After Malta, Germany set to make pot mainstream

Malta risked isolation in Europe by ‘legalising’ home growing and the sale of cannabis from no-profit clubs but with Germany set to embark on a similar path, the wave could become unstoppable

Greens, socialists and liberals: the German coalition
Greens, socialists and liberals: the German coalition

The European Union is currently a hotchpotch of different approaches to cannabis use, ranging from complete prohibition to different levels of decriminalisation and tolerance. Even in liberal enclaves like Barcelona and Amsterdam, the sale of cannabis from licensed clubs or outlets, is only allowed on murky legal grounds.

But legalisation remains a rarity, with only Luxembourg preceding Malta in plans to legalise home-growing of a limited number of plants.

Indeed, one of the risks of legalising cannabis in a small jurisdiction like Malta is that surplus production could spill over in to the illegal markets of countries where the product remains illegal, thus creating alarm among law enforcement agencies and concerns about possible mafia infiltration.

But that is about to change as Germany, the EU’s economic powerhouse and most populous and influential country, is set to embark on legalisation, which could well have an impact across the continent.

This is because along with climate measures, digitalisation and a higher minimum wage, the coalition of the centre-left Social Democrats, Greens and the liberal Free Democrats have agreed on a plan to legalise cannabis.

Presently in Germany it’s not illegal to consume cannabis but it remains illegal to buy and sell it. But in their coalition agreement, the three parties have agreed to legalise the sale of cannabis – as long as it is sold to adults in licensed establishments where it can be taxed and where quality control is ensured. After four years, the parties vow to re-evaluate the law and its effect on society.

If Germany does legalise recreational cannabis, it will become the first major European country to do so, after Canada and certain U.S. states, opening a significant market for legal cannabis growers. Such a decision is bound to have a domino effect in the rest of European Union, which is itself based on free movement of goods and people.

The minnows take the lead

Malta, along with Luxembourg, is emerging as a trailblazer on cannabis reform in a continent which for the past decades has grown more tolerant of cannabis users who still resort to the black market to stock up.

Other European countries like the Netherlands have long decriminalised the drug, but producing, buying and selling remains illegal and only permitted in licensed coffee shops. Portugal and Spain have also opted for decriminalisation.

Luxembourg was the first EU country to embark on the path towards legalisation.

In October, the ruling coalition also composed of social democrats, greens and liberals, announced a new law which would allow adults to grow up to four cannabis plants in their homes or gardens under laws that will make it the first country in Europe to legalise production and consumption of the drug.

But the legal prohibition of the consumption and transport of cannabis or cannabis products in public will be maintained and trade in cannabis or cannabis products other than seeds, whether free of charge or in return for payment, remains prohibited. As in Malta, the legislation was driven by a desire to liberalise consumption and cultivation “within one’s own four walls”.

Debate spills over the Alps

But legalisation in Germany could go one step further in mainstreaming cannabis and the debate has already spilled over German borders, especially in Italy where both the centre-left Democratic Party and the 5-Star Movement support the move.

Employment minister Andrea Orlando described the German coalition agreement on legalising the soft drug in one of Italy’s most important allies, as an invitation for a “serious reflection”, noting the repercussions the German decision will have on other member states, “whether we like it or not in the context of a single market with open borders.”

Italy already faces a referendum on this issue next year, after 600,000 signatures were collected to abrogate current laws restricting the cultivation for the personal use of cannabis.

But the two centre-left parties may push this issue in parliament by presenting a law, which could pre-empt the referendum, even if the current government which also includes the right-wing Lega and Forza Italia is divided on this issue. More likely, the proposed reform is likely to cement the emergent centre-left coalition between the PD and the more populist 5-Star Movement.

A rallying cry for conservatives

But plans to legalise cannabis may prove a step to far for conservative political parties, who like the Nationalist Party in Malta fear a “normalisation of drug use”.

Markus Blume, the party secretary of the CSU, the Bavaria-only sister party to the more centrist CDU, called the idea a “dangerous experiment”, warning that legalisation will “turn a drug that is harmful to health into a lifestyle product.”

One major difference between Germany in Malta, is that centre-right but socially liberal voters have an autonomous home in the Free Democratic Party, which traditionally veered to the right in economics and left on civil liberties. The cannabis issue also creates common ground between the left and socially-liberal centrist parties, as is the case with traffic-light coalitions in Germany and Luxembourg.

But in a two-party system like Malta it is difficult to contain different approaches to drug regulation in one party. Although the PN’s opposition to cannabis reform is akin to that of the conservative mainstream in Europe, its current stance could alienate socially liberal voters within its own ranks. This is because Malta differs from other EU countries in which these voters can choose between different centrist parties. In contrast, in Malta socially liberal voters who want to have a say on which party will be governing the country, have to choose between Labour and the PN. This puts social liberals in the PN in a quandary whenever the party moves in a more conservative direction.

Opposition to cannabis is also a rallying cry for the Italian far-right, including the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy, whose leader Giorgia Meloni attacked the left for “normalising the use of drugs”.

But Meloni has also been accused of double standards, for the incongruence between her opposition to COVID restrictions on the unvaccinated on the premise that these violate personal freedoms and her draconian stance against soft drugs.

And while the church hierarchy is largely opposed to legalisation, the highly influential anti-mafia priest Don Luigi Ciotti – who addressed one of the vigils commemorating slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2019 – has also weighed in on the debate calling for an honest discussion on the issue while denouncing the failures of prohibition:

“I believe that the issue of the legalization of cannabis deserves a serious table far from ideologies and moralisms to ask what is best to do, not forgetting that we already have gambling and cigarettes and that our country is full of ambiguity “, he said.

Ciotti invited his audience to “let go of hypocrisy and do an overall reading on all forms of addictions” in a way which moves away from the focus on substances towards a focus on the person

“That prohibition did not lead to solutions is evident. Imprisonment did not help. It only led to an increase in the number of people detained”. Ciotti has called on Italy to move away from the penal path towards a “social approach” based on the depenalisation of lighter offences.