Analysis

Support for Legalizing Cannabis, Cocaine Grows

Germany is legalizing cannabis. Leaders in Colombia and Amsterdam would legalize cocaine.

Karl Lauterbach
German health minister Karl Lauterbach (Bundesministerium für Gesundheit)

Germany plans to legalize the sale of recreational cannabis in 2024.

Germany allows medical use of cannabis, but it is seldom prescribed. Karl Lauterbach, the health minister, would license production, distribution and sale of recreational cannabis. Consumers would be allowed to buy up to 30 grams in specialized stores and they could grow three cannabis plants at home. All criminal investigations would end.

There would be quality requirements, but no price regulation. Lauterbach left open the possibility of a cannabis tax on top of sales tax (19 percent), but cautioned that legal cannabis must be competitive with the black market.

Why regulate

Lauterbach, a social democrat, pointed out that 5 percent of Germans — four out of 83 million — are cannabis users. A quarter of Germans under the age of 25 have tried the drug.

When Der Spiegel ran an alarmist story about the drug trade in the Netherlands, I argued Germany has the worse drug problem. Only 11 percent of Dutch under-25s have tried cannabis. Overall German cannabis use has gone up in the last twenty years. In the Netherlands, where possession of cannabis was decriminalized in the 1970s and sale is allowed in specialized stores, consumption is stable.

Germans use more cocaine. Of those under 35, 1.6 percent are estimated to snort cocaine every year compared to 1 percent of their Dutch counterparts.

Most of Germany’s cocaine is shipped from South America through Rotterdam. Germany is probably the fifth-largest buyer of cocaine in Europe. (Since the drug trade isn’t regulated, we don’t know for sure.)

Biden pardons cannabis users

Lauterbach’s plan comes only weeks after Joe Biden pardoned Americans convicted of cannabis possession by federal courts.

Since most drug crimes are tried at the state level, the pardon didn’t release anyone from prison. But it did give back the right to vote and serve on juries to some 6,500 Americans who served prison time for cannabis possession in the past. The pardon also makes it easier for them to apply to college, get a job and qualify for housing benefits, all of which ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime.

Cannabis laws are outdated

Biden would also reclassify cannabis, which is less harmful than tobacco, under the Controlled Substances Act, so it’s no longer in the top category with heroin.

The Drug Enforcement Administration thinks cannabis, which kills virtually no one, is more dangerous than fentanyl, which killed 65,000 Americans in the last two years and has become the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 45.

The hope is that states will follow Biden’s lead. In 2019, a third of drug arrests nationwide — 500,000 out of 1.5 million — were for cannabis possession. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws estimates that 14 million Americans have cannabis-related criminal records.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis use. 38 states allow medical use. 48 percent of Americans have tried cannabis. 68 percent believe it should be legal.

Colombia would legalize cocaine

From Columbia to Colombia, where a new president is arguing for legalization of cocaine.

Gustavo Petro, whose country has probably suffered the worst of the drug war, insists prohibition has failed. “Of course peace is possible,” he has said. “But it depends on current drug policies being substituted with strong measures that prevent consumption in developed societies.”

Illegal cocaine sales fuel a civil war in Colombia that has lasted sixty years, killed 450,000 and displaced one-tenth of the population. Colombia is the largest grower of coca bush in the world. The United States believes production in the Andean Region, which includes Bolivia and Peru, has tripled in the last ten years.

So long as there is demand for cocaine in Europe and North America, there will be supply from South America. One kilogram of cocaine sells for $1,000 in Colombia and almost $200,000 in the United States. (Cocaine is cheaper in Europe. Stricter American enforcement increases the risk for smugglers and therefore the price.)

Petro has support

Petro would end forced eradication of coca and offer growers viable crop alternatives. He has promised to introduce legislation that would regulate domestic sales in order to undercut the black market.

Colombia, together with Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Greece, already considers possession of small quantities of cocaine an offense, not a crime.

Petro’s proposal is backed by his right-wing predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos. And by the former, conservative president of Mexico, Vicente Fox.

Amsterdam mayor calls for new strategy

Here in the Netherlands, Amsterdam mayor Femke Halsema is the highest-profile official to have called for decriminalization of cocaine. “The war on drugs isn’t working,” she told a conference of Western European justice ministers this month.

Dutch police spend between 20 and 30 percent of their budget on drug crimes, which are 1.6 percent of the total. Almost 80,000 kilos of cocaine were seized in the port of Rotterdam last year, a fourfold increase from four yeas earlier. Yet the price of cocaine hasn’t budged from €50 per gram. It seems the more drugs are intercepted, the more drugs cartels try — and manage — to smuggle in.

Halsema implored the ministers, “I hope we can agree that we need to formulate an alternative strategy.”

Encouraging words from the mayor who tried to ban the sale of cannabis to tourists. The Amsterdam city council voted down her proposal, which would have created a black market in cannabis sales where one barely exists. She appears to be taking a different approach to cocaine.

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