In his book, We Want to See You Fail, German journalist Alexander Görlach dissects the increasing role of malice in public discourse. “As soon as a public hero commits a blunder, he or she has to step back into the ranks. Back with the ordinary mortals. Back to the townhouse complex. And the hero’s downfall is often backed by dirty companionship,” Görlach writes in his 2014 polemic.
Volker Beck, one of the leaders of the German Green Party, has certainly been a hero for many in Germany, especially for marginalized communities. In his last two decades in parliament, Beck became known for his considerable contributions toward LGBT equality. He was also honored for his work with Jewish communities and was an ardent representative of liberal drug policies. He acquired the reputation of a belligerent-Left moralist, but was respected by both his own party and the opposition.
Until earlier this month, that is, when the Green politician was caught with 0.6 grams of a controlled substance—reportedly crystal meth—by the police in Berlin.
Beck’s story is just the latest in an all-too-predictable routine when politicians are caught with even a small amount of drugs: resignation, replacement, attacks from the opposition (and even their own party), and moral condemnation of the drug in question. Rarely does debate arise around existing laws and frameworks of support for addiction. And under the pretext of moral integrity, politicians are lightning-swift to use drugs as a tool of political malice.
Beck was busted by undercover officers who were surveilling a drug dealer. They stopped the 55-year-old politician in the district of Schöneberg. Germany’s largest and most controversial tabloid, Bild, broke the story, quoting anonymous authorities saying that cops found meth on Beck’s person.
The politician’s career crumbled within days. Performing the ritual of resignation, he immediately stepped down from several of his political offices. He gave up his role as his party’s internal and religious affairs spokesman, among other positions. Thus far Beck has maintained his elected seat in the parliament. It’s worth emphasizing that, while caught on the other side of the law, Beck stood for decriminalization and the liberalization of drug policy. He’s hardly a hypocrite.
The broader hypocrisy came from the political machine surrounding him, which fulfilled the moralization stage of the public shaming. The response of “Junge Union,“ the youth organization of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), was as obtuse as it was moralizing. “The Green party’s fight for drug liberalization appears in a new light. Stay clean, folks! #breakingbad,“ the organization tweeted.
In addition to the ostensibly humorous hashtag, they also posted a picture of Beck’s head, photoshopped onto Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White’s body, surrounded by bundles of money and barrels of chemicals. Beck’s political opposition was swift to condemn the politician, but so too were his Green Party cohorts. Winfried Kretschmann, who was fighting for re-election in the state of Baden-Württemberg, dissociated from Beck fearing—and that might be the only reason—bad fallout for the party.
Bild stooped to the lowest form of skewering—reductio ad Hitlerum.
“Green [politician] Busted With Hitler Drug,“ rang out the Bild headline—a baiting reference the dictator’s alleged substance preferences. The paper also wrote baseless screeds on meth as “the most dangerous drug.” Within a day, Beck became a poster boy for both anti-drug moralists and political and corporate opportunists. A German car rental company launched a new ad campaign featuring an image of Beck with the slogan, “Allow yourself a breath of fresh air for a change.” The magazine Focus published a report on “dangerous meth parties—72 hours of sex without food and sleep.“
Beck’s undoing recalls the infamous case of Marion Barry (pictured above), the former mayor of DC. Twenty-six years ago, Barry was arrested in an FBI sting, having been lured to a hotel room where he was viodetaped smoking crack. The incident was the climax of a years-long, expensive FBI investigation into the politician, the impetus for which remains questioned to this day.
The popular mayor was sentenced to six months in prison, and was unable to run for re-election. The African American politician had been heavily involved in the civil rights movement, and throughout his career had argued for drug decriminalization. The energy with which the authorities sought his downfall prompted charges of racism, especially during the decidedly racist “crack baby” scare, which misinformedly maligned the drug and sent scores of black mothers to prison.
Barry’s career bounced back and one more mayoral term followed his imprisonment. His post-incarceration slogan proclaimed, “He may not be perfect, but he’s perfect for DC.”
There are, of course, other cases of politicians busted with drugs, many of which carry a less depressing valance—for example, when anti-drug crusading politicians are themselves caught with illegal drugs. But while highlighting the hypocrisies of such politicians is of public interest, these cases also affirm unquestioned narratives about drug use as always harmful and requiring moral condemnation.
We might recall the story of Trey Radel, then-Republican Congressman from Florida, who was caught with cocaine in DC in 2013. He became the first member of Congress convicted of a drug offense in over 30 years. Radel had opposed legalizing marijuana and voted for the vile practice of subjecting food stamp recipients to drug testing. He was busted buying 3.5 grams of cocaine from an undercover officer. After Radel pleaded guilty in November 2013 and was sentenced to a year of probation, he soon returned to his office resisting calls to step aside. In January, after strong efforts to unseat him by members of his own party, he resigned.
The Florida Democratic Party called Radel’s conduct “an embarrassment to his district and to the state of Florida” and New York Magazine made fun of Radel who previously cited his favorite vacation spot in an interview as Cartagena, Colombia, which is famous for its cocaine production.
More crucial questions of the vicious vagaries of the cocaine trade, let alone drug legalization, were evidently less compelling than the need to morally shame the Republican. Needless to say, the white congressman’s minimal sentence, compared to Barry’s six-month incarceration, prompted questions about racial discrimination.
In March 2013, Steve Katz, a New York Assemblyman, was arrested for marijuana possession. His challenger in the Republican primary, Dario Gristina, exploited the incident for his own campaign and demanded his resignation.
“We have enough kids abusing drugs, and the last thing we need is for our elected representative being caught handing marijuana over to a police officer,“ Gristina said. But Katz stayed in office. Only one year before he got caught, Katz voted against a bill that would have legalized medical marijuana. An vote stemming from conviction? More likely political calculus. “I decided to vote what I believed to be the vote of my constituents“, Katz said of his 2012 decision.
The idea that the number of politicians busted with drugs is the same as the number of politicians who take part in illegal drug use is laughable, of course. In 2000, the German Institute for Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Research (IBMP) found traces of cocaine in 22 out of 28 toilets in the German parliament.
In 2005 German undercover reporters took 46 swabs from toilets and other public areas of the European Parliament in Brussels; 41 of the swabs tested positive for cocaine. And British tabloid The Sun reported in 2013 on similar tests and results from the UK Parliament bathrooms.
Career politicians are hardly the primary victims of the decades-long, senseless War on Drugs, but the moralizing condemnation levied at these figures highlights a paucity of reasoned discourse around drug use.
Events that could become openings for such discussions—which a politician like Beck would surely welcome—instead descend to ad hominem melodramas, driven not by ethics but realpolitik maneuvering and malice.
Lukas Hermsmeier is an independent journalist living in New York who reports for German newspapers. You can follow him on Twitter: @LukasHermsmeier.