Nipped in the Bud Germany To Push Ahead With Limited Legalization of Cannabis

The coalition government in Berlin had big plans to legalize the possession and sale of cannabis in Germany. But the government was never as enthusiastic about the issue as it let on, and the plans it unveiled on Wednesday are very limited in scope compared to legalization efforts in the United States.
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach with a cannabis lollipop in Berlin

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach with a cannabis lollipop in Berlin

Foto: Nikita Teryoshin / DER SPIEGEL

At a club in Barcelona, patrons order Georgia Pie and Gelato Sorbet. But what then passes over the counter isn't ice cream or cake – it's cannabis, which is legal here at the Garden Social Club. People who become members are allowed to buy cannabis and smoke pot inside the club.

Soon, if the German government has its way, this could also be legal in Germany. On Wednesday, German Health Minister Karl presented the federal government's draft law on cannabis legalization. The government had for days kept mum about the details, which aren't nearly as ambitious as originally envisioned.

"Comprehensive legalization clearly not feasible in the short term"

A resolution by the national committee of the governing, center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) last week expressed what officials at the European Commission in Brussels have signalized in talks: "Comprehensive legalization is clearly not feasible in the short term for reasons of European law." The SPD wants to support Lauterbach in taking "practicable steps toward legalization," the resolution states. Members of the party already have some ideas: model scientific research projects, decriminalization, home cultivation – as well as cannabis "social clubs" like the one in Barcelona. Small steps rather than a law comprehensively legalizing cannabis.


INIMAGES / Westend61

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 15/2023 (April 8th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Largely drawn up by the youth wing of the SPD, the aim of the resolution is to ratchet up the pressure. The idea being that if broad legalization isn't possible right away, then Lauterbach should at least take the small steps. Their main aim is to see that the campaign to legalize cannabis continues.

After alcohol and nicotine, marijuana is the most commonly used addictive substance, and consumption is on the rise. Past drug policies in Germany have done nothing to change that. Another obvious reason for regulating consumption of cannabis by the state is that it can relieve the authorities of the burden of prosecution. It also provides the government with an avenue for generating revenues.

Participants at the Berlin Hemp Parade (archive photo)

Participants at the Berlin Hemp Parade (archive photo)

Foto: Stefan Boness / VISUM

If you asked the junior coalition parties, the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) what common ground they had before negotiations began to form a government, you often heard three words: civil rights, social policy and the legalization of cannabis. The FDP, under pressure from its youth wing, already set as its policy back in 2015 that the drug should be sold to adults legally in the future under strict conditions as a "stimulant" in licensed stores. The Green Party also submitted drafts for its own cannabis control law in 2015 and 2018. And the SPD even used the issue to open its 2021 federal election campaign.

The parties' youth organizations, in particular, had been pushing for legalization. The youth wing of the FDP even advertised with a giant joint and gave away papers for rolling marijuana cigarettes at its campaign stands. "Smoke green. Vote yellow. Legalize it," was their motto, referring to the political color affiliated with the party. In Hesse, the Green Party's youth wing demanded "Fresh Weed for All" on posters. Meanwhile, the SPD's youth group launched the campaign "We'll Pull It Off" back in 2015.

The path had already been paved. During the coalition negotiations, the three parties quickly came to an agreement. The FDP and the Greens wanted complete legalization, whereas the SPD instead emphasized model projects and decriminalization. But they all agreed to clarify the details later.

"Legalize Dope by 2023"

The subject eventually took on a life of its own. It took on the appearance of a major project for Germany's new government coalition without every really being one and took on an importance that it never really had for the leading political figures in the coalition. For FDP leader Christian Lindner, the issue was largely about being able to foster a casual image.

Personally, he didn't favor legalization, but his party voted in favor of it at a federal party conference in 2015. Last year, Lindner allowed himself to get carried away a bit in jargon, when he uttered: "Legalize dope in 2023." When people held up signs with hemp leaves and slogans like smoke "a bag with Christian Lindner," he reacted nonchalantly. Demonstrators indeed looked forward to legalization in the coming year. German Justice Minister Marco Bushman, also with the FDP, promised: "We're going to put the dealers out of business."

A cannabis plantation in Leuna, Germany, where medical marijuana is grown

A cannabis plantation in Leuna, Germany, where medical marijuana is grown

Foto: Gordon Welters / DER SPIEGEL

But Health Minister Lauterbach of the SPD has long been opposed to legalizing cannabis. He said he had bad experiences with the drug, that friends from his youth had become addicted. But during the campaign, he changed his stance and, as he tends to do, backed it up by citing studies that had failed to prove that cannabis is a gateway drug. He began planning for legal cultivation, distribution and consumption in Germany. In contrast to other European countries, supply chains in Germany were to be tracked from cultivation to sale. Lauterbach said he wanted to create a model that could pave the way for other European countries. In one fell swoop, the industry rejoiced, Germany would become the world's largest cannabis market.

Problems from the Very Beginning

Lauterbach presented the key points of his plan in October. According to the original plan, cannabis and the substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) would no longer be classified as narcotics, and the possession and purchase of 20 to 30 grams would be permitted for private purposes for people aged 18 and up. Under the rules, plants for consumption would have to be grown exclusively in Germany, the supply chains would have to be traceable, and quality and delivery would have to be controlled. Personal cultivation would also be permitted to a limited extent.

The FDP state chapter in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania offered to become a model region. FDP deputy head Moritz Harrer said the state was "very suitable with its mix of urban and rural regions."

Cannabis cultivation in the state of Saxony: Regional model projects are now envisioned under Germany's proposed legislation.

Cannabis cultivation in the state of Saxony: Regional model projects are now envisioned under Germany's proposed legislation.

Foto: (c) Thomas Victor / Agentur Focus / 60111817 © © Thomas Victor / Agentur Focus

From the very beginning, though, there had been one problem that just wouldn't go away: A 2004 European Union framework decision requires member states to criminalize the illicit trafficking of drugs, including cannabis. As such, officials in Berlin sought to obtain Brussels' initial assessment through unofficial channels. In discussion with German politicians, EU officials said that legalization as planned by Germany likely wasn't realistic. That the framework decision would first have to be changed to permit that.

A Gardening Club – For Cannabis

The location is a house in a residential area of Barcelona. Only a hash mark can been seen above the sliding door, which opens up after you ring the buzzer. In the room behind it, the walls are green, and artificial plant vines hang from the ceiling. Here, the German franchise company Hanf im Glück is already testing out how things could work with cannabis clubs in Germany. New members must register at the front desk. They provide identification data, take a selfie, confirm that they live in Spain, estimate their cannabis consumption and pay a set fee in cash. The company says that credit card companies don't view drug purchases favorably. Then visitors are allowed to step through the next door, deeper into the green cavern, where a couple of young men lounge and laugh in front of a jungle-like mural.

In Barcelona, members of "cannabis social clubs" are allowed to grow and consume the drug together. However, the club is not allowed to generate any profits. It's a bit like a non-profit gardening club, only for drugs.

"Alice in Stonerland," "Baby Yoda," "Skywalker"

On this particular evening, Ferran is working behind the counter. He's a member of the club and will not be paid for his efforts tonight. Guests choose from a menu card. Ferran pulls out several Tupperware containers of cannabis buds. One variety is particularly glittery, another smells like mint; they contain different amounts of THC and cannabidiol. Some tend to make you tired, others creative, Ferran explains. There are also cookies and gummy strawberries with hashish, the resin pressed from the plant. They are sold in baggies with labels like "Alice in Stonerland" or "Stranger Thangs."

Ferran says there have been a lot of funny names for new varieties of cannabis since California moved to legalize the substance. "Baby Yoda" or "Skywalker," for example, names from the "Star Wars" cosmos. Twenty-one states in the United States, plus the District of Columbia, have now legalized the use of cannabis for recreational purposes.

But even in Spain, the legal situation surrounding cannabis still has its pitfalls. Here, the legal jurisdictions between the City of Barcelona, the autonomous community of Catalonia and the national government are currently unclear – a state of affairs that the "social clubs" are currently exploiting for their own benefit. Even though residency in Spain is mandatory, some of the estimated 400 clubs in Barcelona specifically solicit tourists on the street. Some are also making profits. Many are closed again shortly after they open.

Even the cannabis "social clubs" in Barcelona have not been without their problems.

Even the cannabis "social clubs" in Barcelona have not been without their problems.

Foto: Björn Göttlicher / DER SPIEGEL

Expectations for the legalization of cannabis have since been lowered in Germany. "Model regions are, shall we say, the second-best solution for legalization," says Dirk Heitepriem of medical cannabis company Aurora Europe. As a precaution, he says, he nonetheless commissioned a legal opinion for the model regions option. If such a law were to pass in Germany, he says his company would likely be happy to supply the substance for what he calls the "science project." But, says Heitepriem, who is also vice president of the Cannabis Business Lobby Association, "social clubs" are not a real business model. Because at the end of the day, such clubs aren't allowed to earn any money.

Politicians are also skeptical. Konstantin Kuhle, the deputy head of the FDP's parliamentary group, who pushed through the cannabis motion at the party conference eight years ago as the leader of its youth wing at the time, believes that allowing "social clubs" is a sensible first step. But he warns that limiting the legislation to these clubs or a few narrowly defined regions could "undermine the goals of combating the black market and improving youth and health protection." He argues that Health Minister Lauterbach should "chart a path toward dispensing in licensed stores."

"Far Behind Plan"

Franziska Brandmann, the national head of the FDP's young wing, says the proposal for model regions falls "far behind the plan in the coalition (government) agreement" and is "unacceptable." The goal, she says, is "nationwide, Germany-wide legalization." If Lauterbach justifies his new political course with EU concerns, she says, then Germany needs to advocate for a change in the legal situation in Brussels. In any case, Brandmann suspects that Lauterbach "obviously isn't making the issue a priority," and that he needs to be pushed harder to take greater action.

Enthusiasm for this issue has also waned among FDP leaders. Lindner and Buschmann no longer want to comment on cannabis. And Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing of the FDP has also applied the brakes.

As part of the coalition government's homework, it had been his ministry's job to determine what to do when people are caught driving under the influence of cannabis. Wissing holds a skeptical view of the substance. Confidentially, he talks about judgments he had to make as a judge before his political career. He dealt with some cases involving patients with paranoid schizophrenia. They had often consumed cannabis on a large scale; and it was Wissing, as the judge, who had to order that they be placed in hold in a psychiatric facility. He found these procedures to be very stressful and is skeptical about the value of legalizing the drug.

As transport minister, he had his officials examined whether the THC limit for determining possible impaired driving could be made more generous. To date, a level of up to 1 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood has been considered tolerable by the courts – a concentration that can sometimes still be detected after a few days. By comparison: In the Netherlands, an upper limit of 3 nanograms applies. The experts Wissing had interviewed were unable to come to a unanimous conclusion. The ministry thus saw "no need for legislative action."

Everything now seems to be up to Lauterbach, who presented his draft law this week. A man who is basically being made to push through legislation against his own will, of all people.

The Barcelona club is far removed from the debate in Berlin. The movements of the people at the club have slowed down palpably on this particular evening. It feels like the same, monotonous DJ set has been playing for hours without anyone really being bothered by it. On a television screen, mountain bikers do stunts in endless loop. Stoner television. A couple tap as if hypnotized on the screens of their smartphones. In contrast to the drunks in the tourist bars a few streets away, the people here seem peaceful, subdued. The scrawling on one wall reads: "Life's good."


On Wednesday, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach unveiled what he described as a "two-prong" model for gradually legalize possession of cannabis in Germany. Speaking together with Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir of the Green Party, he announced the following steps:

  • The initial cultivation and distribution of the drug would be made possible in special associations called "cannabis clubs," where the purchase of a maximum of 25 grams would be permitted, with a monthly maximum per person of 50 grams.

  • Private cultivation would be allowed of up to three plants.

  • In a second step, sales through licensed specialist stores would be tested in pilot regions.

For the time being, though, it appears that the complete legalization of the drug has been taken off the table in Germany.

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