West Germany has discovered that drug abuse is not unique to the United States. "It can't happen here," German politicians, social workers, and police used to tell Americans pleading with them to join international campaigns seeking to stop the flow of drug trafficking.
No one says that now.
The federal criminal police reports that at least 615 West Germans, two-thirds of them between the ages of 18 and 25, died of drug overdoses during 1979. This compared to 430 such deaths in 1978 and 390 in 1977.
Alarmed by the rising toll, both Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's Social Democratic-Liberal coalition government and the Christian Democratic opposition introduced parliamentary bills at the end of January to amend the narcotic laws.
The government proposes that the maximum penalty for drug trafficking be raised from 10 to 15 years. But users who deal only to finance their habits would be offered a choice between "therapy or prison." Dealers who turned state's evidence could expect leniency -- a "crown witness" concept introduced in Germany only during anti-terrorist campaigns of the late 1970s.
Health Minister Antje Huber told Parliament the number of users of hard drugs appears to increase by about 10 percent per year and now stands at about 60,000.
"Motivation seems to have shifted from experimentation to problem solution," Mrs. Huber reported. "Why? Is this the price we pay for our material prosperity? A slipping- out mentality is spreading, one that raises the question whether human relations have not been supplanted too much by material deification. In times of need, we didn't have such problems."
West Berlin has West Germany's worst drug problem. But no one knows why drug use there is so much higher than in Hamburg, a port city of equal size.
Neither can police decide whether it is better to permit the drug retailing market to operate relatively openly, where presumably it could be controlled, or to drive it underground.The Frankfurt police have just opted for the latter, after years of allowing dealers and users to buy and sell openly on the "hash meadow," a park near the old opera house.
Police officials, both German and American, believe a degree of reciprocity occurs in such cities as Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Munich, where there are large concentrations of US soldiers.
Wholesalers already established to supply the Americans who brought their drug habits with them pushed vigorously and successfully to develop additional markets among the Germans.
As a result, American and German officials now coordinate their anti-drug campaigns, from Cabinet to street level. Interior Minister Gerhart Baum will discuss the problem with his American counterpart in Washington in March.
The US Army and Air Force in Europe renewed their anti-drug campaigns 18 months ago, after the disappointing realization that the moment they relaxed an earlier campaign, drug abuse climbed.
Personal opinion surveys of the US Army in Europe indicate that 8.1 percent of the soldiers use a dangerous drug at least once a month, but fewer than 2 percent do so weekly.