Travel

Inside the Devastation of Germany's Crack Capital

The crack problem in Frankfurt's Bahnhofsviertel neighborhood has gotten so bad, residents are nostalgic for the days when heroin was addicts' drug of choice.

by Ben Kilb
Jul 30 2015, 3:05pm

Hans and his crack pipe. All photos courtesy of the author

Hans has two rules for himself: Before he gets high, he needs to make sure his Labrador has enough food for a day, and while he is high, he's got to "not get on other people's nerves." Hans is homeless, has pancreatic cancer in the terminal stage, and doesn't give himself "more than a year." Next to him sits Robert, his hunched back bending toward the right. HIV gives Robert just as short a life expectancy as Hans. I met both of them in Frankfurt's Taunusanlage train station; in the 1980s this place would be packed with several hundred heroin addicts shooting up. Today, Hans and Robert can smoke crack in peace.

The pipe sizzles when Hans ignites his butane lighter, and then the air smells disgustingly sweet, like burnt plastic and ammonia. "I've already smoked three times since this morning," he says.

Most of the users who hang out in Frankfurt's Bahnhofsviertel neighborhood rarely make the trip to Taunusanlage, even though it's only feet away. The craving for crack can at times get so consuming, they just light up on the street immediately after buying it—huddled against buildings, between cars, or in shop entrances. The ones who can't afford to score hold out hope for some charity, biting their nails and clenching their jaws.

Related:How Synthetic Weed Is Ravaging Brooklyn's Homeless Population

A crack dealer with two customers

In Germany, crack is a rather rare drug. Even though the 1980s tabloid press warned that the "deadly drug" was about to wash over the country like a flood, crack hardly spread beyond Frankfurt. According to a national report on narcotics, Hessen, the state that Frankfurt belongs to, is Germany's absolute forerunner in first-time crack users—217 people registered there in 2013. Hamburg follows in second place with a mere 17.

The drug has probably taken hold in Frankfurt because the city is geographically central and people fly here from all over the world. There's also been an open and visible drug scene for a long tim in the Bahnhofsviertel, where crack use spread in the late 1990s. Cocaine in powder form has rarely been sold on the street since then. Meanwhile, crack's popularity has been rising continuously for years.

More than half of the addicts in this neighborhood consume the mixture of cocaine, baking powder, and chemical fillers, according to local police. It outsells heroin, while 97 percent of the drug addicts in the district have had experiences with crack. It's now the number-one drug consumed by addicts, with two dying last year from an overdose of crack mixed with other drugs.

In the Bahnhofsviertel, the "rocks" are having a devastating effect on users. No other drug is quite so addictive or as voraciously consumed. Few other substances take such a toll on the body, while faces also become gaunt and skeletal.

Many feel the drug is poisoning the entire neighborhood, while the reports of instances of aggression are frequent. A lot of residents, however, don't want to speak openly, fearing retribution from drug dealers. The dealers operate on shopping streets and threaten business owners; they stash their product in hourly hotels, dodgy cafés, and abandoned buildings. Addiction is also causing a rise in petty crime, even forcing some in the neighborhood to turn to the Hells Angles for protection.

The crack trade is really booming on Taunusstrasse street. At peak times—between six and eight in the morning—there's a dealer posted every few feet, offering their services to any passerby. If the police pick any of them up, a replacement will quickly take their place. North African and Albanian gangs dominate the trade and fights inevitably break out, often resulting in stabbings. "Hey, man, what's up, you need anything?"—at certain hours of the day, you'll hear this repeatedly while walking down a short stretch of Taunusstrasse.

It's good for Hans and Robert to get away from it all, for a while. Both of them have succumbed to their addiction and are heavy users. Thanks to a 17-year prison sentence for dealing cocaine, Hans's body is more or less intact; Robert on the other hand, is 47 and looks twice his age. He owes his countless ailments to the virus, he says, but the skin problems on his legs are due to crystal meth and the crack fillers. Robert lifts up his trousers to reveal the crusted elephant skin on his legs: "Most of the people around here have this, because more and more people are shooting crack." Hans shares his rock with Robert, even though he's broke. The pipe passes back and forth between them.

Hans, Klaus, and Robert at Taunusanlage.

"Everybody fucks each other over here. The worst time is just after the goods have arrived. People get aggressive—they fight, they hit each other," Hans explains. A fellow user named Hamsa, 43, who also hangs out in the Taunusanlage, paints a weirdly nostalgic picture of the time when heroin was still the favored drug in the Bahnhofsviertel: "Back then, everyone was friends. People talked to each other, did things together. Now that's all over." These days, drug addicts can stay awake for days at a time, just looking for ways to support their habits. Any sense of community is long gone.

Detective chief superintendent Thomas Zosel, from the prevention division of the Frankfurt Police, tells me that crack is in demand partly because the high is so short-lived." The high lasts about ten seconds so if you're addicted, you're going to need more really soon." Provided that they deal, steal, whore, or beg to get the ten to 20 euros ($10 to $20) that 0.1 gram of crack costs, they will have enough for a bowl.

Thomas Zosel has known Frankfurt's drug scene for decades. He used to drive a patrol car around the area himself and he really doesn't envy his colleagues who work that beat today. "Officers get threatened and attacked all the time. The scene is more aggressive, because most of the people aren't just using a single drug." The police call these addicts "poly drug users"—they'll basically consume anything they can get their hands on.

"They'll do anything to feel good. But their highs will never be as good as they used to be, thanks to all the filth that the stuff is mixed with today," Zosel says.

Bernie in front of his shop.

Shop owners on Taunusstrasse have a front row seat to the decline of the Bahnhofsviertel. When a dealer perches on the windowsill of GM Foto, the owner screams, "How often do I have to tell you to get the fuck out of here?"

Bernie, from Cream Music, a neighboring shop, watches the dealers with distain from the entrance. "Our revenue has sunken to threatening levels due to the conditions here. Customers stay away, or just enter the shop with their jaws on the floor. A trainee cut his stay with us short because he couldn't stand it anymore," he tells me.

Because of the drug scene, Bernie is often in contact with the city of Frankfurt and the police chief, Gerhard Bereswill. "The city is aware of the problem and they're very anxious. They definitely don't want to lose us or GM Foto," Bernie says.

Nobody is holding their breath waiting for overnight improvements in the Bahnhofsviertel though. Thomas Zosel knows that if they want to get a grip on the problem, patience is needed. A bitter "war on drugs" won't do anything, as proven by the still-rampant drug problem in many American cities. In the 1980s and 90s the American government tried to beat the crack epidemic by handing out long prison sentences for possession and deploying the full force of the police. You can still see the consequences of this policy today, with American jails full of one-time crack dealers.

Hamsa injecting a cocktail of crack and heroin

"If we decided to confiscate all of the drugs in the Bahnhofsviertel all of a sudden, complete chaos would break out. Some has to remain on the streets so that the people don't flip out. We need to find a solution for the sick people there," Thomas Zosel explains.

Frankfurt has been much more successful at reducing heroin use. Street workers offered support to addicts, and "shooting galleries" have been set up where junkies can get their methadone as well as clean needles and check ups from medical professionals. Currently, almost two-thirds of intravenous heroin consumption takes place in these shooting galleries.

"This also creates a situation where it's very easy to get in contact with addicted people, so you can move them towards getting clean," Zosel says. "That's how demand sinks, and so does supply." In a similar move, there are plans for a smoking room to be set up in Frankfurt's Niddastrasse, in which crack addicts will be able to safely consume the drug.

Tom Holz is a street-worker for Project OSSIP (which stands for Offense, Social Work, Safety, Intervention, and Prevention). The city of Frankfurt founded the project eleven years ago so that street workers, together with the police, could improve the situation for drug users and the residents of Bahnhofsviertel affected by the drug scene. Holz favors the decriminalization and controlled distribution of crack. "In Holland there used to be projects that set up consumption rooms for addicts with so-called house dealers that sold relatively clean crack, cocaine, and heroin for reasonable prices. This lead to a noticeable calming of the public space but was no longer politically favored after seven years and was shut down." Holz mostly takes care of crack addicts and has found that without direct contact, drug users can quickly lose control of their addiction.

Robert's legs

The Frankfurt police are moving forward with a "four pillars" approach: harm reduction, prevention, treatment, and enforcement. Police chief Zosel didn't want to go into specifics regarding enforcement, but he targets the dealers in the Bahnhofsviertel, rather than the users. The dealers are smart, however. "The small amount they're found with is usually not even enough to arrest them," says Zosel. He still thinks the police are making progress even if they won't solve the problem with force alone. "We need the residents to be brave. They need to be vigilant and report what they see."

Hans and Robert suffer heavily from their drug use, but still find something to live for. "If you don't retain a little bit of humanity, then it's all over," Hans believes. In spite of the heavy drug cocktail he just used, he can still hold a conversation. He emphasized how important it is for him to never leave traces of his consumption behind, no matter how high he is. "Because dogs or children could step on the needles."

Things in Frankfurt have come a long way since the 1980s. The conditions in the park and the neighboring Bahnhofsviertel have improved without a doubt but crack still ravages the community and the lives of the users who live here. Whatever happens to the Bahnhofsviertel though, Hans and Robert probably won't be around to experience it.