Germany The Federal Republic of Germany is the most populous EU member state, with over eighty million inhabitants. Just as with other central European countries, Germany has a long history of cannabis use; today, cannabis is widely used and readily available in most cities, although its cultivation, sale and use remain illegal.
History of cannabis in Germany
It appears that cannabis has been present in Germany for a considerable length of time, perhaps even since pre-Germanic times. Archaeological digs conducted in Eisenberg, Thuringia (central Germany) have unearthed cannabis seeds in cave dwellings thought to date to at least 7,500 years ago, during what is known as the Band Ceramic period of the Neolithic. Later evidence of cannabis seeds in what appears to be a funerary urn dating to around 2,500 years ago has been found in Wilmersdorf, now part of Berlin but formerly an independent village; tomb burials containing cannabis seeds and flowers and dating to the same period have also been found in southern Germany.
Over the centuries, cultivation and use of cannabis became integral to the lives of many rural Germans, no doubt initially to provide fibre and seeds; by the 12th century, there is evidence that it occupied an important place in the early German pharmacopoeia. In around 1150 CE, the Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen wrote extensively of the medicinal properties of cannabis in her important nine-book treatise Physica, which describes the properties of hundreds of plants, animals, and minerals. Hildegard wrote that cannabis “reduces the bad juices and reinforces the strong ones”, and that it could both ameliorate and exacerbate headache, depending on whether the user had a “full” or “vacant” mind.
It is interesting to note that while the Catholic Church has maintained an anti-cannabis stance throughout much of history, Hildegard was a respected authority on medicinal matters and her teachings were apparently not considered blasphemous by the Church. Indeed, the abbess was also well-known as a visionary (the Sibyl of the Rhine is another of her honorifics), and in 1148 received Papal approval to claim her visions were received from the Holy Spirit. It was not until centuries later, with the rise of the Spanish Inquisition, that traditional healers and herbalists began to be portrayed as heretics and witches.
Cannabis as medicine in Mediaeval Germany
By the 15th century, use of cannabis in the German pharmacopoeia had become well-established, and there are abundant references to it in the literature of the period. Despite the encroaching menace of the Inquisition—which used the 1484 Papal Bull Summis desiderantes affectibus as a guideline and justification to stamp out traditional herbalism—the universities of mediaeval Germany, Switzerland and Italy in particular made great efforts to preserve the traditions of the region.
Cannabis seed oil was extensively used in medicine at the time, to treat inflammation, gonorrhoea, parasitical infestations, coughs and jaundice. Important texts of the period that make mention of cannabis as a medicine include Paracelsus’ (1493-1541) Das Neunte Buch in der Arznei (The Ninth Book of Medicine); Hieronymus Bock’s Kreuterbuch (1539); Leonard Fuchs’ New Kreuterbuch (1543) and Tabernaemontanus’ Neuwe Kreuterbuch (1588). Uses of cannabis in medicine developed throughout this period, and in 1776-1789 the first encyclopaedia of pharmaceuticals was published by Johann Andreae Murray, who devoted multiple pages to the description of cannabis and its many uses.
By the 16th century, Europeans had begun to make regular trading expeditions to Africa and Asia, where they encountered higher-potency strains of cannabis; this “Indian Hemp” was brought back to Europe and incorporated into medical practice, although it would not become well-established until the mid-19th century.
As well as medicine, cannabis fulfilled may other functions in mediaeval German society. It continued to be a source of fibre, food, ritual and possibly even recreational enjoyment up to the early 20th century, when the global trend for prohibition began to take hold.
Cannabis use in present-day Germany
Germany shares borders with the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Poland, Denmark, all of which have lenient cannabis possession laws and generally progressive policies. As a result, it is almost inevitable that Germany shares in these policies to some extent. Due to the unrestricted movement of people and goods throughout the Eurozone, it is impossible to stop the lively traffic in cannabis that occurs throughout the region, and it is generally accepted that efforts to curb the illicit industry by criminalising users are ineffective.
Until recently, it appeared that Germany was following a path towards tolerance that would rival even that of the Netherlands, but use of tactics such as roadside sweat tests and sniffer dogs over the last few years has intensified, and its policies are currently relatively harsh. Policies also vary according to region; northern cities such as Berlin and Hamburg remain fairly relaxed and cannabis use is generally tolerated, while more southerly regions tend towards more restrictive policies.
Overall, prosecutions for simple cannabis use seldom occur, and rarely result in custodial sentences. Cannabis use is relatively common; approximately three million Germans are regular users. There is also an active cannabis community and a thriving culture of festivals and marches in support of cannabis use and legalisation, such as the famous Hanfparade (Hemp Parade) that takes place in Berlin each August.
Cultivation of cannabis in Germany
Germany has cultivated hemp for thousands of years, and continued to do so for much of the 20th century. Hemp cultivation was only prohibited in 1982, and the ban remained in place for just fourteen years. In 1996, the German government lifted the ban in response to intensifying protests from hemp enthusiasts, scientists and would-be farmers. Around 3,500 hectares were cultivated in 1996, including 750 acres by the Dutch company HempFlax. It is now reported that since 2011, hemp cultivation in Germany has virtually ceased, as strong land competition from subsidised bioenergy crops has forced producers to relocate.
Die Lustige Hanffibel (“The Funny Hemp-Bible”; 1943) is an intriguing comic description of traditional uses of cannabis in Germany, along with full instructions on how and when the plant the crop for optimum results. At the time, hemp cultivation was undergoing renewed emphasis as part of the War effort; the manual was published by the German Reich Nourishment Authority.
As of July 2014, cultivation of high-cannabinoid varieties for medicinal use is permissible for certain individuals suffering from chronic pain, due to a ruling by a German court regarding five seriously-ill individuals whom had requested (and been refused) permission to cultivate cannabis for therapeutic purposes from the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices. The group took the complaint to court; three members were granted permission to cultivate small quantities at home. Two were not: one because the judge felt that possible access by third parties could not be prevented, and the other because it was ruled that all treatment options had not been exhausted.
Cannabis cultivation is widespread in Germany, although it remains illegal except in extremely limited circumstances. In 2011, 1,804 instances of cultivation were detected by police; in 2010, the figure was 1,517. The average size of crop also increased, with 133,650 plants seized in 2011 compared to 101,549 plants in 2010; this averages out to a mean of 74 plants per crop in 2011, compared to 67 in 2010. The number of “small” personal crops also doubled in that year, which would imply that the large commercial crops became considerably fewer, but much greater in size.
The movement to allow cultivation of cannabis in Germany is thriving. In June 2013, a group calling itself “A Few Autonomous Flower Children” spread several kilograms of cannabis seeds throughout the university city of Göttingen, Lower Saxony. Since then, hundreds of cannabis plants have been appearing all over the city, and police are struggling to keep up with the task of removing them. A photo gallery of plants that have been spotted in Göttingen since the protest started can be found here.
Cannabis laws, arrests and sentences in Germany
Until the mid-1990s, cannabis was strictly illegal in all forms in Germany. On 28th April 1994, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that possession of “soft” drugs in quantities intended for personal consumption would no longer be prosecuted; since then, possession, consumption and even sale of small quantities of cannabis has generally been tolerated by regional authorities, although the extent of this tolerance varies between regions.
German federal law states that individuals in possession of “small amounts” are exempt from prosecution, but leaves the definition of what constitutes a small amount up to the regional governments. The quantity of cannabis considered “small” by most regional governments, including Munich and Brandenburg (which surrounds Berlin), is six grams. The city of Berlin itself allows the possession of up to fifteen grams. In the northern region of Schleswig-Holstein the permissible amount is typically up to thirty grams, while in Thuringia in east-central Germany, possession of even tiny quantities may lead to arrest.
Despite these generally lenient policies, arrests of individuals in possession of quantities in excess of the limits are common, even where there is no proven intent to sell. In 2011, 236,478 drug offences were recorded, with around 170,297 general possession offences and approximately 50,000 dealing and trafficking offences. For general prosecutable offences such as small-scale cultivation and sale, or possession in excess of personal limits, the punishment may range from fines and short custodial sentences to a maximum five years’ imprisonment. Such lengthy sentences are usually reserved for more serious dealing and trafficking offences; such cases may also carry a mandatory minimum of one or two years’ imprisonment, depending on severity.
Cannabis legalisation in Germany
Germany’s current government—led by the Christian Democrats (CDU)—is generally opposed to the legalisation of cannabis, and wishes to tighten the existing laws against its use and sale. However, there is broad support for cannabis legalisation, from various experts including scientists, politicians and police, who argue that harsher penalties do not result in a decline in possession and consumption of cannabis or other illicit drugs.
Some politicians have called for prohibition of cannabis to be lifted once and for all, including the Green Party stalwart Hans-Christian Ströbele. In Berlin, home of thousands of regular cannabis users (and the famous Hanfparade), pro-cannabis sentiment has always been strong, and several politicians have called for Dutch-style cannabis cafés to be opened in the city, including district mayor Monika Hermann. However, this plan was denied by the Berlin Senate, with fierce opposition coming from the Health Senator for Berlin, Mario Czaja of the centre-right CDU.
Despite widespread popular support for cannabis among the general public, outright legalisation is supported by surprisingly few Germans, at least according to a poll conducted in January 2014. According to the poll, just 29% of those sampled were in favour of outright legalisation of cannabis, and 65% said they would reject any further relaxation of existing legislation. The remaining 6% had no opinion on the matter.
Purchasing and using cannabis in Germany
Cannabis and hashish is widely available in most German cities, with hashish from Morocco, India and Afghanistan being perhaps most commonly available. Over the last decade or so, availability of herbal cannabis has increased; the majority originates in the Netherlands or Switzerland, but an increasing proportion is domestically produced.
Clandestine coffeshops and occasional head shops sell cannabis discreetly under the counter in some cities, but these may be hard to find for non-locals. As with any country, finding a reliable local to assist in obtaining cannabis is the safest and best bet, but there are also numerous dealers on certain city streets or parks that appear to be generally fairly reliable, at least in terms of not getting too badly “ripped off”.
In Frankfurt, the Konstablerwache station is a well-known spot populated by hashish dealers, with varying reports as to the qualities and prices on offer. It is always advisable to at least check the appearance and aroma of any street purchase, and most reasonable street dealers will allow this. In Berlin, the city parks Volkspark Hasenheide and Görlitzer Park are well-known for spots both to obtain and to smoke cannabis; in summer, groups of youths surrounded by white, puffy clouds of smoke are not an unusual sight.
Prior to the global financial crisis of 2008, cannabis prices in Germany have increased significantly. In 2007, the price per gram ranged from €5 – 7 for the end-user; now, prices of €7 – 10 are more common, and may even be as high as €12 from some dealers. Again, securing a reliable local supplier is preferable to buying from a street dealer in terms of price.