Germany, after falling behind the U.S., is pushing to turn Europe into another cannabis-lovers paradise.
BERLIN—When Amsterdam pioneered “coffee shops” in the 1970s, the European capital was one of very few places where you could openly buy and smoke weed—and it quickly became a global mecca for marijuana enthusiasts. But over the last decade, the grass has grown greener on the other side of the Atlantic, with Colorado and Washington state legalizing recreational cannabis use in 2012 and Uruguay becoming the first country to legalize it the next year, followed by Canada in 2018.
Europe has fallen behind, with the focus on decriminalization rather than full legalization. But now Germany is trying to become the first European Union member to legalize cannabis. Its neighbors are watching closely, in both curiosity and disapproval, while the global marijuana industry eyes a new market of 80 million potential customers.
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has announced the outline of a possible cannabis law that roughly follows the Canadian model—declassifying marijuana as a narcotic, creating a state licenced production, delivery and sales system; allowing adults to have 20-30 grams for personal use and creating a federal cannabis tax.
Lauterbach set 2024 as a possible date for passing legislation. The proposed law is a reflection of the ruling red-yellow-green “traffic light” coalition, made up of the Social Democrats, who see legalization as a way to free up law enforcement, the Free Democrats (FDP), who see legalization as the key to unlocking more than 1 billion euros per year in taxes, and the Greens, who want to undercut the illegal market. The opposition parties are opposed to legislation, with the Bavarian Health Minister, Klaus Holetscheck publicly seeking a veto from the European Commission. The one thing all sides agree on: getting rid of the illegal marijuana market.
“They can legalize it or not legalize it, but we’ll still be here,” says Bomba, a 30-year-old dealer who has spent the last two years since arriving in Germany selling marijuana, among other illicit drugs in Berlin’s Görlitzer Park—also referred to as “Germany’s number one problem park” by local media, because of its network of immigrants, often waiting on legal working papers, who openly sell drugs at all hours of the day. “There are already places in the neighborhood where you can legally get weed, but what we sell here is different. I take two, three, puffs and it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.”
This is the type of operation both sides of the debate would like to see disappear, but whether it can be done through legal competition or tougher police crack-downs depends on whether or not the EU can reconcile Germany’s law with superseding European law. And that’s where it gets complicated.
The European Union’s drug policies are based on the 1961 United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which compels members to take any measures necessary to restrict cannabis cultivation, importation, sale and consumption to strictly medical and scientific purposes. Germany’s legal argument hinges upon not importing cannabis. It hopes to use a 1988 UN convention, which allows for the decriminalization of personal use and cultivation for personal use in conjunction with a 1994 German Constitutional Court ruling that says states cannot interfere with personal drug use as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.
According to international drug policy expert, Martin Jelsma, of the Transnational Institute, an international research and advocacy group that works with international lawyers to create paths for legalization, the difference between enforcement tactics of the UN and the EU is why marijuana legalization has yet to be seen in Europe.
“The UN treaties do not themselves have a strong procedure to pressure governments into compliance,” Jelsma says. “That is why Uruguay and Canada have been able to continue without any sanctions. The problem with European law is that it has a pretty robust enforcement mechanism, because all EU countries can start infringement proceedings if a member state is clearly acting in contravention with European law.”
Germany is neither the first EU member state to try to legalize cannabis, nor the only one that has expressed that desire. A similar “traffic light” coalition in Luxembourg had announced plans to regulate a cannabis market back in 2018, only to scale back to decriminalization of home-grown plants for personal consumption in 2021. The same year, Malta became the first country in Europe to approve legalization of recreational cannabis and non-profit grow clubs that can supply up to 500 members—still they stopped short of a state-licensed production, distribution and sale system like in the United States or Canada. This gives them plausible cover to argue that they are still in the bounds of European law.
“Germany is a gamechanger, because of the size of the market, but also because it is the first country to propose a state licensed, full-legal market with sales distribution systems,” Jelsma says. “It puts the European Commission in a very difficult position: they don’t want to have a conflict with Germany, as it is the biggest funder of the EU project.”
Germany’s market size also makes it an extremely attractive country for cannabis startups, as domestic medical marijuana companies become more interesting to foreign investors looking to capitalize on a multi-billion dollar recreational market. Berlin-based medical cannabis startup Cantourage made a successful debut on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange Nov. 11, following the government’s announcement, which they hinted at in their IPO statement.
Stephen Murphy, founder of Prohibition Partners, a European market research firm focused on marijuana, believes that political pressure from German voters will be key to meeting Lauterbach’s 2024 goal. He also sees Germany as the key to unlocking a recreational European market.
“What Germany did well with medical marijuana in 2017, is that it opened up the market and allowed for a combination of public and private support for cannabis companies,” Murphy says. “From a talent perspective and sheer volume German companies have the best understanding in Europe of the supply chain from seed to sale.”
Still, the cannabis industry has reservations about Germany’s current proposal. Mainly its stipulation that only domestic production will be allowed, without possibilities for import. As Germany’s climate can’t support outdoor cannabis cultivation, recreational supply, which Murphy calculates at 700 tons per year, would be dependent on expensive grow houses that demand a high level of energy consumption. Currently Germany’s production hasn’t even been able to satisfy its medical demand of 30 tons per year, importing two-thirds of its cannabis from other countries. But not everyone is convinced the law will even get far enough to worry about supply.
“Germany is a country of drinkers; they don’t actually care about legalizing marijuana,” says Saubadin Moustafa, 50, a Bavarian resident who has been fighting for both medical and recreational legalization since he was 17. He worries that if the law should pass, it will be used to force private growers to go to dispensaries. Over the years, he has ended up in court on multiple occasions to defend his right to grow his own weed, free from the chemical additives commonly found in street drugs to enhance THC effects, as well as the genetic modifications that allow industrial strains to produce more buds. “Marijuana should be like a tomato: organic. And any real stoner will tell you that the best weed is grown outdoors—even here in Germany.”
While Jelsma has no doubts about the German government’s sincerity to legalize, he foresees issues with hinging the entire legalization argument on not importing cannabis as the same treaties that prohibit import also prohibit the domestic production and sale of marijuana. Instead, he argues that Germany should follow the example of Bolivia—who left the 1961 UN convention and re-signed it a year later so that they could add a reservation to their signature and not be bound going forward by the treaty provisions restricting the production of the coca leaf—in addition to banding together with like-minded neighbors.
“The power of Germany is the main argument,” Jelsma says. “There will be several countries that will follow Germany’s example: Luxembourg, Netherlands, Malta and possibly Denmark and Portugal.”
While it is clear that a growing portion of Europe believes it’s time for change, Lauterbach has said that the European Commission will have the final word on whether legalization will be possible, or if Germany is just blowing smoke.