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Germany's two-step plan to legalize cannabis

April 14, 2023

Possession of up to 25 grams of recreational cannabis should be allowed, with special clubs permitted to grow plants for members' consumption.

Close-up of a man smoking a joint
A new German government plan would legalize recreational use of cannabisImage: Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images

White smoke has risen above the German Health Ministry. A solution has been found — the cornerstones of a plan to legalize cannabis in Germany have been revised and agreed, and the plan could soon become law.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) tweeted, "The legalization of cannabis is happening," just hours before a press conference where he appeared optimistic. "We're trying to solve a problem," he announced confidently. "The previous cannabis policy has failed."

The number of drug-related offenses in Germany has risen steadily since 2011, he said. The aim is to stop this trend, legalize hashish, offer clean products, dry out the black market and protect young people. Lauterbach explained that his ministry had collaborated with four other departments to develop a two-step model.

Two-step model for cannabis in Germany

In the first step, people over the age of 21 will not be punished for possessing up to 25 grams of "recreational cannabis" for personal consumption. They will be allowed to possess a total of 50 grams per month. People will also be permitted to grow up to three hemp plants per person for their own use, either on their balconies or in their gardens. The Green Party's Cem Özdemir, minister for agriculture, said that a draft law to this effect "is coming in April."

So-called "cannabis social clubs" will be established for distributing marijuana. These clubs will provide members with cannabis products of their own cultivation and production. The clubs, Lauterbach said, will have a maximum of 500 members.

The second step of the German legalization plan will regulate the sale of cannabis. Its initial draft had envisaged distribution controlled by the state to the greatest possible extent, to prevent criminalization through sales, with pharmacists also licensed to sell cannabis to customers over the age of 18.

Cannabis is not as harmless as many think

However, the plan for a state-controlled supply chain all the way from cultivation to point of sale had to be abandoned; partly, it seems, in response to pressure from the European Commission. Under the new draft of the law, it will now only be possible to buy cannabis from specialist licensed shops in certain model regions.

'The black market will be furious'

This time, it looks as if it might really happen. As the minister in charge, Lauterbach — himself formerly an opponent of legalization — laid down the cornerstones of a law in October last year. However, these were regarded as too liberal, while certain aspects contradicted EU regulations. This time, Lauterbach is putting forward a proposal he believes is both legally workable and compatible with the rest of the EU.

Germany's coalition government of SPD, Greens and FDP was, of course, full of praise for the bill. "The criminal dealers will not be happy," commented Agriculture Minister Özdemir. "The black market will be furious."

Kristine Lütke, the FDP parliamentary group's spokesperson on drug policy issues, simply wrote: "Finally!"

Critical voices have, however, been raised among the opposition. Erwin Rüddel, the opposition CDU parliamentary group's health expert, told DW that, "The 'traffic light' coalition's legalization policy is a failure," adding that it had to be borne in mind that "cannabis consumption can lead to psychosis" in young people under 25.

Germany's plan to 'legalize it'

The government's new proposal is no longer about whether to legalize cannabis, but how and when. It makes good on part of the agreement reached by the SPD, Greens and FDP when they came together to enact the controlled distribution of cannabis in licensed businesses to adults for recreational use.

Possession of cannabis, hashish, or marijuana remains illegal in Germany, for now, and is a violation of the country's Narcotics Law, as is possession of harder drugs such as ecstasy, heroin, or cocaine. The government's planned reform could make police and prosecutors' lives easier, as many authorities regard decriminalizing the possession of cannabis as a good idea. The president of the Federal Criminal Police Office, Holger Münch, recently called for cannabis-related crime to be reduced from a criminal offense to an administrative one, leading to a fine rather than a more serious penalty.

Marijuana legalization promises profits

Legalizing cannabis could even become big business for the state. For years, Justus Haucap, director of the Düsseldorf Institute for Competition Economics, has pointed out the economic reasons in favor of legalizing cannabis. He told DW he expected that about 4 million people in Germany would legally consume cannabis.

"We once tried to estimate how much that would be and expect a market volume of about 400 tons, which would be worth between €4 and €5 million," he said, adding that predicted income from the cannabis tax and savings by police and justice officials would total €5 million annually.

Several European countries already have a more liberal drug policy. The use of cannabis is largely legal in the Netherlands and Portugal, while its consumption in Spain is regarded as an administrative offense. Outside of Europe, Canada allows the consumption of cannabis, as do Uruguay and 17 of 50 states in the United States.

Whether legalization in Germany happens soon is still an open question. The Bundestag and Bundesrat, parliament's lower and upper houses, respectively, need to approve the government's plan. Then the draft legislation will require the EU's stamp of approval.

The CDU's Rüddel told DW he is skeptical about a national plan and hopes "that a common EU path" can be found instead. But Health Minister Lauterbach is sticking to plan, saying Germany could be a "role model" for EU drug policy.

This article was originally written in German.

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Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.