The German government has agreed to legalize cannabis for medical purposes about a year from now.
Health Minister Hermann Gröhe presented draft legislation to relax rules on marijuana use for certain patients to the cabinet on Wednesday. "Our goal is that seriously ill patients are treated in the best way possible," he said.
The move is a "light at the end of the tunnel" for hundreds of chronically ill patients, the German Foundation for Patient Protection said in a statement. "If parliament endorses the law, these patients will no longer need to wade through a lot of red tape, and illegal private cannabis plantations for medical use will finally be a thing of the past."
The cabinet gave the go-ahead for patients that have no other treatment options beginning early next year, when pharmacies will sell dried cannabis flower buds and cannabis extracts on prescription. According to the draft bill, health insurance policies will cover the cost.
This is a "huge step in the right direction," Georg Wurth told DW. The spokesman for the German Cannabis Association estimates that medical marijuana would benefit up to two percent of the population.
The government's "ideological stubbornness" has penalized patients thus far, he said, adding that if marijuana weren't also a drug, "it would have been permitted for medical purposes in Germany long ago."
Medical marijuana has few opponents, Wurth said, pointing out that even the government's drug abuse commissioner, Marlene Mortler, isn't opposed.
"The limited use of cannabis as medicine is reasonable," the commissioner said. The government has, however, announced plans for additional research on the effects of medical marijuana on the patients who use it.
According to Wurth, three forms of medical marijuana are available in Germany. There's Dronabinol (THC), an oily extract pharmacies mix up according to standardized data. Many patients complain of high costs and a reduced effect in comparison to natural marijuana, Wurth says. The mouth spray Sativex, a cannabis extract, is also approved as a botanical drug available by prescription. Wurth argues that patients complain that this, too, is more expensive than marijuana buds, which have only been a legal option to some patients in Germany since 2008.
Government spokesman Steffen Seibert issued a reminder that using or growing the drug for recreational purposes remains illegal.
Health Minister Gröhe also warned that the move doesn't imply a general legalization of cannabis in Germany.
Countries that allow cannabis use for medical purposes include Portugal, Italy, the Czech Republic and France; in the US, some states have completely decriminalized cannabis.
The use of medical marijuana to treat or relieve a symptom, ailment or condition rather than for recreational purposes dates back thousands of years, and is first mentioned in an ancient Chinese text dating back to about 2700 BC.
In Germany, it's available to patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS, Hepatitis C, Morbus Krohn, asthma, arthritis and depression, to name just a few conditions. They need special approval, and they have to foot the bill. Patients currently have to seek special authorization to use the drugs. According to the government, 647 people in Germany had obtained the necessary permission as of April.
Under the proposed new law, the government plans to set up plantations to grow cannabis under the supervision of the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices. A cannabis agency then sells the crops to specially-licensed German firms. The law still requires parliamentary approval.