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420 day: Berlin rally demands immediate legalization

April 20, 2022

Hundreds of marijuana users gathered in the German capital to mark 420, the annual cannabis celebration, and demand legalization of the drug. Germany's new government has promised a new law.

Demonstrators at a 420 Day event in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Image: Ben Werner Knight/DW

At least 500 pro-legalization protesters gathered in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate on Wednesday for 420, the annual April 20 celebration marked by cannabis consumers around the world, to urge the government to move forward with its plans to decriminalize the drug.

The police presence, enough to fill several police vans parked around the demo, prevailed on organizers to turn the German hip-hop and rap music down, but made no overt attempt to trace the many clouds of smoke hanging above the small crowd.

The gathering was made up of activists, rappers, former police officers, people who use cannabis for medical treatments and several small business owners who used the opportunity to promote cannabis-friendly products, from "ecological" hemp and beeswax firelighters to an all-in-one cannabis grow kit, complete with fume extractor and power unit.

A man in a black sports quote with large and small weed leaves stands with another man
Martin Montana (left) said the government could decriminalize cannabis tomorrow if it wanted toImage: Ben Werner Knight/DW

Promises but no action

An estimated 4 million people in Germany consume cannabis, and the coalition contract presented by Chancellor Olaf Scholz's new government last December was clear enough about its aims.

"We will introduce the controlled distribution of cannabis to adults for recreational purposes in licensed stores," the government promised, before detailing its reasons. "This will ensure quality, prevent the proliferation of impure substances and guarantee youth protection. We will evaluate the law's social consequences after four years."

But five months on and there has been no word or timetable about when legal stores might be opened, and pro-cannabis activists are getting impatient at what they consider unnecessary foot-dragging. After all, the Green Party, now a part of the government coalition, has already presented a draft law to the Bundestag in the last few years and seen it defeated.

"All they have to do is sign it," said Martin Montana, dressed in a suit decorated from head to foot with florescent green marijuana leaves. "What's important is protecting young people, making sure it's not dealt in schoolyards — all that's logical, just like with alcohol."

Montana is a former soldier who said he used cannabis to cope with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. "I need it to control my flashbacks, and for the last 20 years I've managed to do that," he said. "I just want to do that peacefully and legally."

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The pro-legalization judge

One of Germany's most famous and passionate legalization campaigners is Andreas Müller, a judge at a Berlin juvenile court who has been persistently outraged at the amount of police and judicial time he thinks is wasted on prosecuting drug consumers.

"I thought it would happen quickly now, I thought they'd bring a draft law into parliament," the 60-year-old told DW. "There's a Green Party draft law ready to go."

But rushing through a law would be counterproductive, according to the government. A spokesman for Burkhard Blienert, the federal commissioner for drugs and addiction, said several ministries have to be included in framing the law, listing the Agriculture, Economy, Finance, Justice and Foreign ministries as examples.

"Each of these houses must make a contribution, and all these contributions have to be minutely coordinated with one another," he told DW in a statement. "Also the state governments, local authorities, schools, addiction help organizations and police have to prepare for the altered situation."

"Mr. Blienert regularly emphasizes that rushed jobs would not do justice to the complexity of the plan," the spokesman said. "The aim is to make a success of the agreement on cannabis in the coalition contract that endures beyond a day."

Code 420 Demonstration in Berlin, a person with his arm around the shoulder of a person dressed as a mascot
Cannabis-friendly entrepreneurs took to the streets of Berlin on WednesdayImage: Ben Werner Knight/DW

Grinding cogs of government

Müller has absolutely no time for such arguments. "The police don't have to prepare at all! They'll be completely unburdened the very next day, with just one little law!" he said. "I know a lot of police officers, I spent 20 years as a lecturer for the police, and they would be very happy if they didn't have to pursue people."

Two pro-legalization organizations, the German Hemp Association (DHV) and the Network for Legalization, have set up an online stat-ticker — based on criminal statistics and a DHV study on the potential tax revenue of legalized cannabis — that counts the estimated number of "consumption-related" criminal prosecutions and the estimated lost taxes with every second the government fails to  introduce legal cannabis sales. On April 20, 132 days into the new German government, the ticker stood at over 68,000 prosecutions and over €1.7 billion ($1.8 billion).

A study published last year by the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf calculated that dealing with cannabis-related crime incurred €1.63 billion in police costs in 2020, plus €444.7 million in court costs. Factoring in both savings and tax revenue, the study found, cannabis legalization could bring the state €4.7 billion a year.

Another prominent speaker at Wednesday's demo was Hubert Wimber, former police president in the city of Münster and now head of the German branch of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of police officers and lawyers.

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Wimber said decriminalization was just an initial step. "It's about creating a regulated market with the aim of pushing back and ultimately destroying the black market," he told DW. "That's what we all want as consumers: A transparent market with reasonable criteria for active ingredients and concrete youth protection rules. I know from my experience that criminal markets do not protect young people at all."

Though decriminalization would have an instant effect, and could be done quickly, the process of legalization could take several years, as it would involve setting up the farming, processing, and retail sale of cannabis in licensed stores.

Medicinal cannabis has been legal in Germany since 2017, and, in practice, many cannabis-related prosecutions in Germany are dropped by state prosecutors because the amounts involved are so low.

"But at the same time, there are 57,000 convictions in German courts of consumers of illegal drugs," said Wimber. "That's a scandal — consumers don't harm anyone, they don't infringe on the rights of any other people. It's completely absurd."

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight