Legalising cannabis: Germany first, Europe next?

Legalising cannabis: Germany first, Europe next?
Опубликовано: Thursday, 09 February 2023 15:10
If Germany follows through with promised full legalisation of cannabis in 2024, will the rest of Europe follow suit?

The German ‘traffic light’ coalition of the SPD, Greens, and Liberals promised in their 2021 post-election governing manifesto to not just decriminalise cannabis — but to be the first country in Europe legalise it.

Nearly 18 months later, and with a battle with Brussels looming over the move, not to mention the likely knock-on effects of Europe’s largest (by population) and richest nation effectively making marijuana another lifestyle choice, like alcohol, how is that going?

  • Georg Wurth, head of the German Cannabis Association [Deutscher Hanfverband]

EUobserver spoke to Georg Wurth, the head of the German Hemp Association [Deutsche Hanfverband] in Berlin, to assess the likely pitfalls and potential.

The German Cannabis Association was set up in 2002 to lobby for cannabis legalisation, and comprises individual supporters, cannabis groups, and industry groups.

EUobs: Let’s get straight to the point — what is the latest state of play with the cannabis legislation, both within the governing coalition, and in the Bundestag?

Georg Wurth: Especially this week, since you ask me now, it is complicated. Because there is much speculation in the media, and among stakeholders, that the government is talking about ‘new approaches’.

They’re [the government] realising that there might be obstacles against it — like the European Union. And also our second chamber of parliament, the Bundesrat [upper house], and also the German regions [Lander] are coming together, a bit like in the USA (where some states are for and some are against).

And so it still might not happen, because the Christian Democrats (CDU) have a majority in the second chamber — and they can stop the show there.

So now everybody is speculating that legalisation might be done in two steps — first, decriminalisation of the consumers (including also home growers, and cannabis social clubs). That would all be possible without EU interference, as we see in Malta, the first European country that really did decriminalisation, including the clubs.

So decriminalisation, if that is the first step, would not lead to retail outlets? — to shops, or dispensaries, or ‘coffeeshops’?

Yes, that’s correct. That would be the second step. The government still want to do that, there is nobody saying we’re quitting this as a goal — but they also realise there is much upset and unrest about how long that will take and we still have police going around hassling and harassing people. We have 180,000 cases every year against just cannabis consumers — not dealers, just consumers. And that’s a lot. So we have big police pressure [on consumers] — it differs across the German regions — but altogether, that is crazy. And people want to see results now, after 1.5 years already.

Do the police in Germany take an official position on cannabis legalisation? Are they in favour of it, in terms of how much of their time it could free up?

No, absolutely not. The police have been since the start our biggest opponent. Every hearing, every meeting at a government department, every time there are representatives of police associations there. And they are always against cannabis legalisation. As an institution, they are they are the most important proponent of prohibition, I would say. And there’s only very slow movement there. There is movement, but it’s very slow.

So how strong is the support within the traffic-light coalition? I would presume the Greens are the strongest proponents, but are all three parties still committed to it?

Yes. There is no big difference between them, especially not between the policy speakers of those three factions. They are all marching in the direction of legalisation and there is not too much discussion about details, and no fights. And that’s a good thing. It’s the only possibility to get it done at all — if they want to fight all the time, it would be very difficult.

But they still have to fight a bit with the government.

But aren’t they the government?

Well, there’s a parliament and there’s a government. Big difference. Division of power. So the government is not that enthusiastic about the project. But the health minister, Karl Lauterbach [SPD], he also has to be pushed to prioritise the whole thing.

Last year, at first he said ‘well, we’ll do it next year, and we will start the process this year’. And it was clear that it’s a very complicated process and we had to start right away. That took a while for him to understand that

I would have thought Lauterbach is a good figurehead — from your point of view — because he’s a medical doctor, who is not personally particularly in favour of cannabis. He’s doing it as a harm-reduction measure, that’s his argument.

Yes. And he really wants it [this legislation], he understands that it’s really better for society. A ‘health approach’, which is also true of most parliamentarians. That makes the civil rights argument less important, they don’t care so much about that, it’s the health outcomes for consumers. And it’s a problem they didn’t divide those two issues from the beginning, because we wanted them to do decriminalisation immediately — because it’s much less complicated.

There are no hurdles with either the Bundesrat or the European Commission. Only a sentence in our drug law needs to change. Whereas the complete legalisation and regulation of the market is hundreds of pages of law. Every single little detail in every paragraph needs to be changed, and that makes it much more complicated.

So the first step should have been stopping hassling people [who buy cannabis]. They said it doesn’t contribute to health [outcomes] because there’s still a black market, there’s still contaminated drugs, and so on. We have to regulate and test products. Which is right, obviously, but have state prosecution and repression of people in their hundreds of thousands was not a big argument for health[-focussed] politicians.

So, if it happens in Germany in 2024, what will it look like, at street level? Will there be chemists or dispensaries, will there be coffeeshops like in the Netherlands, will it be online, will it be grass and hash, or will there be edibles? What level of detail is being discussed inside the government?

For sure, it’s part of the discussion. But they don’t let us see many of the details. They have their key points, which the health minister showed us at the end of October 2022. There was no mention of edibles, there was no upper THC thresholds (which had been in an earlier leaked draft), outdoor growing was not included (which, for us, is not really understandable, because that’s a way more ecological way to grow. It doesn’t use electricity for lamps and so on).

Germany has such a historically strong green and ecological movement, I guess another issue is legalisation would another ‘market within a market’, for organic cannabis, no pesticides, etc?

This is all stuff which is discussed within the ministries. But not publicly discussed, that comes when it goes to the Bundestag. Until then, we are all waiting for Lauterbach to give us the real draft of the law, which he said would come at the end of March. I’m sceptical — there’s only a few weeks left, and they are far from finished.

So if you had to bet, how much money would you put on Germany fully-legalising cannabis in 2024, as promised?

Ha! 50/50? I’m an optimist, so let’s say 60 percent? I think if nothing else, it will be decriminalised next year. That’s much easier than full legalisation. And you hear that discussion more and — let’s do decriminalisation first, and then let’s see what the European Commission says about the whole legalisation thing.

So this is the obvious question. How did they not foresee a problem with the European Commission?

They did! They knew there were obstacles, but they were more confident they could get it done than they are now. Decriminalisation is no problem for the EU, so that’s why they are now saying let’s do that first.

It’s the same thing with the Bundesrat upper chamber, which needs to give a ‘yes’ to legalisation. The Bundestag [lower chamber] could do decriminalisation alone.

Does the Bundesrat have an actual veto power, or can they just delay?

Yes, they can veto it.

You mentioned money. Do you have an estimate for what the total German cannabis market might be worth under legalisation, and therefore, how much tax revenue the government might receive?

We think it’s about €4bn a year. That’s about 400 tonnes of cannabis with an average price of €10 a gramme.

And how much tax revenue would that raise?

We had a study done on that a couple of years ago, and all together it’s about €4.7bn for state tax coffers. But that includes €1bn in savings for police and prisons and judges, and so on. The tax revenue alone I think was about €1.7bn a year. Really serious amounts of money, and we estimated about 20,000 jobs for people in the selling market alone. About the same number of people now working in ‘brown coal’ in Germany, which now needs to be shut down, for example.

So my biggest question, which is I think what a lot of our readers, whether they use cannabis or not, will be interested in is if it does go ahead in 2024 what do you think the knock-on effects will be for the rest of continental Europe?

It will have a huge ‘ripple’ effect, in fact it is already. It’s sending shockwaves around the globe, to have a German government which says we want to legalise cannabis.

Because everybody knows the EU traditionally does not want to have a member state that says we want to legalise cannabis. It’s not really clear what the treaties say, what the law says. Some experts say it’s possible, some say it’s not possible, at the end, it will be more a political question.

Luxembourg had the same issue — a government that says we want to legalise cannabis and regulate the market. And after three years, they said that’s not possible under EU law, so we won’t, and they just decriminalised and let people grow at home. But it was the EU stopping them. And we are in this situation. And whether Germany gets it done will now be the key for other countries. The Czech Republic is working in parallel to Germany, and also saying they want to legalise — we could even legalise at the same moment. And Luxembourg is now the same story. Spain is not calling for full legalisation, at the moment it is Germany and the Czech Republic publicly calling for it.

In a funny way, you’re saying Germany would be a leader — but in another way, Germany is playing catch up, because about half the US states have legalised, as has Canada?

Yes. But worldwide, out of 170+ countries, there are two that have fully legalised cannabis. Canada, and Uruguay. And that’s it. Of course, the US states are important, but it’s not nationwide. And the Netherlands had the coffeeshops, but no regulation of the whole market. Nobody knows where it [Dutch coffeeshop cannabis] comes from.

So the question is who’s next? And Germany is a big player. It’s about the political, and cultural, change, that will go around the world. It’s possible, it makes sense, and there are no big problems attached to it that can’t be solved. And it will be seen that cannabis will become a normal, everyday product.

So, if this all goes according to plan and marijuana is legalised in Germany in 2024, you’ll be out of a job?

[Laughs] This is the mother of all FAQ! Yes. Maybe different institutions will still exist then, because the market will become bigger, and there will be more money in the system. But you’re right — our main mission will have been completed. What I’ll do personally, then? — we’ll see!