1 Sept 2016

Volte Face reports

If you’ve been following drug policy developments in recent months, you will no doubt have heard that Germany is on the brink of legalising medical cannabis.

The details of the new law – which was presented to parliament in July, and is expected to come into force by the end of the year – have been discussed at length in the press. Cannabis will, for the first time, be covered by public health insurance, patients will be able to obtain their cannabis on prescription from a pharmacy, and those who wish to take advantage of the new system will (according to some reports) be required to first obtain a letter from their physician stating that cannabis is a last resort.

All of these details are of course subject to change during the legislative process, but have nonetheless been the focus of much of the coverage of this potentially historic change.

The story that hasn’t been fully told, until now, is how and why Germany arrived at this juncture.

Cannabis, regulated. (Source: Flickr – torbakhopper)

Germany’s path to reform has been long, and has involved the efforts of many individuals and organisations over many years.

Pressure from within the country has come in large part from a trio of cannabis/drug law reform organisations – Schildower Kreis, Deutscher Hanf Verband, and the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Cannabis als Medizin – who can all claim responsibility for Germany’s progress.

Arbeitsgemeinschaft Cannabis als Medizin (Association for Cannabis as Medicine) is a part of the International Association of Cannabinoid Medicines, whose Executive Director and former Chairman Franjo Grotenhermen has firsthand experience of the often painfully slow progression of medical cannabis in Germany. Dr Grotenhermen, a medical cannabis expert and published author on the subject, sees patients in his clinic who suffer from a wide range of diseases and ailments, from cancer to Tourette’s, but until now treating them with cannabis has been difficult.

For Grotenhermen’s patients to legally obtain cannabis in the past, they had to endure a lengthy application process, during which they’d have to prove to the German government that they deserved to be an exception to the rules. The first to achieve this status was a Tourette’s sufferer called Lars Scheimann, who became the country’s first legal cannabis patient in 2009. Since then, around 1,000 patients have made it onto the ‘exceptions’ list. The application is only half of the problem, however, because the cost of the drug could not be covered by insurance. Last year, in an interview with dw.com, Scheimann estimated that his medication was costing him €75 per day.

To make matters even worse, Germany has never produced its own cannabis, so Dutch medical cannabis giants Bedrocan were tasked with importing it. Unfortunately for the patients, Bedrocan are extremely strict when it comes to how much medicine they export, meaning that even those patients with exceptions were often still unable to obtain their cannabis legally.

This situation was clearly not tenable, not least because when you’ve granted exceptional status to 1,000 individuals, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that they’re still just an exception.

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