8th Dec 2023


German cannabis reform: more mirrors than smoke?

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Although cannabis has been made legal — or at least decriminalised — in over 20 countries, most notably Canada, the announcement last year following the federal election that Germany was to follow suit still caused quite a stir internationally.

Why was this? In part it was because Germany would then become the largest nation in which cannabis was be legal.

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Moreover it was seen as a major act of liberalisation in what to many (probably blinkered) outside observers thought to be a bastion of conservative tradition.

And then there was the domino effect: if Germany, the largest economy and most influential voice in Europe was to concede that cannabis was safe enough to be legalised then surely the rest of Europe would fall into line.

Another aspect was that up till that statement The Netherlands had led the way in more humane and realistic cannabis regulations with their coffee shop model, yet after more than 30 years they hadn't gone the extra step to legalise recreational use.

Finally if Germany was prepared to break from the UN Conventions that prohibit legalisation of cannabis then the whole edifice of the war on drugs could be fatally breeched.

Now we discover that the pro-legalisation campaigners celebrated too soon.

The German government is shrinking back from a fully-open market, looking more towards the Spanish model of cannabis clubs and the allowing of personal home grown products.

And the anti-liberalisation brigade are now rolling out claims of harms from the Spanish model, especially relatively easy access to cannabis in Spain by foreigners. Though why this should be anything other than a benefit to tourism — as it has been in The Netherlands for decades — is not discussed.

The pushback in Germany appears to be coming from the Health rather than Finance or Law ministries. The justifications for limiting progress are not well expounded but the health minister has resurrect the old myths and fears that cannabis leads to schizophrenia and addiction and other illnesses.

And that it is a gateway drug to of other more harmful substances such as heroin and cocaine.

And legalisation will lead to more deaths on the road.

Black-market super-strength skunk

These old tropes, and personal anecdotes of dubious causation, are wheeled out despite it being well known that the mental health harms of cannabis to be largely a product of super-strong d9THC products being the major outputs of the underground supply chain.

Accentuating the content of d9THC to levels of over ten percent leads to the loss of the protective element cannabidiol.

A state-regulated market could ensure that all products on sale had some of the protective cannabidiol present. The Dutch experience of over 30 years of controlled access to recreational cannabis has conclusively proved that cannabis use is not a gateway to harder drugs.

The opposite is true: cannabis coffee shops reduce the use of harder drugs by separating the two markets. To a large extent any gateway effect of cannabis is an artefact of its being illegal and so forcing young users to black-market dealers who will encourage the purchase of harder drugs with the cannabis.

Whether cannabis leads to more road accidents and deaths is highly contested with evidence from Australia suggesting no overall impact perhaps because fewer people use alcohol which is much more impairing of driving.

Brussels backtrack?

There is an opinion that the German decision to backtrack was because of pressure from other member states in the European Union, with the assertion that it was in breech of a 2004 European Union framework decision that requires member states to criminalise the trafficking of illegal drugs.

The tautology of this decision in relation to the German plan should be obvious, its cannabis is made legal then so would its trafficking — at least within Germany. And the concept of illegal drug trafficking would also disappear.

Could there have been lobbying from anti-cannabis campaigners? This is well-known though hard to make transparent. Attempts to legalise recreational cannabis in the USA, South Africa and New Zealand were stalled and thwarted to some extent by puritanical religious groups who oppose the use of all drugs — including alcohol.

Then on the other hand there is the alcohol industry that has supported anti-cannabis lobbyists in the USA and maybe also in New Zealand though the lack of transparency of funding in their referendum campaign makes it hard to be sure.

The drinks industry is the one most threatened by the arrival of a new recreational drug into the open market. Germany has a large alcohol production and entertainment industries and it is possible that these worked behind the scenes to fuel health concerns about cannabis.

So where now for Germany? A hybrid of the best parts of the Dutch and Spanish systems seems a likely forward, since both have been proven to work without incurring the wrath of other Europe member states.

Then throw in the legal growing of up to three plants for good measure, probably with a licence.

At least one German state has offered to become trial sites for a further step of trying out cannabis stores like is happening in Switzerland. Whatever the final decision progress will have been made and this will surely encourage other European countries move in the same direction.

Author bio

David Nutt is professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London and founder of Drug Science UK. He was formerly the UK government's chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, until disagreeing with the government on the relative harms of cannabis and ecstasy, against alcohol and tobacco.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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