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Cannabis in Germany: Legalization with limits

April 1, 2024

The German parliament has voted to approve cannabis for private use, within limits. The opposition and some experts are against it. What is now allowed, what remains prohibited?

Smiling people posing with fake cannabis leaves in front of the Brandenburg Gate, March 31, 2024
People in Berlin celebrated the partial legalization of cannabis in Germany Image: Christian Mang/REUTERS

For supporters, the Bundestag decision finally marks the end of criminalization, while opponents see an increased risk of young people turning to harder drugs even more than before: With the combined votes of the governing center-left coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and business-focused Free Democrats (FDP), the Bundestag in March approved the partial liberalization of cannabis use in Germany. Members of the Left Party also voted in favor.

In concrete terms, this means that since April 1, 2024, people over 18 in Germany are allowed to own and carry 25 grams of cannabis for consumption. What's more, hashish enthusiasts can now grow three cannabis plants in their own homes and store up to 50 grams of dried cannabis.

Consumers, as well as many politicians and health experts, have long been calling for the use of cannabis to be permitted in small quantities, partly to stop the police from spending time and resources on small dealers. In the 2021 coalition agreement, the three governing parties agreed on this in principle and wrote in their coalition agreement: "We are introducing the controlled supply of cannabis to adults for recreational purposes in licensed stores."

But there is no longer any mention of such licensed stores in the law proposed by Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) — at least not yet.

Lauterbach: 'We want to fight the black market'

Initially, the government wants to allow and regulate private consumption, partly in order to relieve the burden on the police and judiciary. From July 1, private clubs with up to 500 members will also be allowed to grow cannabis plants collectively and distribute it to their members.

Commercial stores, such as those in many US states, will not be allowed for the time being, even though this was initially considered by the government. Cannabis consumption is also to be banned near schools, kindergartens, public playgrounds, and sports facilities, and on pedestrian zones in city centers between 7 am and 8 pm.

Legalization elsewhere in the EU

Germany is not the first European country to relax cannabis regulation. The use of small quantities of cannabis has long been decriminalized in Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, and the Netherlands, though there too, certain rules remain in place: Possession is not legal in the Netherlands, for example; its use is only permitted in the famous coffee shops, and anyone wishing to enter them must be able to prove they are of legal age.

The debate about the possibility of legalization has always been characterized by two positions: Some doctors and health experts warn against trivializing cannabis. Neurologist Euphrosyne Gouzoulis-Mayfrank, incoming president of the German Society for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics (DGPPN), has said: "Age is the crucial point in this discussion. I fear that with this law we are casting out the devil and replacing him with Beelzebub."

Cannabis is not as harmless as many think

Young people's brains continue to develop until the age of 25, and cannabis can cause serious damage, particularly of a psychological nature. Other critics warn that the relatively harmless cannabis can be a gateway to harder substances. But supporters such as Janosch Dahmen, a Green Party Bundestag member and himself a doctor, disagree.

"Rising cannabis consumption figures show that the prohibition policy of recent years has not led to fewer people consuming cannabis — on the contrary, consumption by young people in particular continues to increase," Dahmen told DW.

"The aim of the Cannabis Act is therefore to make cannabis use and access safer for informed adults by preventing the distribution of contaminated cannabis substances and curbing the black market," he added.

Cannabis consumption has indeed increased recently, especially among young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. According to the latest figures from the Federal Center for Health Education, half of young people had already used cannabis in 2021. The last time the figure was this high was more than 50 years ago.

The government also wants to introduce an amnesty for previously punishable cases. This prompted the managing director of the German Association of Judges, Sven Rebehn, to speak out, telling the RND news network: "The judiciary is expecting up to 100,000 files to be reviewed nationwide."

Hardly manageable, says Rebehn. The issue of cannabis therefore remains a hot topic in Germany, even after the first step towards legal consumption.

This article was originally written in German.

The traditional, the modern, and cannabis

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau