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Reefer Madness Behind the Iron Curtain

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from guest writer Dr. Ned Richardson-Little, and it begins a two-week special series on drug use in East Germany during the Communist period. Richardson-Little is a Freigeist Fellow at the University of Erfurt, Germany, where he is currently leading a major research project on the history of “deviant globalization” in modern Germany. Originally from Canada, he studied at McGill University and received his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has previously worked at the University of Exeter (UK). If you’re interested in learning more about the sources in this post, contact Richardson-Little at

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Dr. Ned Richardson-Little

In Junky, William S. Burrough’s 1953 memoir of his experiences as a heroin user, he captures the paranoia of the early Cold War in America in a conversation about drugs:

“Tell me,” I said, “exactly what is the tie-up between narcotics and Communism?”

“You know the answer to that one a lot better than I do […] The same people are in both narcotics and Communism. Right now, they control most of America.”

The idea that communists were behind narcotics was hardly a fringe notion and it was often advanced publicly by the US Drug Czar Harry Anslinger and other state officials. Anslinger claimed that there was a global communist conspiracy to use drugs as a weapon against capitalism on the path to global domination. He warned of “Red China’s long range dope-and-dialectic assault on America” and claimed that Cuba’s Fidel Castro had “joined the hammer and sickle – and the narcotic needle,” by assisting the People’s Republic of China in trafficking drugs into the US. In 1948, he testified to Congress that “Marijuana leads to pacifism and Communist brainwashing.” In the early Cold War, drug warriors in the West saw the fight against narcotics and communism as a singular conflict.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, however, Communists were equally concerned about the dangerous impact of narcotics and addiction, which they believed were the product of a diseased capitalist society. While many leftists in the West saw recreational drug consumption as part of an anti-capitalist counterculture, the state socialists of the Eastern Bloc were just as vehemently opposed to narcotics as capitalist anti-drug warriors.

Look at the example of East Germany – the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Far from embracing drugs as liberating or mind-opening, Party officials and state media portrayed narcotics as a capitalist poison with no redeeming political value, and which inevitably led to addiction and dissolution. In the 1950s and 1960s, the press in the GDR warned of recreational cannabis as a dangerous new trend from the United States brought to Europe by American occupation forces in West Germany. When the drug scene in the West exploded in the 1960s and 1970s, this became part of the existential threat to the socialist project that constantly emanated from the West. Preventing the proliferation of a drug culture was part of the preservation of the socialist project against the undermining forces of consumerist dissolution.

Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the spread of drugs was often seen as part of a communist plot in the West. But East German rhetoric always linked together the horrors of drug addiction with Western capitalism. The rise in youth using drugs was directly attributed to the failings of capitalist society: “Millions of children in the ‘free world’ swallow or inject drugs, fleeing their unsatisfactory existence they want to forget for a few hours,” read an article in the Berliner Zeitung. Facing a bleak future in a capitalist society, young people chose narcotics to escape their dark reality, in contrast to the hopeful future expected by the children growing up under socialism where such abuse did not take place.

The profit motive was also blamed as a root cause. In a speech in 1980 by Erich Honecker, the leader of the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED), he denounced the “narcotics and hashish society” of the West, which was emblematic of the suffering produced by the capitalist order. “This appalling phenomenon” was the result of “those who bring the drug to the masses make profits up to a thousand percent.” Just as many in the West saw narcotics addiction as the dark side of modern post-war consumerism, so too did Eastern Bloc socialists seeking to discredit the whole of the market capitalist system.

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1973 East German magazine claiming “Drugs Destroy Life” and “Business with Drugs”

With the proliferation of drug use across the West, and West Germany in particular, East German official rhetoric on narcotics shifted to also viewing drugs as threat to socialism itself. Drugs were not regarded as a path to the revolution for East German officials; instead, they served as a distraction. As one headline put it, “Hashers don’t read Das Kapital.” Stoners living communes were seen as degenerates more concerned with orgies than reading the classics of Marxism-Leninism. Whereas the West saw communism behind its own drug wave, the GDR media claimed that the widespread use of cannabis was part of a wider sinister plot by the imperialist powers. East German media warned that drug culture represented a “deadly freedom that only served capitalism.” The Ministry for State Security, the Stasi, spoke ominously of the “manipulation of youth” by chemical means. In these renderings, narcotics and other chemicals were used to keep socialist civilian populations docile. Instead of expanding minds, the SED and the Stasi interpreted hashish and other drugs as a method for their ideological opponents to deter them from true path of socialism.

As a result, drugs now represented a threat that needed to be held back at the East German border. To deal with the threat of ideological contamination, the SED had implemented what it called a policy of demarcation – Abrengzung – to ensure the separation of the East German socialist state from the harmful influences of the West. As one text in 1971 described it, they aimed to prevent contact “against anything harmful to our country, against drugs and ideological perversion, against hash and heroin, against nationalist reaction and social democratism.” Just as harmful ideas could cross the borders through radio and TV broadcasts, it was the duty of the SED to prevent the poison of narcotics from seeping through the Berlin Wall to afflict the people of East Germany.

The parallels between East and West in embracing the prohibition of non-medical uses of drugs including cannabis, cocaine and opioids went beyond blaming their ideological rivals. Eastern Bloc depictions of drugs borrowed deeply from the cultural representations and expert discourses of the West. In post-war East German, media representations of drugs came straight from American anti-marijuana propaganda films of the 1930s like Reefer Madness or the Assassin of Youth, but with a socialist twist. In East Germany, it was understood that cannabis caused madness, uncontrolled sexual lust, and violent crime. But as much as marijuana-induced psychosis led to immoral behavior, East German depictions claimed its links to crime were part of an economic function of addiction under capitalism. Teen drug addicts turned to “burglaries, muggings – even murder” to get the cash for their expensive habit, not just because drugs made them lose control of their rational faculties.

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Textbook title: “On the Rainbow Rides Death: Drug Addiction and Drug Abuse”

State socialist experts also copied Western theories about gateway drugs. One East German textbook warned of the “gatekeeper function” of cannabis likening its dangers to “domino theory.” 

“Although hashish arouses an appetite for nirvana, it does not quench it,” the textbook argued, but “heroin delivers what hash promises!” For antidrug warriors in East Germany, the drug career led from hashish, hallucinogens, stimulants and barbiturates directly to the opiates–the gateway theory remaining the same in both the West and the Eastern Bloc. 

When some countries began to propose the legalization of marijuana in the 1970s, the East German government strenuously objected: in one report to the United Nations, the GDR’s Central Bureau of Addictive Substances stated, “In our opinion cannabis has to be a narcotic drug with all consequences – now and in the future.” The liberalization of access to cannabis for any reason was deemed completely out of the question.

In the end, anti-drug sentiment represented a commonality across the ideological divide of the Cold War because narcotics served as a repository for a variety of fears of both capitalists and socialists alike. Both sides dreaded the corruption of the youth, the infiltration of the enemy via biological contamination, and the possibilities of consumption run amok. While the ideological explanations were contrary, West and East found ways to see the other as the central source of narcotics abuse on a global scale. Although prohibition of narcotics is often associated with American puritanism, the rejection of recreational drug use fit the Eastern Bloc’s ethos of self-denial in pursuit of higher goals and the generalized suspicion of hedonism beyond strict boundaries determined by state authorities. 

But could you actually get drugs behind the Iron Curtain? This will be explored in the next post…


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