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Opinion: Where Germany’s Recreational Cannabis Plan Could Go Next

By Michael Sassano

Published: Jun 01, 2023   
A cannabis leaf on the German flag.

Image credit: iStock

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Germany’s health minister, Dr. Karl Lauterbach, stepped into a Brussels political trap regarding legalizing adult-use cannabis at the end of March when he professed, “We will soon present a proposal that works, that is, that conforms to European law.” As cheers rang out across the European Union cannabis community, less than two weeks after this bold statement, Germany walked this back and floated the idea of “cannabis legalization light.”

Neither the positive positioning nor subsequent about-face is surprising. Recreational cannabis flies in the face of United Nations’ drug treaties and most EU countries’ current stance on cannabis, even on medical cannabis. Only a handful of EU countries have well-defined medical cannabis access plans. The idea that the EU capital in Brussels would approve Germany’s program seems funny now, looking in the rear-view mirror.

What does “cannabis legalization light” look like?

Like Switzerland and Malta, Germany wants to adopt a mom-and-pop social club model that will create a safe environment to consume cannabis legally and be crafted to conform to medical studies. There must be a true scientific approach to be taken seriously by the EU or UN because the main objective of a regulated market is to collect data supporting the creation of an alternative, safer path than illicit-market cannabis. A small win for home-growers and decriminalization advocates.

An aspect that doesn’t affect the EU or UN is decriminalizing the legal possession of cannabis and allowing home-grown plants. These local laws determine how people will legally consider cannabis possession and enable citizens to grow plants for personal use in their own homes.

Germany’s “cannabis legalization light” is hugely watered-down from the full-blown recreational program initially outlined in October. While the forward movement is positive and can be used as a further steppingstone, any significant UN or EU-level action is doubtful without intense lobbying. Additionally, cannabis (being a small, burgeoning industry) has difficulty lobbying competitively against pharmaceutical interests at that level. The current proposition will not lead to any significant investment on an institutional level that would be needed to combat the gray markets.

Science-led pilot programs slowly open market doors

One possibility is a pilot program to build infrastructure like dispensaries to study the effects of recreational use. That would likely entail universities and other think tanks monitoring and reporting the processes as Switzerland has done. Much like in France, these programs would be small and limited. Implementing country-wide would be difficult and it is highly unlikely Germany would embark on a Texas two-step, which would open the doors to this experiment under the guise of science and then do little to curb the resulting growth. Infinite carve-outs would be hard to justify and hard to mask as a complete work around done openly in broad daylight.

Business-building primes the EU market roll

Social clubs would reflect a restaurant-style model, while dispensaries envisage a cannabis system that can be scaled up and institutionalized potentially. Having both models available could rival successful Netherlands and United States markets like Las Vegas and New York. Germany could easily plug both styles into a data science collections scheme to monitor the direct consequences of legalization.

Additionally, other EU nations could expand upon Germany’s model to reflect the initially outlined grand vision. A robust network of pharmacies, dispensaries and social clubs would create the best model to distribute and monitor cannabis legalization. In fact, Czechia shrugged off the news and decided to go with a plan that is more bold in nature and still collects the data. The trick is still conforming to EU trade and UN medical requirements when designing a proper roll-out.

Medical EU-GMP compliant companies will trade easily

A standard of quality for the products needs to be established. Because the health minister is designing Germany’s program for consumer safety, the only logical existing framework would be EU-good manufacturing practices- (GMP) pharmaceutical standards. However, that would be very hard for a home grown social club to conform to. Correspondingly, policymakers have little will to lower the standards of a medical product to novel foods.

Because the “cannabis legalization light” program would be conformingly medical, there is a high likelihood that preferred countries already conforming to the highest production standards of EU-GMP pharmaceutical will continue to ship products across borders to meet German demand. The new “cannabis legalization light” would gut the premise of a fully local-grown market because it would be a medical program. Now that the chance of a full recreational program is unlikely, the need to close the borders seemingly disappears as it is a combined medical-recreational trial, like those in France and Switzerland.

German states will become an EU testing ground

One thing is obvious: Germany will continue to be the leading EU cannabis country even under “cannabis legalization light” rules and can further increase its size depending on the seriousness of each state. Some German states – those with medical cannabis access – are extremely forgiving. But other German states could not be any tougher if they tried. General guidelines may be handed down from the health ministry while local states control the program’s roll-out with their own interpretations. Ultimately, Germany will likely continue expanding cannabis as a medical experiment, aiming at full decriminalization and high standards for consumer safety and accessibility.

Michael Sassano

CEO of Somai Pharmaceuticals

Michael is the CEO and Chairman of the Board at Somai Pharmaceuticals, an Ireland-based company centred on the cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution of GMP-certified cannabinoid-containing pharmaceutical products throughout the European Union.


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