Legal Highs: Welcome to the Cannabis Revolution
A new consensus is emerging that bans on cannabis are counterproductive. Across the world, countries are legalizing its use for pleasure and medical treatment -- but Germany still lags behind.
Ms. Zeng speaks quietly, almost in a whisper, with a strong Chinese accent. How long have you been having trouble sleeping, she asks her customer.
Maybe a few weeks, he replies. Ms. Zeng asks if he feels that cannabis helps him fall asleep. "Definitely," he replies. The non-medical practitioner then gives him what she gives all her patients, regardless of their symptoms: a prescription for medical marijuana.
A prescription issued by Ms. Zeng allows a patient to obtain medical cannabis in any form at the Canna Clinic. Behind the counter are jars filled with dark-green bundles of various strains of marijuana, from "B52" to "Afghan Kush" and "BC Bud." Cannabis cookies are also on display, along with cannabis-infused honey. Today's special is pre-rolled joints and cannabis chocolates for $2 (1.8) apiece.
Here in Vancouver, British Columbia, anyone who submits to a pseudo-medical examination can buy as much cannabis as they like. The city is home to a population of some 600,000 and at least 80 specialized stores for cannabis, despite it being illegal in Canada.
So long as the stores don't sell the drug to anyone under-age, they have no need to fear police recrimination. The police answer to the city council, which in a spirit of rebellion decided that Vancouver's finest had better things to do than crack down on cannabis users -- such as tackling heroin or crystal meth.
The border to the US lies to the south of the city. Anyone driving from Vancouver to Seattle, a distance of 230 kilometers, will soon realize that they are witnessing historic change. The era of global prohibition of cannabis is drawing to a close. The road to Seattle is strewn with stores such as the Healthy Living Center and Green Theory (nominated "Best Cannabis Store" by Dope Magazine). These days, Seattle itself boasts more marijuana stores than McDonalds. In Uncle Ike's Pot Shop, located next door to a church, over a dozen friendly sales assistants jostle to service the customers. The store sells a range of cannabis products to smoke, eat and imbibe, as well as highly intoxicating leaves to mild ones, cannabis ointments and massage oils.
The police only intervene if someone lights a joint in public. As of July 8, 2014, adults over 21 in the US state of Washington are legally permitted to use cannabis in private. The same is true in Colorado, Alaska and Washington, D.C. A similar law is set to come into effect in Oregon soon and another will likely be introduced in California next year.
These developments seem surprising given that the US once declared a "war on drugs." It is now at the forefront of liberalizing cannabis -- its third most popular addictive substance, after alcohol and tobacco. For the first time ever, the majority of the population now believes that it should be made legal. Many expect that this is where the whole country is headed over the next five years.
The Situation in Germany
What's happening is nothing less than a revolution, and one that will likely have repercussions around the world. Including in Germany, where debate about reconsidering drugs policy is still very much in its infancy.
A SPIEGEL survey shows that for the time being, a majority of Germans (59 percent) want to see cannabis remain illegal. Nevertheless, support for continued prohibition is dwindling, especially among young people and the highly-educated.
The Green Party, the Left Party and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) have already come out in favor of legalization. City governments in Hamburg, Cologne, Berlin and Frankfurt are pushing for controlled legalization in a bid to shrink black markets in troubled neighborhoods. A growing number of doctors, police officers and lawyers also support lifting the cannabis ban. Not because they deem it harmless -- but because legalizing it would make it easy to contain the harm it can do.
Hubert Wimber recently retired after serving for nearly 18 years as chief of police in Münster, a student town where cannabis use is widespread. He is all too familiar with the vagaries of the German Narcotic Drugs Act. "We have had no success with it whatsoever," he says.
Although the daily drudgery of fighting drugs was relieved by the occasional coup -- cleaning out a basement cannabis plantation or arresting a dealer -- their impact was always neutralized almost immediately. A new basement plantation would be grown, a new dealer would go into business.
Now that he's retired and no longer needs to abide by the rules, Wimber wants to help start a drugs revolution in Germany. He's planning to open a German chapter of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which he hopes will attract similar-minded police, lawyers and judges just as it did in the US, where it originates.
Its "professionality," Wimber hopes, will ideally spur debate on how to proceed against drugs in Germany. "The billions wasted on tackling and penalizing drugs use would be better spent on education and prevention," says Wimbers. For now, there is by no means majority support for his approach among German police chiefs. "Being rational doesn't get you far with this issue," he says.
The pro-legalization camp's main argument is this: Given that the cannabis ban has failed completely to eliminate the drug, damage-limitation is the second-best solution for governments. The state should regulate the drugs market much like any other, tax it, decriminalize its users and focus on public health and consumer protection.
A Global Shift
Countries all over the world are in the process of revising their policy on cannabis. So far, Uruguay is the only country to have introduced wholesale legalization of the growing and selling of cannabis. Spain and Portugal, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic have introduced such sweeping legalization measures that an outright lifting of the ban is only a step away.
The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) is set to convene in April next year. A major breakthrough could be in the cards. One thing is clear: that a global consensus on a cannabis ban no longer exists.
Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan is a member of a distinguished panel, which is paving the way for a radical rethinking of drug policy. The Global Commission on Drug Policy is keen to end the war on drugs -- which it believes cannot ever be won, and which has claimed even more lives than drugs ever have. The Commission also wants to stop criminalizing drug users, regardless of whether they're using cannabis, ecstasy or heroin.
Annan and his fellow panelists -- who include over half a dozen former presidents -- are calling for a drug policy based on rationality. Value-based judgements -- eg. "drugs are evil" -- should be taken out of the equation and replaced with scientifically-sound facts. The panel's priority is to limit the damage done by drugs and this, they argue, involves governments boosting investment in education, prevention and constructive therapy.
The panel takes its cues from the anti-tobacco campaign. In the wealthy nations, the number of smokers is on the decline -- not because they are penalized by legislation but because they are more aware of the health risks. For their part, governments have raised taxes on tobacco and introduced public smoking bans.
The international movement to liberalize drug policy is driven by a dramatic shift in attitudes. There is now much greater social acceptance that cannabis is not just used for recreational purposes but has legitimate therapeutic and medical benefits that have been known about for millennia. Scientists have proven what healers have long understood: hemp reduces pain, relaxes muscles, boosts the appetite and has anti-inflammatory and mood-lifting properties.
In therapeutic quantities, cannabis does not neccessarily induce a high. It can help reduce nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy; reduce the dependency of patients suffering acute pain on opiates if not replace them altogether; cannabis-based oromucosal spray can reduce spasms in multiple sclerosis sufferers, while clinical studies are currently underway to see if cannabis extract can help reduce the risk of attacks in children suffering from severe epilepsy. Side-effects can include a racing heart, dry mouth and drowsiness, but are no worse than those of many other licensed medicines.
Even though cannabis can be a useful if not indispensable medical aid for a surprising number of people suffering from chronic conditions, patients in Germany who could benefit from medical marijuana continue to be prosecuted with relentless zeal. Cannabis remains illegal, no matter how helpful it might be to many individuals. A SPIEGEL survey shows that 90 percent of the population would like to see the ban lifted and medical cannabis made freely available to patients. But to no avail.
Diagnosed with a brain tumor, Robert Strauss from Augsburg found he could only alleviate the pain in his spine with cannabis. In February 2014, the German Federal Opium Agency granted him a highly unusual special dispensation for medical cannabis. But when he presented it to police in Augsburg, they made his life "hell," as he told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.
He was repeatedly stopped on the street and told to empty his pockets. One evening in September, the police raided his apartment and seized the cannabis he was legally allowed to possess along with a cannabis plant in his kitchen. A criminal investigation into illegal possession and suspected drug dealing was launched against him.
Denied cannabis, Strauss was forced to resort to prescription painkillers but unlike cannabis, these left him drowsy. As a result, he had a bad fall which he never recovered from. He died in January at the age of 50 -- a victim of German drug policy.
Other countries, meanwhile, are leading the way in terms of compassionate care. In Israel over 20,000 people with chronic conditions have been permitted to use medical cannabis. In Canada over 50,000 people are authorized. Health authorities expect a ten-fold increase in this figure within the next decade.
In California, where medical cannabis has been legal since 1996, it's used by hundreds of thousands of patients suffering from cancer and depression, by people with HIV, arthritis, Crohn's Disease and multiple sclerosis. Reliable proof that it is effective is rare, and based usually on nothing more than the testimonies of doctors and patients, all of whom arefree to experiment with dosage.
California is currently home to over 1,000 dispensaries. Delivery services even drop medical marijuana off at private homes. In the US, 23 states have introduced laws making it simpler for patients to come by cannabis easily and legally. Over 2 million people in the US use pot for medicinal purposes.
The Simplest Solution
And Germany? So far, the Federal Opium Agency has only authorized 449 patients to use medical cannabis -- a figure that suggests a shocking number of people are being denied help. Franjo Grotenhermen, doctor and chairman of the International Association for Cannabinoid Medicines (IACM) has done the math and calculated that up to 1.6 million people in Germany could benefit from the use of medical cannabis. The government's continued refusal to relax the rules amounts to what he calls "massive, long-term failure to render assistance."
What's worse is that the fortunate few permitted to use cannabis are faced with a Kafkaesque situation. The only supplier of medical cannabis is a state-licensed Dutch company which has been struggling with delivery problems for over a year. "Deliveries rarely arrive," says 62-year-old Axel Junker, deputy spokesman with the German chapter of the IACM.
Even when deliveries do arrive, health insurers generally refuse to pay the costs of medical cannabis, which can be as high as several hundred euros a month.
Many patients are left with a paradox: They can't afford to buy what their doctor has prescribed, nor can they always buy the medical cannabis they need even when they authorized to do so. They are therefore left with no chance but to grow it themselves or to buy it on the street. Both options make them criminals in the eyes of the government.
There is a straightforward solution -- one which Austria, the Netherlands and Canada have already implemented. These countries are home to state-approved medical marijuana companies that make the drug available to people with chronic conditions. Germany has so far refused to follow their lead. According to a spokesperson with the Health Ministry, the topic is currently "in discussion."
But it's no longer just a ray of hope: German Health Minister Hermann Gröhe (CDU) has announced plans to improve access to cannabis at least for people who are seriously ill. Starting in 2016, health insurance companies will be forced to cover the costs. More patients should be eligible for cannabis medication than before -- though it still won't be up to doctors and patients to decide who gets what, but the state.
But Gröhe isn't striving for true liberalization -- he's more concerned about preventing abuse than helping those who are suffering.
- Part 1: Welcome to the Cannabis Revolution
- Part 2: The Science of Cannabis
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