The federal election of Germany is on Sunday the 26th September, and its results will be pivotal to the state of cannabis policy reform both within the country, and across Europe.
Promises pertaining to cannabis policy reform have been present in four out of the six major parties in Germany’s campaigns, ranging from decriminalisation to full legal regulation.
The current coalition that forms the government– the ruling CDU/CSU parties and SPD– have been broadly against cannabis reform since they came to power in early 2018, but SPD is yet to commit to a concrete stance on the matter.
Polls show that a replication of the existing ‘grand coalition’ is unlikely, so the needle of change is expected to move in some direction, whether that be a hard-line stance against reform, a compromise, or full legalisation of recreational use.
The current state of cannabis in Germany.
There are an estimated four million regular cannabis users in Germany, and in most states the possession of up to six grams is usually not prosecuted in an approach that resembles de facto decriminalisation, but continues to see regular prosecutions.
The Federal Drug Commissioner Daniela Ludwig, appointed under Germany’s leading Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) parties, suggested in August of this year her intention to officially and federally avoid prosecution for people found with up to six grams, instead considering it an administrative offence.
Medical cannabis is legal in Germany as of 2017, and unlike in the UK it is covered by health insurance. Like the UK, however, there continue to be limitations to access.
There has been both political and public will for recreational cannabis policy reform for some time, but as the Ministry for Health lies with CSU who has provided the Drug Commissioner since 2014, the appetite for reform has failed to correlate with policy initiatives.
A coalition of left-wing political parties in Berlin in 2016 attempted to trial a pilot project that would allow some cannabis users to legally purchase the drug, to encourage safer and reduced consumption. The move was blocked by the federal regulators under the Betäubungsmittelgesetz (Narcotics Act), claiming that the Act must be amended with Bundestag (Parliament) and Bundesrat (federal council) majorities.
Polling for cannabis policy reform has been fairly balanced- A 2018 survey found 59% of those questioned supported the decriminalisation of cannabis possession, while a 2020 poll found a slim majority (51%) are against legalisation.
It has been predicted by Justus Haucap, a Professor of Economics at Düsseldorf University that around €2.6 billion could be saved in police expenditure, legal services, and income through taxable revenue.
The influence and power of lobbying groups in Germany for reform is strong, primarily led by Georg Wurth and the German Hemp Association.
Ahead of the election, below is a quick summary of where the major parties of Germany individually stand on cannabis policy:
Christian Democratic Union (CDU/Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU): The centre-right CDU/CSU, currently in power in a coalition with SPD, is one of two parties that opposes cannabis reform, having recently shot down a bid by The Greens to legally regulate the drug.
Cannabis is not mentioned in the party’s 140-page manifesto, and it is unlikely that any scenario involving notable electoral success for the party will be particularly conducive to reform. The party appears, however, not unmoveable, and medical cannabis was legalised under their leadership in 2017.
Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD): SPD, a centre-left group currently in government in a coalition with CDU/CSU, can generally be considered pro-cannabis policy reform. It is not, however, a resolute campaign promise, nor is it expected that the party will lead on and initiate the change. Nonetheless, if working alongside The Greens, SPD will be a strong ally for the push for reform.
The Greens: The centre-left Greens want to prioritise combatting the black market and organised crime through legal regulation, promising the purchase and possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis or three cannabis plants for personal use, as well as a regulated system for the cultivation and sale of cannabis.
Free Democratic Party (FDP): The liberal centre to centre-right party has called for limited and legal sale to adults of ‘cannabis for leisure consumption’. They are highly business-friendly, and thus the taxable revenue and business opportunities afforded with legal regulation are attractive. It is clear, however, that any reform is unlikely to be motivated by reducing social harms. FDP are also looking to position Germany as a major exporter of medical cannabis.
That being said, the party recently opposed The Greens’ bid for cannabis legalisation, indicating that their stance is not as resolute as their public comments may suggest.
Die Linke (The Left): This left-wing party is very pro-reform, and was the only one to back The Greens’ bid to legalise. Due to its low polling, however, even if invited to join a coalition as a third-party Die Linke is unlikely to be in any position of power sufficient enough to set a legislative agenda, and thus their support can be counted on but their ability to enact it cannot.
Alternative for Germany (AfD): AfD as a far-right party is staunchly against reform, but is very unlikely to be invited into a coalition that will form a majority. Thus, their influence on cannabis policy will be minimal.
Given Germany’s multi-party system, however, the way these preferences will translate to policy outcomes is not as clear-cut as in a two-party system like the UK where only one party comes to power.
In Germany, coalitions must be formed to secure a sufficient majority to govern. The negotiation of these coalitions can be an arduous and extended process, as in the case of 2017 where CDU/CSU took over four months after the election to reach an agreement with SPD.
Depending on the results of the election, there are several coalitions that may form, each with a different predicted stance on cannabis regulation.
Volteface spoke with Dr. Fabian Pitter Steinmetz, Senior Toxicologist at Delphic HSE and drug policy reform advocate to gain his insights into the probable consequences of each major coalition on cannabis reform.
The ‘Jamaica’ coalition:
The Greens, FDP, CDU/CSU is considered the most likely coalition if CDU/CSU achieves the largest amount of votes. With both CDU/CSU and FDP centre-right parties, the former against cannabis policy reform and the latter historically tepid at best and unpredictable at worst, it is unlikely that full legal regulation of cannabis will be passed under this government. Nevertheless a similar attempt at forming this coalition failed as recently as the last election in 2017, rendering it an improbable pairing.
Steinmetz warns that, despite The Greens’ will for legal regulation, as a minority in a coalition with CDU/CSU the party may have to prioritise the push for stronger policy to combat climate change and sacrifice their cannabis policy preferences.
He also suggests that under any coalition involving the CDU/CSU, cannabis policy reform is possible, but full legalisation is very unlikely; “It will likely be more of a compromise, which will probably look like decriminalisation, which can take many different forms. Maybe even cannabis social clubs.”
The ‘traffic light’ coalition:
Considered the most likely coalition if SPD gets more votes than CDU/CSU, the ‘traffic light coalition’ of SPD, The Greens, and FDP, would be a socially liberal but not radical one; All three parties have committed to some form of cannabis law reform, and FDP leader Christian Lindner recently told the Augsburger Allgemeine that the only key advantage of a coalition with SPD and the Greens over CDU/CSU for making policy would be “the legalisation of cannabis”.
Many doubt the legitimacy of this claim, especially given FDP’s recent vote against The Greens’ cannabiskontrollgesezt (Cannabis Control Act) this year that would have legalised the possession of up to 30g of cannabis, as well as its cultivation, import/export, and sale.
The ‘R2G’ coalition:
This coalition is by far the most socially liberal and progressive, comprising SPD, The Greens, and The Left. Cannabis reform is all but inevitable with R2G, likely taking the form of full legal regulation.
The ‘Germany’ coalition:
The ‘Germany’ coalition, close to an exact replication of the government formation, would be the least radical shift from the existing politics and policy preferences of Germany. The addition of FDP alongside CDU/CSU and SPD is unlikely to swing toward reform, especially where FDP has oscillated between support and opposition to legalisation.
Steinmetz echoes this sentiment: “I don’t think that SPD and FDP will proactively put much effort into cannabis policy reform, particularly not if they are a minority”. It seems that the inclusion of The Greens in a coalition is a necessary trigger for reform.
The ‘Kenya’ coalition:
Again, this is effectively a continuation of the existing grand coalition, but with the inclusion of The Greens instead of FDP alongside CDU/CSU and SPD there is a higher chance of cannabis policy reform than in the ‘Germany’ coalition.
The consequences of the coalition for cannabis reform could still comfortably go either way depending on which party is assigned which power. In the event that SPD or The Greens provides the chancellor, reform is more likely than if CDU/CSU claims chancellorship and key ministries.
This coalition would likely be burdened by similar issues to the ‘Jamaica’ combination, especially in The Greens’ prioritisation of climate change commitments over cannabis policy reforms. The likely ally of SPD, however, may provide more incentive for an active pursuit of reform.
This very unlikely coalition, a nickname for the grand coalition, is exactly the same as the current government formation: CDU/CSU and SPD. SPD has all but ruled out this combination, reluctant to continue to be the junior partner.
Given that we haven’t seen legal regulation since the government took office in early 2018, it is improbable that this would change now. There is a chance, however, of compromise as the coalition would seek to appease left-wing voters, perhaps taking the form of cannabis social clubs or decriminalisation.
Future and global consequences:
With polling for the election’s results inconclusive, and predictions that the German public will favour stability over radical change, it begs the question: what if the coalition that forms the government will not push forward cannabis reform?
The election of a coalition including CDU/CSU as a senior partner appears likely to stall reform again, but does not render it impossible. While it is difficult to imagine The Greens in ‘Kenya’ or ‘Jamaica’ coalitions with enough power to push forward legal regulation, a form of decriminalisation seems a probable compromise. In the case that this does not eventuate, however, this may be seen as a warning to parties across Europe that cannabis legalisation is not particularly attractive to voters.
In the wake of New Zealand’s unsuccessful referendum to legalise cannabis in November last year that stalled reform, and is likely to continue to do so until after the next election, the consequences of an indication that the popular vote does not support reform are clear.
If a progressive coalition does form, or SPD and FDP firm their commitment to reform, the broader global consequences of the legal regulation of cannabis in Germany should not be understated. Germany continues to have a remarkable influence across Europe and beyond, and Steinmetz predicts that any German policy reform on cannabis that does eventuate will be “infectious” across Europe and indeed the world, noting the rippling effect of cannabis reform in the Americas. “There is currently no European country that has legalised cannabis. Germany would be the first.”
Regardless of the outcome, the German election will have significant consequences for cannabis reform in both Germany and abroad. It may take some time before the type of reform that will emerge will become entirely evident, but the chances for any kind of progress are high.
This piece was written by Content Officer Isabella Ross, tweets @isabellakross
Lead image credit: © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar /