Chances are you’ve seen media reports on a cannabis coffeeshop opening up in Germany's capital, Berlin. While the idea is widely debated, it's still a long way from being realized. The good news is that more German cities are joining in and developing their own plans for how to regulate cannabis.
“Hasch, Gras, Koks [hash, grass, cocaine] — what do you need?” This is a common refrain you’ll hear in the “Görli,” or the Görlitzer Park, in Berlin’s alternative district of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain.
While such offers may be enticing to clubbers on their way home from a weekend of partying, or to frustrated medical cannabis patients looking in desperation for supplies, it’s definitely not what city officials want to hear. Which is why the German Hemp Association (DHV) has suggested a different approach to cannabis regulation in the area: opening a Dutch-style coffeeshop right in Görlitzer Park.
It would be a big change from past precedent. Back in 2013, a girl found a package of cocaine in the children’s playground there, and since then things have only gotten worse. That’s despite Berlin’s minister for domestic affairs adopting a new zero-tolerance measure, which punishes possession of any amount of cannabis in the park.
Just a few steps off the Görli, you get only a written warning if caught with less than 15 grams (about half an ounce) of cannabis. So street dealing has shifted to nearby streets and to the underground metro station. The Berlin government and other voices jawboned for more police, more surveillance and even a neighborhood watch. In short, the first instinct was more repression.
But officials, activists and the citizenry eventually recognized that chasing away the peddlers will only drive the problem to a new location. This mechanism is known as the waterbed effect: Push down a phenomenon in one place, and it will pop up somewhere else. It was this realization that led to local officials to the coffeeshop idea.
District Mayor Monika Herrmann, from the left-wing Green Party, picked up the idea to have adult-use cannabis sales regulated on the municipal level, proposing a trial-opening of a coffeeshop directly adjacent to Görli. After several meetings with drug addiction and prevention experts, representatives from the youth welfare and the DHV, the district government worked out an application. When it was announced, national and international media jumped on the news, simplifying it into a message of “Berlin will open a coffeeshop.” But a district or municipal government cannot influence federal drug laws, and the application for the regulated cannabis sales in Berlin was rejected.
Of course, Hermann was realistic enough to anticipate the rejection. But she kept encouraging other cities or even states to follow her example. The result? A growing coalition of towns and municipalities across Germany are now calling for a fact-based approach to drug policy and for federal institutions to give local administrations leeway in setting public-health policy goals.
Shortly after the Berlin application was announced, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Münster, the District of Hamburg-Altona, and Cologne’s city district decided to work out their own applications. The city of Bremen is going one step further. Alongside a coffeeshop trial, the city’s governing coalition of Social Democrats and Greens wants to decriminalize home cultivation for personal use and adopt a more liberal DUI measure. German consumers currently lose their driver’s license with as little as 1 nanogram of THC in their system. In other countries or U.S. states where cannabis is legal and regulated, the standard value is generally 5 ng.
Change takes time. The introduction of heroin-assisted treatment for longtime addicts in 2009 would have been impossible without the first successful pilot projects in the city of Frankfurt almost 20 years ago. The Frankfurt experiments succeeded because they were supported by local communities after numerous previous failures. They eventually led to a federal law and a significant drop in the number of heroin-related deaths in Germany. The Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain coffeeshop trial follows the same tactic: the more cities join in, the earlier it can be implemented.
The Social Democratic Party (SPD), Germany's second biggest political party, holds the key to change. On a local and state level, the SPD has started to rethink its zero-tolerance stance on recreational cannabis, but it remains inflexible on the federal level. Since regulation of cannabis is an increasingly popular topic, the party could benefit from using it in the next federal election campaign, in 2017. State elections in Berlin, Bremen, and Thüringen have shown that cannabis no longer scares voters off. These days, the opposite is true.