German Health Minister lays out next steps for cannabis legalisation

On a special episode of Germany’s popular satirical “Heute Show”, Karl Lauterbach admitted to having smoked weed and came out personally in favour of legalisation - having previously spoken out against it.

Hemp parade Berlin
A demonstrator at the 'Hemp Parade' on August 13th in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

“It was pleasant, I have to say. It brings back pleasant memories,” the Health Minister said, describing his own experience with smoking marijuana. 

His Heute Show interviewers Fabian Köster and Lutz van der Horst then got a little serious for a second. “But, in the beginning, you were against legalisation?”

“That’s correct,” Lauterbach responded matter-of-factly. “But the safety and security aspects of legalisation have changed in the last years, in my opinion. I’m now for legalisation.”

The SPD Health Minister coming out for legalisation put an end to some rumours that he was being pushed into it by the socially liberal Free Democrats, who negotiated cannabis legalisation as a key part of their coalition agreement with the SDP and Greens to form the three-way “traffic light” government.

READ ALSO: How’s Germany’s next government is planning to legalise cannabis

Once legalised, Germany could well have one the most liberal cannabis regimes in Europe. While many European countries have legalised marijuana for medical use, so far only Malta has legalised it for personal, recreational use. People there may have as much as seven grams in their possession and grow four plants.

The Netherlands, contrary to an oft-held belief, hasn’t legalised cannabis—but rather decriminalised it. Possession of five grams or less is simply not prosecuted and the sale and consumption of small amounts in a coffee shop is tolerated.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach in Belrin in early July. Photo: dpa | Kay Nietfeld

What Germany’s traffic light coalition has in mind is potentially much further reaching, and more in line with how marijuana legalisation looks like in Canada. Cannabis could be regulated and taxed here, with over €5 billion a year in potential tax revenues.

It’s also likely to be available in specially licensed premises to people over 18, similar to Amsterdam’s coffee shops, but also in pharmacies.

Lauterbach emphasised that his legal team was working to make sure such an ambitious legalisation approach would be in line with EU law, but says he doesn’t anticipate any problems.

READ ALSO: Germany set to legalise cannabis ‘soon’, says minister

So when might people be able to legally buy weed in Germany? The government will likely finish drafting its law to go before the Bundestag sometime before the end of this year, before finally coming into force in early 2023.

But it could take longer than that to set up all the supporting infrastructure.

“I would say 2024 at the earliest,” SPD MP Dirk Heidenblut told Augsburger Allgemeine. “Where are we going to get so much legal, quality-controlled cannabis from so quickly? I’m not sure we’ll have huge cannabis fields here anytime soon.”


Controlled distribution – (die) kontrollierte Abgabe

Legalisation – (die) Legalisierung

“Joint” or slang term for cannabis – (das) Bubatz

Decriminalisation – (die) Entkriminalisierung

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‘Controlled distribution’: How Germany will legalise recreational cannabis

Amsterdam may soon have a rival as the European capital of cannabis, with Germany's next government planning to legalise recreational use of the drug.

a national flag bearing a marijuana leaf
A picture taken on August 10, 2019 in Berlin shows a national flag bearing a marijuana leaf during the 23rd Hanfparade, a traditional German-wide pro-Cannabis march, to ask for its legalisation. John MACDOUGALL / AFP

The centre-left SPD, Greens and liberal FDP, which presented their plans for Germany’s next ruling coalition on Wednesday, have agreed to ease rules on personal use of cannabis.

“We will introduce the controlled distribution of cannabis to adults for consumption purposes in licensed stores,” the parties said in their coalition contract.

“This will control the quality, prevent the circulation of contaminated substances and ensure the protection of minors,” the document says.

Current German law allows cannabis plants to be grown, sold, owned, imported or exported, and people with certain medical conditions can be prescribed cannabis-based drugs.

Private recreational use of the drug is banned — though police often turn a blind eye to possession of small amounts.

The Greens and FDP have long been pushing to legalise cannabis, while the SPD has proposed testing regulated distribution of the drug in pilot projects.

‘Positive effects’

It is not yet clear whether cannabis in Germany would be sold in tobacco shops, Amsterdam-style “coffee shops” or pharmacies, but the aim is to make it easier to control who can buy it — and what they are getting.

According to the German Cannabis Association, substances that can end up in black-market weed include sand, hairspray, talcum powder, spices or even glass and lead.

Experts also say marijuana can be contaminated with heroin or synthetic cannabinoids, up to 100 times stronger than natural psychoactive cannabinoids.

Legalising the drug could generate around 4.7 billion euros ($5.3 billion) a year in public finances, according to a recent study by the Heinrich-Heine University in Duesseldorf.

The study also predicts that legalising cannabis would create around 27,000 jobs.

The prohibition of cannabis costs the taxpayer billions every year in “senseless prosecutions”, according to Georg Wurth, director of the German Cannabis Association.

Wurth also asserted that the ban “promotes organised crime by giving it exclusive access to a market worth billions.”

He argued that legalisation would “have multiple positive effects for users, but also for society as a whole.”

Health risks?

At the Mary Jane Berlin cannabis expo in October, visitor Linda Moedebeck told AFP she was in favour of legalisation because it would help control the quality of the drug.

“With illegally bought substances, you never really know what’s inside and I just find that very dangerous,” she said.

“Everybody smokes who wants to smoke anyway, so I don’t think consumption would go up as a result,” said another visitor, Sven Baum.

Wurth had the same opinion, saying legalisation is unlikely to worsen health problems associated with the drug. “Since a significant increase in consumption is not to be expected, (an) increase in the various problems caused by consumption is not to be expected either,” he said.

But not everyone is in favour of the plan, with Angela Merkel’s CDU-CSU conservative alliance warning that regular use of the drug can pose health risks for some people.

Stephan Pilsinger, the CDU’s pointman on drug policy, accused the coalition parties of performing an “experiment on the health of our society and our young people”.

“Should the state really earn money by plunging its citizens into the danger of addiction, permanent psychoses and physical and mental suffering? I think that is immoral,” he told AFP.

Some experts have warned that cannabis use among young people can affect the development of the central nervous system, leading to an increased risk of developing psychosis and schizophrenia.

Sustained use has also been linked to respiratory diseases and testicular cancer.

Daniela Ludwig, drugs commissioner for the outgoing government, has accused the coalition parties of risking “the health of the population for the sake of a supposed Zeitgeist”.

The legalisation of cannabis would “trivialise the dangerous nature of this drug”, she told the Rheinische Post newspaper.