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Legalizing pot

October 25, 2010

Legalizing cannabis in Germany is only a political side issue, but the topic persistently finds its way back into the conversation and the headlines. As California votes on the issue, DW looks at the German situation.

A woman smoking a joint
Cannabis use isn't completely tolerated in GermanyImage: AP

When the Left Party recently campaigned in state elections in North-Rhine Westphalia under the slogan "Right to Smoke," their idea to legalize cannabis made headlines in Germany. The same principal has been in the Green party's program for 10 years. And back in the mid-90s, the Social Democrats' Otto Schily suggested making personal cannabis use legal. But the question didn't come up again when Schily later became interior minister.

Efforts to decriminalize marijuana use for the estimated two million Germans who smoke it, similar to measures in the neighboring Netherlands and Czech Republic, have been gridlocked for some time. Only the Greens and the Left are still actively throwing themselves into the fray.

A marijuana plant
Possession laws vary across GermanyImage: Fotofinder

"It's a so-called 'soft drug,'" said Gregor Gysi, the Left Party's parliamentary leader. "That means its effects are no better or worse than those of alcohol, und just because it is associated with another culture, we treat it differently."

"What we actually need with cannabis is, first of all, strict controls for minors. But for adults business should be open for two reasons: first, it would reduce crime associated with buying and second it would end the practice of large amounts of money being made through cannabis sales."

Hazy laws

Currently in Germany, smoking marijuana itself is not a crime, but growing, possessing and selling it is. The Federal Constitutional Court recommends not enforcing a penalty for possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use, as long as the possessor is not near a school and poses no threat to the public.

But Germany's 16 states don't have the same laws for what constitutes a "small amount" of cannabis. In Berlin it is up to 15 grams (half an ounce); in Munich it's six grams.

A woman smoking in a coffee shop
Coffeeshops selling cannabis are across the border in the NetherlandsImage: AP

Authorities in the state of Bavaria have warned of "increasing ignorance of guilt regarding cannabis consumption" and have started to crack down on smokers, so much that the German Hemp Association has made calls online for letters of protest.

Raphael Gassmann, head of the German Center for Addiction Issues, isn't sure that taking a hard line is the best approach.

"Anyone who thinks hard cannabis legislation - in Germany or internationally - will lead to less consumption is, experience tells us, wrong," said Gassmann. "In comparative law studies we haven't once seen a serious indication that punishing cannabis consumption drastically raises or significantly lowers the practice."

Gassmann said one result of going after marijuana users is that they become criminalized. He adds that can have a devastating effect on their lives if they lose their jobs because of the crime, for example.

Mixed support

In any case, there seems to be conflicting feelings regarding the problem among the German population. In a survey of the German Hemp Association conducted this year, just over 50 percent of Germans approve of a liberal approach with regard to cannabis consumers.

But only a quarter of those surveyed support legalizing growing and personal consumption of cannabis, as well as a government regulation of the drug.

medicinal marijuana
Medicinal marijuana rules could change soonImage: AP

The Social Democrats' parliamentary drug expert, Angelika Graf, considers legalizing cannabis the wrong signal to send. She points out the difficult fight against two other legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

"I don't think we're doing ourselves any favors when we try and reign in use of legal drugs on the one hand and legalize a new drug on the other," she said. "That doesn't work."

No one seriously thinks that Germany's current government coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats will loosen the country's cannabis laws. But, the coalition did recently agree that doctors in Germany will soon be able to prescribe pain medication containing cannabis to seriously sick patients, without applying for special approval every time.

Author: Bernd Graessler (mz)
Editor: Kyle James