How Germany Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Medical Marijuana
After decades of resistance, Germany has a new system that could become the model in Europe.
Published on November 3, 2016

When it comes to consuming cannabis in Europe, the city of Amsterdam has long been considered the capital of recreational use. But about 500 kilometers to the east, Germany is in the midst of a budding movement that could help change the way that all of Europe handles medicinal cannabis.

The Federal Ministry of Health initiated a new medical cannabis bill and is currently awaiting approval from the German Bundestag, the country’s national parliament. Headed by the current Federal Health Minister Hermann Groehe, the objective of the measure is to make medicinal cannabis flower and extracts available to seriously ill patients from local drug stores throughout the country. In addition, the program will ensure that the medical marijuana will be cultivated in Germany at the highest quality possible, and will also be covered under the country’s health insurance.

Medical cannabis is just now becoming accepted by and integrated into the platforms of various political parties in Germany, such as the Green Party, the Left Party, and the Free Democratic Party, but the fight for a properly regulated system has been happening for a couple of decades. One leader of this ongoing movement, Dr. Franjo Grotenhermen, has devoted the last 20 years of his career to the investigation of scientific and policy issues related to the medicinal and recreational use of cannabis.

In 1997, Dr. Grotenhermen founded the German Association for Cannabis as Medicine, an organization dedicated to performing scientific research on the medicinal uses of cannabis and providing this information to other researchers, patients, pharmaceutical firms, policy makers, and the media. In Dec. 1999, the association provided legal and financial support to eight patients with different medical conditions, each of whom had issued a complaint before the Federal Constitutional Court to get legal access to cannabis by claiming that it was the effective treatment for their various conditions.

The German court decided the following year that these patients were free to apply to the Federal Ministry of Health’s Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices for legal access to cannabis, but that ruling was soon shown to be an empty promise. “All applications were declined. Some patients took the Federal Health Ministry to the courts,” Dr. Grotenhermen says. “Finally, in 2005, the Federal Administrative Court decided that the Federal Health Ministry cannot decline all applications and has issue approval if no other standard medication works.”

By 2007, the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices had begun allowing local pharmacies to sell cannabis flower and extracts. But at the time, this medicinal product was strictly imported from the Netherlands and later Canada, and was not allowed to be grown at home by the patient. Around 900 patients in Germany have approval to use cannabis from local pharmacies under the current legislation, but many of them have continued to argue that the cannabis from local pharmacies is not affordable and that they should have the right to cultivate at home. Not willing to budge on its home-grow stance, the Federal Health Ministry instead drafted a new bill that would benefit everyone involved while remaining well-regulated.

“To avoid self-cultivation by patients the government decided to change the current law on the status of cannabis with regard to medical us,” Dr. Grotenhermen says. “In the meantime, the political opinion had also changed in favor of medical use of cannabis, so that the current changes are both based on legal pressure and changes in all political parties of the Bundestag and public opinion, which is very supportive of a medical access to cannabis by severely ill people.”

Germany’s newly proposed medicinal cannabis system will run completely through a specialized agency, which will act as the middleman between cultivators and patients. Like most state-regulated cannabis commissions in the United States, the first task of this cannabis agency will be to grant licenses and designated areas to growers for the cultivation of medicinal cannabis. The agency will also control the entire process after cultivation is complete.

“All cultivators of cannabis will be required to deliver their total crops of cannabis to the agency,” says Oliver Ewald, of the Federal Ministry of Health. “The agency shall purchase and take physical possession of such crops as soon as possible, but not later than four months after the end of the harvest. The agency shall, in respect of cannabis, have the exclusive right of importing, exporting, wholesale trading and maintaining stocks of cannabis.”

This controlled cultivation will ensure that the cannabis produced is of the highest medicinal standard and also help Germany respond to future patient needs without being dependent on a foreign import. The Federal Health Ministry decided that state-regulated cannabis cultivation would be of higher medicinal quality than the home-grow alternative, and thus set up their new system to be as complementary to patients without compromising the pharmaceutical value.

“It is our aim to provide seriously ill patients with cannabis in a constant medical quality,” Ewald says. “A constant medical quality can’t be ensured by a home grow. Therefore, appropriate demands on potential producers will be made when the invitation to tender will be issued.”

The agency will allow these pharmaceutically approved cannabis flowers and extracts to be used for over 50 ailments, including a wide range of physical disorders and mental illnesses. Cannabis will be prescribable as long as the patient and doctor agree on the positive medicinal impact it will have, similar to the way that narcotics are prescribed. But what truly sets the proposed system apart from others is that health insurance companies will be required to reimburse patients in serious need for the cost of their medical cannabis. All in all, this impending medical cannabis system will likely have implications that reach beyond the borders of Germany, especially as more European countries look to develop their own regulations. In fact, when Dr. Grotenhermen spoke to MERRY JANE, he was preparing for a presentation in France detailing Germany’s new medical cannabis system.

“The medical cannabis program in Germany is very interesting. It may be a model for other countries,” he says. “We’ve already seen some progress in other countries, such as Italy, Switzerland, countries of the Balkans, and others.”

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Tyler Koslow
Tyler Koslow is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with an intensive focus on technology, music, pop culture, and of course, cannabis and its impending legalization.
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