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Bavaria’s Health Minister Is Clearly Wrong About Cannabis

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I have never traveled to Bavaria, or Europe for that matter. I plan on making my first trip later this year to attend the International Cannabis Business Conference in Berlin in June. While I am excited to explore many parts of Germany, one jurisdiction that I plan on steering clear of is Bavaria. That is born out of fear, perhaps an irrational fear, regarding the German state’s reported position on cannabis, as expressed in a recent legal opinion published by Bavaria’s Health Minister Klaus Holetschek (CSU).

Obviously, there are many things that I know nothing about when it comes to Germany being that I have never traveled there, however, it is abundantly clear that Bavaria’s Health Minister despises all things cannabis. After all, various federal lawmakers in Germany are pursuing adult-use legalization as part of a governing coalition agreement and Minister Holetschek is leading the internal opposition against it.

Unfortunately for Minister Holetschek, the facts do not support his recently published ‘legal opinion,’ which I personally feel would be better described as a political hit job attempt. I have never traveled to Bavaria, but I have studied cannabis policy for multiple decades, have served on the front lines of cannabis activism for many years, and was at one point a scholarship law student. With that in mind, below are some of my thoughts and analysis regarding Minister Holetschek’s stated opinions (Minister Holetschek’s stated opinions are translated from German to English).

International And European Agreements

Many of Holetschek’s arguments seem to be based on a lack of evidence to the contrary and/or incomplete information, which are classic prohibitionist political communication tactics. Those strategies worked for a long time being that prohibition was the absolute law of the world for many years. Yet, we no longer operate in a world in which there are no examples of national-level legalization already in existence. According to Minister Holetschek, ‘above all’ the main reason why Germany should not pass an adult-use legalization measure is that it “violates international law and European law.”

“The UN drug control bodies rate a comprehensive cannabis legalization of the kind planned by the federal government in constant decision-making practice as a breach of the UN Convention on Drugs.” Minister Holetschek reportedly stated.

What Minister Holetschek fails to acknowledge in his assertion is that nothing meaningful has happened to Canada, which legalized cannabis for adult use in 2018, after Canada did quite literally what the Minister is selectively clutching his pearls about. Furthermore, the United States has allowed state-level legalization to proceed, which in itself puts the U.S. out of compliance to some degree, and nothing meaningful has happened to the U.S. federal government either. It is my understanding that both nations receive annual warnings from the UN about being out of compliance, but that is the extent of it.

It’s a safe bet that the same will prove to be true in Germany. Even if some international or continental feathers get ruffled by Germany proceeding with legalization, if history is a guide there will be nothing more than some sternly worded letters being received. Additionally, it’s absolutely worth noting that Germany’s Health Minister’s opinion regarding the EU-level component of treaties directly contradicts that of the Bavarian Health Minister, with German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach previously expressing that he was ‘certain’ that the European Union would allow Germany to proceed. People can form their own opinion, although I am going to personally rely on the opinion of the federal health minister on this one.

Protecting Youth

Minister Holetschek’s arguments regarding veiled ‘doomsday scenarios’ about youth consumption are particularly outdated.

“I cannot understand how the release of cannabis for ‘pleasure purposes’ for young people over the age of 18 should improve health and youth protection.” Minister Holetschek reportedly stated. That statement is like something straight out of the 1930s film Reefer Madness.

‘What about the children?’ is one of the most historically popular talking points used by cannabis prohibitionists. But unlike decades past, there are now many peer-reviewed studies regarding cannabis, and a growing body of pre and post-legalization public health data that can be easily acquired and examined, including data that pertains to youth consumption.

Per government data from the Oregon Health Authority, not only was there no spike in youth consumption following the launch of legal adult-use sales and outright possession legalization in 2015; youth consumption rates actually went down from 2012 to 2018 in Oregon. A broader study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University, which involved consumption survey data from over 800,000 respondents in states where cannabis sales were permitted, also found no spike in youth cannabis usage rates.

A study in 2021 conducted by researchers in Canada found ‘no significant differences’ in cannabis consumption rates before and after cannabis legalization in Canada. As of May 2022, data out of Uruguay also demonstrated no sustained changes in youth consumption rates post-legalization. If Minister Holetschek is truly worried about the youth in a post-legalized Germany, he can look at the available data and hopefully sleep better knowing that his fears are unfounded.

Public Health

“Let me be clear: I firmly oppose cannabis legalization because of the serious health risks of this drug.” Minister Holetschek reportedly stated. “Legalizing cannabis and insisting on prevention is like starting a fire and then calling the fire brigade. The Berlin traffic light coalition can’t be serious about that.”

Those statements by the minister operate on the false assumption that if cannabis is prohibited no one will consume it. To use the minister’s own wording, the fire was started a long time ago and burns at all times regardless of whether prohibition is in place or not. There is zero evidence in Germany or anywhere around the world that cannabis prohibition lowers consumption rates. From the pure consumption standpoint, the real major difference between legalization and prohibition is that people are consuming tested and regulated products in the former scenario, and consuming untested products in the latter scenario. Clearly, people consuming tested products is far superior for public health outcomes compared to forcing all consumers towards unregulated sources.

“Experiences from the USA and Canada show that the black market cannot be dried up with legalization. Rather, the black market continues to exist.” Minister Holetschek also reportedly stated.

Again, Minister Holetschek is only giving part of the overall picture via the previously cited comment. Make no mistake – the unregulated cannabis market will never be 100% diminished in Germany or anywhere else, just as unregulated tobacco products will never go away 100%, and a whole host of other times like fake Rolex watches, moonshine, and other illegal items that are bought and sold around the world every day to some degree will never go away 100%.

Right now, 100% of the adult-use market in Germany goes through unregulated sources given the fact that all adult-use sales are prohibited. Meanwhile, in Canada, a recent study concluded that during the period of 2019-2021, consumers moved from the unregulated market to the regulated market at an increasing rate year over year, with over half of Canadian consumers (55%) now reporting that they obtain their flower exclusively from regulated sources.

Not only does the transition to a regulated market benefit public health directly via the consumption of safer products, it also provides a tremendous boost to local economies and public coffers. As of a year ago, the legal cannabis industry in Canada had reportedly created over 150,000 jobs, generated over $15 billion in taxes and fees for governments of all levels, and contributed over $43.5 billion to the nation’s GDP since the start of legalization. Again, those estimates are from a year ago and obviously have only risen since then. Minister Holetschek can stick to his talking points, however, as you can clearly see the facts are not on his side and policymakers all over the world would benefit from disregarding his opinions when it comes to cannabis policy.

Bavaria, Germany