- - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

BERLIN — A conservative politician who crossed the aisle and has joined the German Green Party’s campaign to legalize marijuana has revived a long-running debate about the drug in Europe’s largest economy.

Lawmaker Joachim Pfeiffer, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, recently co-sponsored legislation that would lift Germany’s ban on marijuana and regulate the drug like alcohol and tobacco — and, supporters say, bring in billions more marks in tax revenue.

“The current restrictive drug policy failed because, despite the ban, the number of consumers hasn’t dropped,” said Mr. Pfeiffer, who filed his bill with opposition Green Party lawmakers last week. “More than two million Germans use weed regularly, making it the most commonly used illicit drug.”

Mr. Pfeiffer’s move sent ripples of joy through the budding marijuana industry in Germany, offering a rare crack in the conservative unity that has resisted all past efforts at legalization.

“The Christian Democratic Union has been a cement wall in the way of legislation,” said Georg Wurth, head of the German Hemp Association, a pro-legalization group in Berlin. “But for the first time we have a CDU politician publicly speaking out for legalization, which is a big step forward. You can assume there are others with similar opinions in the CDU.”

Currently, Germany has partial decriminalization of marijuana that varies from state to state, with some states maintaining strict prohibitions and others, including liberal Berlin, allowing people to carry as much as 15 grams of pot without prosecution.

Opinions remain polarized. Organizers in Berlin are gearing up for the 19th Hanfparade — Hemp Parade — to be held August 8. The parade, expected to draw some 6,500 participants from all over the country, is Europe’s largest annual demonstration in favor of legalizing marijuana.

But a poll last year by Stern magazine uncovered a deep reservoir of popular suspicion about easing the country’s pot laws, with 65 percent of Germans polls saying the opposed easing laws restricting the production, sale and consumption of marijuana. Fewer than a third — 29 percent — favored legalization, while even in the Green Party only 51 percent said they favored full legalization.

Mr. Pfeiffer’s arguments supporting a regulated marijuana industry in Germany resemble those of advocates in the United States: Legalized pot would undercut organized crime, raise awareness of the negative health effects of smoking, curb law enforcement costs and, perhaps most importantly, generate as much as $2.23 billion annually in tax revenues, he said.

Still, despite Mr. Pfeiffer touting the benefits of legal marijuana to his CDU colleagues, Mr. Wurth wasn’t expecting Ms. Merkel to allow the legislation to pass. “It will be a long time before the party has a majority in favor of legalization,” he said.

Even so, opposition to marijuana legalization is thawing fast among other German parties.

The pro-business German Free Democratic Party, which was part of Ms. Merkel’s coalition government until 2013, added the regulated distribution of cannabis to the party’s platform this month.

For Steffen Geyer of Berlin’s Hemp Museum, it is high time that weed becomes legal in Germany.

“Marijuana should be governed by the same rules as tobacco and wine,” Mr. Geyer said. “The prohibition of cannabis is wrong. It hurts people, it hurts the economy and it empowers organized crime.”

The growing support for legalization has sparked a backlash, however.

Germany’s federal Drug Commissioner Marlene Mortler recently told the daily newspaper Passauer Neue Presse that the country didn’t need more legal drugs on offer because Germans had enough problems with alcohol and tobacco.

Her comments came a few days after the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned Germans to cut down on alcohol consumption, citing heavy costs on the health of individuals and society.

Munich resident Laura, who asked her last name be withheld, approves of cannabis use for medical purposes, but has reservations about legalization for recreational purposes.

“I know a few people who have developed psychiatric problems like psychosis and schizophrenia from weed,” Laura said, echoing concerns aired by marijuana researchers. “Legalization would mainly profit those who make a business out of it and not users.”

Even in Berlin’s most infamous open-air pot market of Gorlitzer Park — an old railway terminus that’s popular among skateboarders, graffiti artists and others — some passers-by said they would rather keep the marijuana business under the table.

Malick, a Senegalese immigrant who has spent over a decade dealing weed in the park, said legalization would put him out of a job.

“You’ve got to legalize it in your mind, not on the books,” said Malick, who declined to give his last name out of fear of being targeted by police. “This isn’t my dream job. But I sell weed when I need money and see customers.”

“I don’t want them to legalize it because then the government will be able to say who can have it and who can’t,” he added. “People like me aren’t going to be the ones running the coffee shops” like those in the Netherlands that sell legal marijuana.

According to cannabis legalization expert Tom Blickman of the Transnational Institute, a Dutch think tank, Germany isn’t the only European country considering a more relaxed stance on marijuana. As in the U.S., a patchwork of different — often conflicting — laws on marijuana now blanket the continent.

“What you see generally in Europe is a move towards decriminalization of personal possession in certain qualities,” Mr. Blickman said.

He added that even the Netherlands, with one of Europe’s most liberal marijuana policies, is moving toward more regulation to exert a measure of legal control over the chains that supply the coffee houses.

“In the Netherlands, everything is prohibited except for consumption,” Mr. Blickman said. “Coffee shops are not prosecuted if they abide by certain rules, but the law still says that it is illegal to sell weed.”

While Mr. Blickman is unsure Mr. Pfeiffer’s bill will pass in Germany, he thinks that it is the first step toward full-fledged legalization.

“I think that will happen within the next 10 years, depending on the political dynamics,” Mr. Blickman said. “But with the example of the United States and Uruguay, where they have basically legalized the cannabis market, not only Germany but more countries in Europe, will move toward a regulated cannabis market.”

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