The city of Berlin is moving quickly to decriminalise possession of small amounts of cannabis in what is called “bowing to reality”, even as federal law in Germany still outlaws production or sale of the drug.
The legislation to permit possession of up to 15 grams of pot or hashish “for personal use” is backed by the overwhelming majority of lawmakers in the city council chambers.
A broad coalition of civil libertarian Free Democrats favour the bill, along with the city’s ruling majority of leftist Social Democrats and Greens and far-left Socialists, remnants of the one- time East German Communist Party.
While placing pressure on other Germany states to follow, when the law comes into effect, possibly in a matter of weeks, it will put Berliners in the odd position of living in a city where cannabis is legal, and in the capital of a nation where it is not.
The centrist FDP is sponsoring the legislation, saying it is high time for the government to get its nose out of the affairs of otherwise law-abiding people when consumption of pot has not been proven to be more harmful that alcohol or cigarettes.
That is the ostensible reason. The real reason is that authorities in Berlin have given up trying to police the pot possession problem.
“The ban was based on a drug policy which has failed utterly,” says FDP City Senator Martin Lindner, who introduced the bill.
“We are not trying to play down this drug,” he adds, “but are simply striving to attain a more realistic approach to this drug.”
To understand how cannabis is equated to alcohol and cigarettes in Berlin, one must understand German attitudes toward alcohol and cigarettes and the fact that beer, for one thing, is the national beverage.
Unlike many countries, where sales of alcoholic beverages are restricted to certain licensed shops and restaurants, alcoholic beverages in Germany - especially beer - are widely available for sale.
Beer is sold at fast-food outlets such as McDonald’s and Burger King. Beer and wine are sold at cinema snack bars. Many autobahn service stations make more money selling beer than they do selling fuel.
Newsstands often sell beer, wine and schnapps - for those shoppers who cannot wait to get to the nearest cafe, grocery, supermarket or department store.
In fact, liquor stores per se are rare in Germany. Shops devoted solely to the sale of alcoholic beverages are not needed in a nation where even beverage vending machines dispense not only Coca-Cola and Fanta but also beer, wine and rum coolers.
And unlike English-speaking countries, cigarette consumption is still high in Germany, particularly among the young. Statistics show upwards of 50 percent of high-schoolers smoke. And in a nation where beer, wine and schnapps are integral parts of family dining, young people learn to drink early.
Against that backdrop of widespread smoking and drinking, getting high on pot increasingly is becoming socially acceptable, particularly in families headed by Baby Boomers who toked up during the 1960s and 1970s.
Berlin is considered the marijuana and hashish capital of Germany, not just its political capital. In just the past three years police have completely lost track of the cannabis market in Berlin, according to a report in Berliner Zeitung newspaper.
There is hardly a club or disco, a cafe or gallery opening where with-it Berliners are not smoking joints. And that is just the public aspect of the drug which is clearly obvious to all. Pot consumption at private parties is ubiquitous.
“We’d need 1,000 additional officers just to begin to clamp down on the cannabis trade,” one drug-enforcement officer told the Berlin newspaper. But budgetary cutbacks, compounded by a growing acceptance of pot as a socially acceptable drug have made a drug-enforcement policeman’s lot not a very happy one.
Hashish reportedly is easily available at cafes and tobacco shops throughout Berlin. That is in addition to the home-grown variety planted in balcony flower pots, back gardens and rooftops across the city.
Police in Berlin have stopped making raids on private homes suspected of harbouring a garden of pot plants.
“It’s not worth it,” the investigator told the paper. “We only roll if we get a tip-off to a really big-time pot plantation. But we don’t go out looking through people’s back gardens any more on the off chance of finding a marijuana seedling.”
In the past, much of the illicit cannabis came into Germany from Turkey or the Mediterranean. Now though, many struggling farms in former East Germany have hired out their barns for high-tech pot production facilities.
“The pot people in Berlin smoking generally comes from acreages closer to their homes than the ones producing the fresh fruit and vegetables they eat,” an investigator said.