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Germany's Bad Idea to Legalize Pot

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The idea of legalizing cannabis is gaining momentum in Germany. It's getting surprising support from parts of the political spectrum that have historically been hostile to the idea. Yet the measure, if adopted, could make it harder for Germans to get marijuana.

Green Party member Dieter Janecek and Christian Democrat Joachim Pfeiffer filed a policy proposal for legalization last week. The Green Party has long backed the liberalization of recreational marijuana, but Pfeiffer's involvement gives substance to the proposal: He is the economic spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, which has long taken a hard line on drugs. Separately, the FDP, the liberal party that served as the Christian Democrats' junior coalition partner in the previous government but failed to get into parliament in the 2013 election, supports full legalization. And late last year, Thomas Isenberg, health spokesman for Merkel's coalition partners, the Social Democrats, also made a surprise call for controlled legalization, allowing sales in pharmacies and coffee shops.

This looks like the beginning of a broad consensus based on what many politicians see as common sense. Janecek and Pfeiffer wrote in their statement that Germany spends 1 billion euros to 2 billion euros a year on enforcing the marijuana ban, and "witnesses are arrested more often than perpetrators." "We have a big, very active, organized crime-riddled black market for illegal drugs," the legislators wrote, "and so far we have not succeeded in fighting it with bans. The reason: a black market cannot be banned. It is the result of bans."

Save for Dutch cities and the Christiania commune in Copenhagen, Berlin is one of the easiest European metropolis for buying marijuana. In Kreuzberg, the nightlife district, dealers approach people outside subway stations. Goerlitzer Park, also in Kreuzberg, is a major marijuana market despite a "zero tolerance policy" in effect since March 31. Locals responded to the announcement with a mass "smoke-in" attended by about 3,000 people, and to anyone visiting the park, it will seem the protest didn't end. 

This defiance is a curious turn of events for Germany, where an overwhelming majority of people will wait for a traffic light to change to cross an empty street: Marijuana is illegal, except for medical use (fewer than 300 people qualify, most of them cancer patients), but it's widespread practice to flout the ban. Last year, Green Party leader Cem Oezdemir took the Ice Bucket Challenge next to a cannabis plant. He was stripped of his parliamentary immunity afterward, but has suffered no further consequences.

In Berlin, police usually won't charge people for possession unless they have more than 15 grams. In other German states, the limit is lower, at six grams. 

When laws are so broadly ignored, liberalization is akin to accepting reality. This, however, is Germany, and the only detailed legislative proposal -- from the Greens -- could make things worse. At 70 pages, it contains exotic proposals such as training marijuana sellers in "responsible sales" so they are only able to operate shops if they have a government certificate. The law would raise the amount for personal use to 30 grams, but it would so tightly regulate growing and sales -- and probably raise prices so steeply -- that the goal of liquidating the black market wouldn't be achieved. Medical cannabis costs about twice the black market price.

Though it's inevitable for prices to go up after legalization because of taxes, the government needs to compete effectively with the black market dealers to replace them. Germany's current policy is already so liberal that further liberalization only makes sense as a cost-saving measure and perhaps as a way to get some extra revenue. Trying to impose stricter controls on marijuana sales just won't work because Germans have already pretty much made their own laws.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net