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March 29, 2024   6 mins

A group of African gentlemen, all dressed in hoodies, were posted at the entrance to Berlin’s Görlitzer Park, standing around idly until I passed by. “Hey, hello, you good?” they muttered, nodding in my direction. “Need some help?” As a stranger in a new city, it’s always a joy when the locals make you feel welcome. Some of them were huddled around bonfires, though, which was odd, since it was getting dark and a bit late for a barbecue party. “It’s a Berlin heritage site for intercultural communication,” a friend later noted dryly. “But I’d be cautious with Görli — last time I did some spontaneous shopping there, they sold me some nice vanilla powder under the label of amphetamine! The weed was fine, though.”

Pushers have been a persistent problem in Görlitzer Park, or Görli for short, a hotspot for immigrants without clear residency or work permits to hustle in the narco-economy. Attempts to bring the park under control have included zero-tolerance patrols, and even marking designated areas for dealers to stand in with pink spray paint. But now Germany’s trying something completely different. A long-awaited to partially legalise cannabis comes into force on Monday, much to the delight of the nation’s kiffer (stoners).

“I was waiting for years for this to happen,” says Anna, 29, from Augsburg, Bavaria. “I don’t smoke as much as I used to anymore, but I always felt like a criminal [even though] I was only smoking weed. Also, most dealers are shady and you engage with a lot of shady people. No need to do that anymore, when there are clubs or the possibility to grow it myself. I feel like [the police] should go and use their time on real criminals and not some stoners.”

It’s as sober and reasonable a case for drug liberalisation as one could imagine. But you can find the same plea from young people across Europe, and yet legislators have proved resistant to change. So, how did it come that the continent’s largest economy is officially going 420-friendly, and what could it mean for the rest of us?

Cannabis and its derivatives were not completely unknown in Germany: “To escape from unbearable pressure you need hashish,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, the original stoner philosopher. But much like in the rest of Europe, it was largely a non-issue until the Sixties. Although the Nazis considered narcotics a Jewish scourge, they didn’t treat addicts too harshly if they were of the right bloodline, and unlike cocaine, morphine or speed, weed was too exotic to even worry about.

After the Second World War, Germany was divided into East and West by the occupying powers, and then even more starkly segregated by the Berlin Wall. In capitalist West Germany, marijuana, LSD and other illicit inebriants were adopted as part of the counterculture revolution of the Sixties: one group of militant students called themselves the Central Council of Roaming Hash Rebels. Meanwhile, communist East Germany was largely insulated from narcomania. The average East German wasn’t exactly flush with cash, so escaped the notice of international drug cartels. The few who managed to acquire drugs enjoyed connections with diplomats and other elites permitted to travel abroad. In East German propaganda, narcotics were presented as a malady of the doped-out West, ironically adopting the same Reefer Madness-style anti-drug hysteria that prevailed in America from the Thirties to the Fifties. The supposedly Left-wing hippies were frowned upon. As one headline put it: “Hashers don’t read Das Kapital.”

Still, by the early Eighties, customs officers were complaining to the Stasi that hashish from the Middle East was being hidden inside pistachios. And it was in the euphoria of the reunited Germany in the early Nineties that 14-year-old Steffen Geyer toked his first doobie at a party. A few years later, on the way to complete his mandatory military service, police stopped him at a train station with 4.9 grams of hashish, which cost him three weeks’ jail time. “This was my moment of awakening, the first time I felt the injustice of the political system around cannabis,” says Geyer, now the director of Berlin’s Hemp Museum and, since 2003, the chief organiser of the annual Hemp Parade. “We start with speeches and music onstage, and then there’s a march across the city, we come back to the stage and there’s another four hours of political speeches and music… We try to show cannabis in all its varieties, but most of the people visiting are stoners.”

A thriving cannabis culture, then. According to Geyer, the attitude towards the drug in modern Germany is “a little bit like the attitude towards sex in the United States”. Officially, it is a slightly taboo topic, ignored by serious politicians, but 8.8% of the population partake on a yearly basis, including a quarter of 18 to 25-year-olds. There have been popular stoner comedies such as Lammbock and Lommbock, while rap videos such as Was Hast Du Gedacht (“What Did You Think”) by Gzuz boast enough guns, ganja and gyrating derrieres to make 50 Cent look like the Fresh Prince. And so, over the years, there’s been a cultural shift: whereas a decade ago only 30% of Germans supported legalisation, by 2022 there were more for than against.

That very year, the pro-business FDP party campaigned on a legalisation platform in the federal election, eventually agreeing to form a government with the Greens and Social Democrats. The “traffic light” coalition, named after the colours of the three parties, initially proposed a system of licensed shops to protect children, similar to the age restrictions on alcohol, and quality control to prevent toxic contaminants (there was a scare that weed was being laced with heroin to get smokers hooked, but no evidence to back it up). The plan was opposed by conservative politicians in Bavaria, who feared it would spawn Amsterdam-style drug tourism, as well as doctors and police unions. But there was a greater snag — the EU.

“Unlike Uruguay or Canada, where although they violate the UN drug conventions there isn’t really any sanction, there have been consultations between the German government and the European Commission — and it became very clear that, if they would have a full commercial supply chain, there would be problems,” explained Tom Blickman of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute. And so, to maintain neighbourly relations, the bill was watered-down. The new rules approved by the German parliament on February 23 only allow possession of a maximum of 25 grams at a time in public, with 50 grams and three plants permitted at home. Three months later, non-profit cannabis clubs will be allowed to distribute the herb between their members.

There are still details to be ironed out, such as a proposed amnesty for 16,000 cannabis offenders (when reforms took place in Thailand in 2022, thousands of prisoners were released the very same day — some even got their growing equipment back). But Geyer believes this is just the beginning. “It’s only a first step — it’s not legalisation they promised two years ago, and it’s far away from legalisation as I would like to see it,” he says. The drug is “still illegal in Germany, so we only have a little bit more breathing room. First of all, we have to campaign to enact the law as fast as possible. And then afterwards, there will be a lot of discussion and arguing about the cannabis social clubs, because they’re too harshly restricted right now. And we need to establish them in a way that they are able to solve at least a little bit of the cannabis black market problem.”

“Reformers are closely following developments in the hopes they will reverberate across the continent”

The fact that there’s no US-style dispensaries on the horizon means joining a cannabis club, which mandate a minimum amount of consumption each month, is still a hassle for those less committed “cannasseurs”, who’ll keep Görli’s immigrant entrepreneurs in business for quite some time. Meanwhile, reformers are closely following developments in the hopes they will reverberate across the continent. “We see Germany as quite a sensible, if not boring, safe country, and them saying ‘we’re going to change our laws’, I think that sends a message to the rest of Europe that this isn’t a big scary issue,” says Paul North, director of the Volteface drug policy think tank. He adds that if Germany eventually adopted an American-style dispensary model this would greatly embolden cannabis campaigners, whereas its slow-and-steady approach leaves lawmakers more cautious. “What Germany does is really important, and it will send a clear signal as to what to expect and see what the light line in the sand is for the rest of Europe to follow.”

For someone like Steffen Geyer, there is only one direction of travel: full normalisation of cannabis. “There will be huge differences in the enforcement of this law between huge cities in the north, and the south of Germany,” says Geyer. “Usually, it’s more liberal in the north than in the south, so if you live in a small town in Bavaria, you will have a lot of contact with the police just to check if you have less than 25 grams with you. But I live in Berlin, and Berlin right now is quite a liberal city and it will be an even more liberal city within a couple of months, when people don’t have to hide their cannabis anymore. It will become more normal, less freaky. It’s a little bit like when the gays were liberated, and that’s a really good thing.”

It’s a quixotic vision for the future. The question remains whether it’s a future Europe really wants. Malta, Czechia, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands are also experimenting with reform, but current EU policies restrict how far they can go. And any fundamental change to drug laws at a continent-wide level would represent something of a revolution: contrary to popular belief, until recently weed was not actually legal in Amsterdam’s famous coffeeshops — merely tolerated. France, Sweden and Hungary, for example, remain firmly prohibitionist, and will likely oppose wholesale reform for the foreseeable future. The rise of the populist Right across Europe has also stoked fears that European drug policy could completely change tack, becoming more authoritarian and conservative. While the “war on drugs” that dominated the second-half of the 20th century might be over, the campaign for the kind of liberation Geyer envisages is far from settled.

Niko Vorobyov is a freelance journalist and the author of Dopeworld.