When you think of Germany, big steins of beer are probably among the images most synonymous with the country.
With good reason: Germans are one of the keenest consumers of beer in the EU - only Austrians and Czechs drink more per capita.
But now another vice is threatening to vie for the attention of partygoing Germans: cannabis.
The country's likely new government -- following a landmark election in September -- is mulling the drug's legalisation.
The cannabis coalition?
The left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD), Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) have been locked in intense coalition negotiations in recent weeks.
Though it is still not guaranteed, all signs point to the three parties forming a government, replacing the outgoing “Grand Coalition” of the SPD and centre-right CDU.
While many policy specifics need to be coloured in, the broad outline of political shifts under the likely coalition has largely been sketched out.
One area that’s sure to change is Germany’s drug policy.
It’s created such a buzz that Georg Wurth, President of the German Hemp Association, has spent the weeks following the election fielding near-constant phone calls.
“Everyone is excited because it could really happen," Wurth told Euronews. "Germany could become the third nation in the world to totally legalise cannabis.”
According to Wurth, decriminalisation, which removes criminal penalties for consumption, typically precedes full legalisation and is the more likely outcome, though the parties are still negotiating.
“In the last 20 years or so, the assumption was that decriminalisation would come first, then legalisation would be the next step. We’ll see if we really do it all at once,” he said.
All three parties campaigned around reforming cannabis laws, calling for regulation of the sale and consumption of the drug and ending Germany’s criminal prohibition. Current coalition talks, with heavy pressure mounted by the youth wings of all three parties, will determine if reform shakes out as decriminalisation or full-on legalisation.
Germany’s current drug laws could go up in smoke
Cannabis is by far the most popular illegal drug in Germany.
According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), 19.5% of young adults between 15 and 24 years of age consumed marijuana at least once in 2019, a slight increase from previous years.
Germans aren’t alone in their consumption. The EMCDDA estimates that more than 27% of Europeans have tried cannabis at least once.
Germany is also in line with much of the rest of the continent when it comes to cannabis policy: marijuana is only legal for medical use.
Recreational cannabis, meanwhile, is illegal. Possession is punishable by fine, or in extremely rare cases, up to five years in prison. A large number of possession cases are dropped when they revolve around “a small amount” of cannabis, a distinction that can range from 6 to 15 grams depending on the state.
Still, according to Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office, cannabis accounted for 77% of registered drug offences in 2020. The vast majority of these offences focus on drug consumers, not sellers or producers.
Oliver Malchow, head of the German Police Union (GdP), sees cannabis’ current criminalised status as an important preventative measure.
“Criminal law has a preventative effect. When we outlaw something, it reflects our values… Just because people do it anyway doesn’t mean we should end the prohibition,” he told Euronews.
Though it’s arguable the prohibition of cannabis consumption reflects the nation’s values, it’s failed to stop its use. And these values seem to be changing, given the commitment of a majority of political parties towards reform.
Cannabis legalisation is not meant to be a panacea
Proponents of legalisation argue enforcing cannabis’ illegal status means funnelling extensive public funds into policing while ensuring that much of the money spent by Germany’s millions of consumers lands in criminal organisations.
“We put incredible effort into enforcing this prohibition, without success. Usage has only risen, and it costs us millions,” said Wurth.
Decriminalising cannabis consumption would drastically cut outlays for policing consumption, something Wurth argues would be a boon for taxpayers. If Germany takes the legalisation route, which would likely entail the regulated sale of cannabis in specialised shops, significant tax revenues could also be on the horizon. Canada raked in C$186 million (€130 million) within six months of legalising marijuana in 2019.
While purchasing and consuming cannabis would still be illegal for children if Germany legalises or decriminalises it, opponents are still worried about the message it would send.
“We believe the discussion, at least the way it’s been carried out, trivialises [marijuana consumption]. And decriminalisation or legalisation would really lower the inhibitions for young people to consume,” said Malchow.
But for supporters, like Wurth, legalisation was never meant to be a panacea.
“We’d never say there are no risks involved with cannabis consumption. Some people really struggle with it. That won’t change with legalisation. Legalising cannabis can solve all the problems created by the prohibition, but it can’t solve every problem with cannabis itself,” he said.
The German Hemp Association has called for a more open discussion about the pros and cons of cannabis consumption, while arguing that funding that had been spent on policing the sale and use of the drug can now be routed into prevention, education, and counselling.
Giving cannabis the green light
Weeks of continued negotiations will determine if Germany will follow Canada and Uruguay in fully legalising the purchase, sale, and consumption of marijuana. Wurth estimates it’s more likely that if the SPD, Greens and FDP do form a coalition, they’ll go the more common decriminalisation route, mirroring countries like Portugal or the Netherlands.
“It’s really hard to imagine that we’d jump straight to legalisation. But the signs from the coalition talks are there, and they’ve committed to modernisation. This would fit right in, and make us trailblazers in the global context,” said Wurth.
Regardless of the precise details of implementation, Germany looks set to undergo big changes to its cannabis culture.
Even so, it will likely be quite a while until beer is knocked from it’s perch as the country’s favourite stress reducer and social lubricant.
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