By: Jenny Felicia
Covering topics from a city with a liberal view on drug use, we wanted to dig deeper into available resources for those who use them. To get a first-hand account of what the path from “fun” to “excess” might look like, we sat down and listened to the experiences of Robert Bohman and Markus Enochson. To cover available resources and best practices, we got great expertise from Sonar, one of the organizations that work towards safer drug use in Berlin nightlife.
Berlin is a unique sanctuary for self-expression and exploration, a city in which it's easy to live freely and explore outside the societal normative way of life. However, these same qualities might pose challenges to setting boundaries and staying focused on your intended path. Many have arrived in the city with dreams and ambitions they later lost track of, to instead descend into a rabbit hole of pleasure-seeking.
To dig deeper into this topic, we met with Robert Bohman and Markus Enochson who both have experienced drug use going from a nice addition to a serious addiction and Andrea Piest who daily works with making drug use in Berlin nightlife as safe as possible.
Robert Bohman, the founder of the rehab center “The House” as well as a conceptual designer for clubs, hotels, and film, has always been interested in mind-altering substances. When he as a teenager heard that there was a thing called “amphetamine”, and was told about how it could make you feel, he knew that he would come to like it. During the 90s, he explored a flora of substances while also accelerating his career as a club owner and creative force in the underground scene. As the years passed, he started to draw a connection between his creative success and the drugs he used, and while he wanted to quit, he was afraid that his career would end abruptly if he stopped using.
“For me, it took reaching rock bottom. I was on the verge of dying from my addiction, but I don’t recommend anyone letting it go that far. You don’t have to reach as low as I did to seek help, and seeking help doesn’t have to be very dramatic. We all could benefit from discussing our habits and lifestyle with others and contemplate on what could be adjusted to feel as good as possible.”
With the work at the rehab center “The House”, which Robert founded in 2018 in Berlin while living there, he gets to apply his own experiences of addiction to help others. In 2021 Felix Granander, also sober and a former club owner, came into the company as an equal partner and The House moved its base to Stockholm. One colleague accompanying Robert and Felix on the mission to help others is the treatment manager for Stockholm, Markus Enochson, who also has first-hand experiences of getting into, and out of, a severe addiction.
“I was engaged in the 90’s rave scene, and at first I didn’t encounter much drug use at all. The main focus for most people involved was on the music and community. In 1998, I released my first vinyl. The moment two of my tracks blew up three years later, everything changed. From one month to another, I found myself touring around the world. I was having a blast and felt like the world was my oyster, but after some time it started posing challenges to have an ‘everyday life’ based on the nightlife scene. Rather early I realized that I probably had what by most would be categorized as a ‘problem’ with alcohol and drugs, but for me, it didn’t feel like an issue.
"During 2006, I started writing music for other artists as well and spent more time in the studio, and around this time my usage rapidly escalated. Fast forward to 2010, the year in which my addiction started to create actual problems, I would lock myself into hotel rooms with managers banging on the door, yelling that I was about to miss my set, I would run late to airports, and simply being horrendous to collaborate with. In this industry, you need to be at least a bit likable. I was clearly getting less and less so and therefore lost an increased amount of opportunities. To deal with this I started to find ways to rationalize my priorities, for example, I thought ‘Okay great that I’m not getting booked, then I can spend more time writing music in my studio’. What actually happened was that I would go to the studio, but rather than producing music, I was consuming drugs."
"For many people, it works well to use substances. For others, it doesn’t work at all. For me personally, it worked well for a long time, until it suddenly didn’t.”
Robert has similar memories to share, one which paints a rather dark picture of dependence and its ability to shift priorities.
“I’m not against drugs, but for me just as for Markus, it just didn’t work out. It took over everything else. At its peak, it had escalated to the point where I would be in bed with my wife and children, keeping a bag of cocaine and a bottle of liquor under the bed. Even though cocaine is a stimulant, my dependence was so imprinted that I would wake up multiple times per night with abstinence, refilling with lines to be able to fall asleep.”
The path from using drugs in a way that enhances life, to focusing more on them than anything else, can happen slowly, abruptly, or almost without even noticing it. Andrea Piest works as a specialist in health promotion at the organization Sonar, which focuses on safer drug usage in Berlin nightlife, and she tells me about their tools to assist.
“One thing we do is drug usage consultations. You don’t have to schedule an appointment, you just come by during our opening hours or call our 24/7 emergency line to take some time to discuss your usage. Maybe you have had a rough weekend and feel like talking about it, or you just want to get an external perspective. This is a lighthearted way to start reflecting on your habits. Besides listening and being a sounding board, we also have concrete practices to share which help to regain control. One example is the “usage diary”, which aims to provide you with an overview of your intake, which then can help you when reflecting upon potential changes you wish to make. These changes could be small, like choosing in which settings you’d like to use and if there are specific drugs you don’t want to mix or larger adjustments like reducing your intake overall. Our goal is not to stop drug usage but rather to provide information and tools so that drugs can be used as safely as possible. Our practices aim to provide the individual with control, which in the extension leads to more enjoyment from the drugs that are being used.”
Andrea continues to share some recent changes Sonar is seeing at the Berlin drug scene, and which effects they are having.
“There is of course a flora of drugs that you might encounter. Drugs such as MDMA and ecstasy have been a central part of Berlin nightlife for decades, and users tend to sit around in groups, talking or hugging, or spend a good amount of time on the dancefloor. Cocaine used to be more rarely used, but is rapidly gaining in popularity due to increased access to high-quality products in Germany, and one of the downsides is that the atmosphere tends to shift a bit. Lately, we have witnessed a rise in situations that escalate, often involving cocaine usage. A great risk with cocaine and other uppers is also that when combined with alcohol, the uppers will block your drunkenness, but when they wear off the alcohol hits you all at once. This might lead to over-intoxication.”
“During the pandemic, we also saw increased use of downers and different kinds of opioids. It’s an unfortunate turn of events since opioids can get you addicted very quickly. During covid, many people gathered in parks and spontaneous city raves popped up. When the police broke these up, the attendees were often still early in their high. One of the effects stemming from this was that many visitors went home earlier than planned, and when they arrived home they used Benzo or other opioids to get an exit from the long ecstasy high. A new usage pattern basically emerged. These spontaneous parties also led to different subcultures interacting with each other, so you would have people from very disparate lifestyles merging and spending the evening together. This way, usage patterns, and drug habits also cross-pollinated and many picked up habits they didn’t have before the pandemic.”
“Another downer that is gaining more attention is GBL and GHB. The club policies surrounding this specific drug have been intensely discussed for the last few years, one of the reasons being two largely covered overdoses leading to death at Berlin clubs. What we at Sonar are seeing, is that the hard bans have some unwished consequences. When there’s a taboo surrounding a specific drug, the probability that users will share information about their usage with friends tends to drop. Due to this, it has become more difficult for users to keep track of their intake, and there are fewer eyes present to notice early signs of overdoses.”
Andrea continues to share that they have seen great results when working with clubs that use a slightly different approach to GHB than simply introducing a hard ban.
“At some venues, we have been invited to have informational workshops with the staff. During these, we share best practices on how to increase safety for attendees. Regardless of the policy you apply, some visitors will inevitably find ways to partake in GHB usage, and making sure that everyone working at the venue is well-versed in its effects and how to manage an overdose, leads to a safer environment. So far, we are lucky to say that we haven’t seen any severe incidents at the clubs with which we have engaged in this manner.”
Other than engaging with staff, Sonar also meets directly with the club visitors. During the early hours after opening, when the largest amount of drug intake will happen, they are present with information stands at the venues.
“As mentioned, we don’t want to work against drugs or remove them from Berlin nightlife, we just want to provide a toolbox for safer usage and help users to make informed decisions on how, when, and what they consume to reduce risks. One of the ways we do this is with information sheets that we hand out to visitors. We have them available for most of the drugs used in the nightlife, and on them, you can get quickly and easily digested information about the effects of a specific drug, suggested dosage, time to offset, and what an overdose could lead to and how to manage it.”
She also shows me their “safe usage kits” which they gift free of charge to clubgoers. For powder-based substances such as ketamine or cocaine, the kit includes a sanitizer wipe to disinfect the preparation area, a plastic card to fine-deal the powder and divide it into lines, and a sniffer paper that can be rolled up to ingest the powder.
“One recommendation when using powder-based drugs is to always finetune the powder before snorting it. This way, it’s less damaging for your nose and you drastically downsize the risk of nose bleeds or infections like herpes. Another best practice is to always use your own tool for sniffing, and she recommends paper notes, for example, post-its. She explains that it’s easier to “use once and then dispose of” than for example a cut-off straw, and this limits the risk of infections spreading between sessions and the people partaking in them.”
During my talk with Andrea, it becomes clear that she and her colleagues at Sonar are deeply knowledgeable both about safe use practices but also Berlin's underground culture. To work with the organization, you need to have a personal connection to the nightlife scene. This provides Sonar with a unique understanding of the individuals and venues they work with. Only recently the state started founding similar initiatives, but after seeing great results more emphasis has been put on harm reduction through information and education, such as the activities delivered by Sonar. The hope is that these investments will lead to safer and more enjoyable participation for citizens in everything which Berlin has to offer.
If you want to know more about Sonars' safe usage recommendations or get in contact to discuss your own usage, you find further information at safer-nightlife.berlin. Similar experiences to those told by Robert and Markus are shared by many, and we hope that the reflections shared by them and Andrea can inspire and lift taboos.