1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

For pot, against harsh drug laws

Matthias von Hein / jsAugust 7, 2015

In Berlin on Saturday, marchers will come out in force in support of cannabis. Politicians, too, have called for weed's legalization. Many Germans consider prohibition policies to have failed, Matthias von Hein reports.

Hanfparade 2014 in Berlin
Image: Getty Images

Berlin's Hanfparade (Hemp Parade) has now taken place every year since 1997. Last year, according to the official website, 6,500 people demonstrated for the "legalization of cannabis as a resource, medicine and recreational drug in Germany." The activists' efforts appear to have led to results. There is movement in the drug policy debate. In Germany and abroad, more and more people are discussing the failure of prohibition, and some officials are contemplating, even embarking on, new paths.

Medical marijuana is now legal in more than half of the 50 US states, and four states have legalized pot completely. Uruguay recently became the first country in the world to regulate cannabis in its entirety, from planting and growing to consumption. In September 2014, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan even made a dramatic appeal for the liberalization of drug policy at the United Nations: Human health should be the world's priority, he said, not criminal prosecution. In Europe, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Spain have all stopped pursuing recreational smokers. In the Netherlands, the consumption of marijuana and hashish is facilitated by retail sales at coffee shops.

Now, the discussion is picking up steam in Germany: On March 20, the parliament discussed a cannabis compliance law put forth by the Greens. When the neoliberal Free Democrats held their convention in mid-May, a majority of members supported legalization. Carsten Sieling, a Social Democrat and the chief exectutive of the city-state of Bremen, spoke out in favor of legalizing cannabis in July - becoming the first German state premier to do so. He soon had support from Baden-Württemberg State Premier Winfried Kretschmann, a Green. And other Social Democrats - such as Bettina Müller, who sits on the Bundestag's health commission - have also spoken out strongly for legalization.

Federal Drug Commissioner Marlene Mortler, of the Christian Social Union, however, is vehemently opposed to such proposals. "Cannabis is an intoxicating substance, the abuse of which can lead to serious health damage, especially among youths," she wrote in a statement to DW. "Therefore, I am opposed to a general legalization. That would send the wrong message, and essentially play down the dangers of its consumption. The risks are too high." Federal Health Minister Hermann Gröhe, of the allied Christian Democrats (CDU) - Germany's ruling party - is also strictly opposed to any form of legalization.

Dry up the black market

The CDU does have its dissidents when it comes to prohibition. In mid-May, parliamentarian Joachim Pfeiffer called for regulation of the cannabis market in a position paper written together with Greens representative Dieter Janacek. Pfeiffer told DW that the government could dry up organized crime. "I'm betting on the power of freedom - not repression, but rather prevention," Pfeiffer told DW. "And I also believe that there are health policy arguments that suggest that we need to rethink policies that have thus far clearly not worked."

Pfeiffer points out that Germany spends roughly 2 billion euros ($2.2 billion) each year on criminal prosecution, yet this has not reduced availability or consumption. Real prevention programs, however, are only allotted "single-digit, or at a most, low-double-digit million-euro sums." Pfeiffer's calculations also add roughly 2 billion euros in tax revenues, which the state could theoretically collect from sales of legalized cannabis, to the savings resulting from cuts in prosecution expenditures. "If you would say, 'Lets spend a quarter of that - 500 million euros - on prevention, then we would be talking about 10 times the amount that we are investing in prevention right now," Pfeiffer said. "That would be much more effective than what we have been doing so far."

Former Munster Police Chief Hubert Wimber shares Pfeiffer's critical assessment of prohibition. Until his retirement this past June, Wimber saw the effects of federal drug policy with his own eyes every day for 17 years. He told DW that prohibition was more likely to keep people from seeking help. And anyway: "We know that the prospect of criminal punishment rarely keeps anyone from consuming. And, furthermore, we are greatly increasing the expenditure of public funds in areas where we are clearly not having any success."

Criminal justice professor Lorenz Böllinger is also for a radical rethinking of drug policy. "Criminal justice is not the right cure," he told DW. Böllinger does not deny that cannabis can cause many problems, "but one has to deal with these problems impartially, as systematic health care objectives." That means therapy and counseling, rather than criminalization. Böllinger is also the initiator of a resolution put forth by German criminal justice professors calling on parliament to re-examine its repressive drug policies. More than half of all German criminal justice professors have signed the resolution to date.

'Glaring injustice'

Criminal investigators have also joined the discussion. In an 18-page statement prepared for the Bundestag's health select committee, André Schulz, the chairman of the German Confederation of Criminal Detectives, was highly critical of past and current drug policy and demanded a reassessment thereof.

Hamburg criminologist Sebastian Scheerer told DW that there is a "glaring injustice in dealing so very differently with people who have slightly different stimulant preferences: Some potentially face criminal prosecution, while others can legally purchase their stimulants." Scheerer, who directs the University of Hamburg's Institute for Criminological Sociology, says there is no question that "the right to the free development of the individual includes the citizens' preference of stimulants, as long as these do not infringe upon the rights of third parties."

Recent polls confirm the trend toward an acceptance of legalization - even if it seems to be a slow burn. In a poll conducted this June by the German weekly magazine "Stern," 37 percent of respondents said that they would back the legalization of cannabis. Last year that number was 30 percent.