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Why Germany could be on the brink of legalising cannabis

A pro-cannabis demonstration in Berlin in 2019. Photo: dpa | Paul Zinken
All three parties engaged in coalition talks in Germany plan to loosen the ban on cannabis possession. What exactly do they want and what do medical and legal experts think of the proposals?

While much of the discussion over the next government’s agenda has focused on climate change and state finances, one important change that could come into force in the next four years is a decriminalisation of cannabis.

All three of the parties currently engaged in coalition talks – the Greens, the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Social Democrats (SPD) – pledged in their election manifestos to reform the laws around cannabis use.

What exactly do the parties want?

The Green party make clear in their manifesto that they want a whole new approach to drug control starting with the controlled legalisation of marijuana.

Under their plans, licensed shops would be allowed to sell the psychoactive substance. The Greens state that “strict youth and user protection” would be the centre point of their legislation and hope to “pull the rug from under the black market”.

The FDP also favour the creation of licenced shops. Their manifesto highlights the health benefits, tax windfalls and reallocation of police resources that legalisation would create.

“Only the sale of cannabis in licensed stores ensures quality control and stops contaminated substances from being sold,” the liberal party believe. Up to €1 billion in new tax revenues would be invested in addiction and prevention programmes, they say.

The centre-left Social Democrats also think that a reform of Germany’s prohibition stance is long overdue.

“Prohibition and criminalisation have not reduced consumption, they prevent effective addiction prevention and tie up enormous resources in the judiciary and police,” the party manifesto states.

The SPD are nonetheless more cautious than the smaller parties in their legalisation plans. They would like to initially set up pilot projects that are accompanied by counselling for young people.

What is the current state of the law?

Possession of cannabis is currently illegal across the entire country. Those caught in carrying the substance can face anything from a fine to five years in jail.

However, the justice system generally looks away if you are caught carry small quantities for personal use. This won’t apply though if you have a previous conviction.

The definition of personal use differs from state to state, with Berlin having the most liberal rules and Bavaria the tightest.

People caught in possession of cannabis risk no longer being able to apply for a driving licence or having their driving licence taken away until they attend a psychological assessment.

Medical marijuana has been available on prescription since 2017 although many doctors are reportedly reluctant to prescribe it due to the hurdles involved in having the costs compensated by health insurers.

READ MORE: Patients in Germany still face hurdles accessing medical marijuana

What’s the reaction so far?

Police unions reacted with concern this week to speculation that the parties were hashing out a plan to legalise the drug.

Oliver Malchow, from the GdP police union, said that “it doesn’t make any sense to legalise another dangerous drug on top of alcohol”.

“We need to finally stop making light of the dangers of joints,” Malchow told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, explaining that cannabis leads to social conflict between teenagers and youths.

Rainer Wendt from the German Police Union said that “if stoned people start getting into cars and driving anytime soon, we’re going to have a problem”.

Concerns about the negative consequences for teenagers are also shared by medical experts.

Meanwhile, Rainer Thomasius, a child psychiatrist from Hamburg who has conducted research into the effects of cannabis on teenage cognitive development, told broadcaster WDR that legalisation would be harmful.

“We have a whole set of scientific findings that show that cannabis consumption among teenagers is anything other than child’s play,” he said.

He warned that teenagers quickly become dependent on the drug and often cannot keep up in school as a result.

Doctors in regions of the US where cannabis has been legalised have reported an increase in cases of serious side effects among the young, claims Thomasius, who also warns that legalisation is being pushed by a cannabis lobby hoping to make billions of euros in profits.

‘Prohibition of cannabis is unconstitutional’

The issues of whether legalisation has been a blessing or a curse in the US, where cannabis is now legal for recreational use in over a dozen states, cause particular disagreement among German experts.

“Studies from abroad show that consumption among young people does not increase significantly after decriminalisation and strict regulation,” Lorenz Böllinger, a professor of criminology at Bremen University, told the Local. He points out that “cannabis has been easily available on the black market for a long time”.

Böllinger, who has long campaigned for legalisation, makes an even more fundamental point: he argues that prohibition is actually unconstitutional.

“In criminal law, the state is only allowed to forbid things which impair and damage the fundamental rights of other people! Harming oneself is not a punishable offense,” he says. 

“The legal justification [for cannabis prohibition] is ‘damage to public health’. But this justification contradicts the German constitution. By that measure, consuming alcohol, tobacco or chocolate would have to be declared an offense.”

SEE ALSO: Seven things to know about weed in Germany

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