unlimited” club in April 1972, which had to subsequently close and was reopened under the name “Sound” a while later. As the authors emphasize, such raids are not only largely ineffective, but also counter-productive, as they prohibit any social work activity on site. Specifically, a small drug information center had been temporary installed at the Unlimited club after long negotiations, only several weeks before the raid and the subsequent shut down. While the police had informed the media before its actions, they left the social workers at the center in the dark, this “destroying the immense labor efforts of the information center with a handful of hours”, as the authors resignedly note.
While this study “Drug consumers in the Underground” has been largely ignored after its release and remains obscure until today, it serves as an intriguing historical source for insights into the merging narcotic culture of West Berlin in the early 1970s. Its calls for a new approach to prevention and harm reduction, such a street work, also remained unheard and such initiatives where only implemented years later. With its vivid and detailed description of the narcotic “scene” of West-Berlin, however, it gives a compelling example on how drug cultures are spatialized and attributed to specific urban locations, thus allowing for both marking them as crucial sites of action and intervention as well as invisibilizing other, and less eye-catching, users and spaces.