German politics Hopes of a liberal cannabis policy have declined with the CDU/SPD coalition. Nevertheless, cannabis is still appearing increasingly on the political agenda. The German Parliament is currently debating three separate bills. At the same time, the number of cannabis patients continues to grow.
Although, or perhaps because the pro-cannabis Green, Left and FDP parties now sit on the opposition benches, three bills were presented to parliament in January, all seeking liberalisation of the current cannabis policy.
FDP aims to facilitate cannabis pilot projects
The FDP bill seeks to create a legal basis for cannabis pilot projects so that individual Federal States, or cities such as Berlin, Bremen or Münster, can roll out their plans for coffee shop pilot projects. The Ministry of Health (BGM) has repeatedly rejected similar bills since the 1990s, emphasising that there is no legal basis for this.
Jens Spahn, the minister in charge of the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM) and as such the de facto main man, is openly opposed to liberalisation and is therefore unlikely to make any changes over the next four years. The future does not look very bright for cannabis pilot projects in Germany right now.
The Left wants complete decriminalisation
The Left has called for the decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use, meaning that possession of small quantities (up to 15 grams) would no longer be a criminal offence. At present, possession of cannabis leads to criminal proceedings, although most cases are thrown out on the basis of “lack of public interest”.
The Greens want to regulate the entire market
The Greens’ bill reverts to the Cannabis Act they put forward three years ago to regulate the entire market, from sowing the seeds right through to sale. The German Parliament is set to vote on the 69-page draft bill during this parliamentary term. The bill made the headlines three years ago as the Cannabis Control Law, which was rejected in 2016 by the CDU/SPD parliamentary majority.
The bills were first referred to the committees, where they were revised and then submitted to parliament for approval during the next parliamentary period.
Nothing will happen without the SPD
Surprisingly, in the ensuing debate the rank and file of the SDP were mainly in favour of liberalisation, although this party, the second-biggest parliamentary political group, remains sceptical when it comes to full legalisation. The new coalition agreement with the CDU does not foresee any changes with respect to cannabis.
Even though the SPD seems to be gradually changing tack, it is likely to vote against all three bills. Anything other than this would mean a breach of the coalition agreement, and this would call the coalition per se, and with it the SPD’s ability to govern, into question. A breach of the coalition agreement just to legalise cannabis is highly unlikely.
It is equally unlikely that the two future ruling parties will waive the obligation of MPs to toe the party line when it comes to voting on cannabis, as the candidate for chancellor, Mr Schulz, made clear in the election campaign.
Until the SPD speaks out as a majority, and clearly in favour of a change in cannabis legislation, little will change in Germany. It seems that the country’s oldest party is not quite ready for that in 2018, despite in-party discussions about cannabis gaining increasing momentum.
Even if little can be expected from the current government in terms of legalisation, the Ministry of Health will frequently be forced to address the issues of cannabis, reliability of supply, supply shortages and inflated prices over the next four years.
Patient numbers increasing
According to the Federal Union of German Associations of Pharmacists (ABDA), there was a continued increase in the number of cannabis patients in Germany in the last quarter of 2017. In a press release, ABDA refers to an almost exponential rise in patient numbers:
“There was an upward trend from quarter to quarter, both in prescriptions and in the number of units dispensed,“ says Andreas Kiefer, President of the Federal Chamber of Pharmacists. In the second quarter of 2017, pharmacies reported 4,615 prescriptions, with over 10,000 units of cannabis buds. The last quarter of 2017 saw 12,717 prescriptions and around 18,800 units.
“Prescriptions for cannabis have thus to some extent become routine,” says Kiefer. The total number of patients may be higher than the above figures suggest, because a separate prescription has to be issued for each strain, and patients who need multiple strains therefore often go to their pharmacist with two or three prescriptions.
The BMG says that cannabis is increasingly being imported from Canada and the Netherlands. In the period from September 2017 to March 2018, for example, import requests for over 2,100 kilograms of medicinal cannabis were approved. That is more than the Federal Government’s annual estimate of demand and commitment for cultivation for the period from 2021. It is an indication of the Ministry’s massive underestimation of demand and shows that the figures need to be revised.
Situation remains unsatisfactory for patients
In January, Germany’s three largest insurers – AOK, Techniker and Barmer Ersatzkasse – announced that they were receiving increasing numbers of applications for compensation. Between March 2017, when the law came into force, and the end of the year, there were more than 15,700 applications.
Many doctors still lack experience in the use of medicinal cannabis, so too many requests are incorrect or incomplete and are consequently refused. Currently, only two-thirds of requests are approved. At a cost of almost 23 euros per gram, rejection of a request spells the end of legal treatment for the majority of patients.
The frequently criticised supply shortages have largely been eradicated. Whereas at the end of 2017 patients regularly had to wait weeks and even months for their medicine, there is now a virtually guaranteed constancy of supply. Of the almost 30 strains currently on offer, many cannot yet be supplied, however. In particular, patients who need high-CBD strains face a long wait for their medicine.
DHV Director Georg Wurth is unhappy with the current situation. He accuses the government of “totally excessive prices, a botched licensing process and arbitrary health insurance” and believes that the Ministry of Health still has some way to go.