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After years of pressure from patients and advocacy groups such as the German Hemp Association (DHV), the dream of securing unfettered access to medical cannabis in Europe’s most populous country is finally coming to fruition. 

On Thursday, at the request of Germany’s left-leaning opposition party Die Linke (The Left), the Bundestag, or German Parliament, opened the first round of discussion on medical cannabis legislation that would give patients a “full guarantee of access to medical cannabis.” The debate included the first examination of changes that will be needed to adapt the existing German Narcotics Act to accommodate medical cannabis users. The law would give patients access cannabis beginning in early 2017. 

The step is especially significant because of how the legislative process works in Germany: Once a draft bill enters the parliamentary process after being approved by the cabinet, it must result in binding legislation. Sometimes draft legislation doesn’t find its way to Parliament for months or years, but medical cannabis has moved relatively quickly. Now, in a matter of months, the herbal remedy should be available in Germany, home to 80 million Europeans. 

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“Seriously ill people must be cared for in the best possible way — this is my commitment,” German Health Minister Herman Gröhe said in a press release issued ahead of the parliamentary debate. “We want the cost of medical cannabis to be covered by [patients’] health insurance when they can’t be helped otherwise. We also want to get scientific surveys underway to assess the medical benefits accurately.” 

The liberalization of cannabis laws in Germany, however, stops short of allowing adult use.

During the debate, the government’s drug commissioner, Marlene Mortler, made clear that advocates shouldn’t expect any change to Germany’s stance on recreational cannabis. “The focus of the federal government’s drug policy are not Zeitgeist, prejudices or ideologies,” she said. “To us, this is about human beings and their health! Public health is at the heart of our cannabis policy, and that is exactly why I say no to recreational use of cannabis.”

Nevertheless, the medical bill’s passage would make Germany the first large European Union member state to implement such sweeping legislation. So far only smaller countries, such as the Netherlands and Czech Republic, have implemented robust cannabis programs.

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The new bill was welcomed by Social Democrat Burkhard Blienert, but he emphasized the need for a corresponding law to improve the situation for patients. Blienert also echoed Gröhe in pointing out that there’s currently a dearth of research into the efficacy of cannabis. Still, he seemed pleased “that the Ministry has now distanced itself from its initial thoughts to include a mandatory patient survey in the law”.

In the initial version of the bill, the surveys were to contain personal data of the patients. The second chamber of Parliament, the Bundesrat, recommended an anonymous survey instead, and the change was then incorporated into the bill. Bienert said he sees this kind of research “as a viable way to get more evidence without turning patients into guinea pigs.” 

One of the first German politicians to push for medical cannabis was Frank Temple, a former narcotics officer who is now a representative of the liberal Die Linke party. He sees the law as a step in the right direction but also aired criticisms during the debate. “I have to disagree with the impression that the federal government acted for the benefit of patients,” he said. “It explicitly did not, but quite the contrary: For years the federal government prevented medical care with cannabis for ideological reasons.”

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A brief look behind the scenes suggests the federal government’s change of heart was less about values and more about caving to the pressure of more and more patients winning court cases against the health ministry. The sudden hurry is also due to the hundreds of patients applying for cultivation licenses after Michel F., a patient with multiple sclerosis, became the first German patient to successfully sue the government to obtain a grow license. 

Until the new law is in place and the system works, it will be hard to turn down patients’ applications. Moreover, the government is likely to run into legal time limits on pending applications before the new law will be in place. 

The Bundestag will vote on the measure this fall. It’s slated to take effect in early 2017.

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