A new technical report commissioned by the German government sheds light on the effects of cannabis legalisation and aims to inform the country's ongoing efforts to legalise recreational cannabis. Conducted by the renowned "Institut für interdisziplinäre Sucht- und Drogenforschung (ISD)" in Hamburg, the study encompasses a systematic literature review and expert consultations to address key questions and concerns surrounding cannabis legalisation. While the report provides valuable insights, it also acknowledges limitations in data and methodology. The technical Report was the foundation for Germany's approach to cannabis reform. A draft Bill that was recently released lays out the path of German cannabis over the foreseeable future, while welcomed by some, the draft bill has also been subjected to some criticisms due to its overly restrictive approach.
The Technical Report evaluated a total of 165 studies from multiple jurisdictions.
Fig 1: Number of studies per outcome and country
Reducing the Illegal Market:
The report emphasises that cannabis legalisation can effectively diminish the illegal market. Drawing on studies from various jurisdictions, such as Canada, the USA and Uruguay. The findings suggest that as the legal market expands, the illegal market tends to decline. However, it is essential to consider jurisdiction-specific factors, user preferences, product categories, and market conditions when evaluating the impact of legalisation on the illegal market.
Contrary to popular belief, the report indicates that the legalisation of cannabis in Germany is unlikely to lead to a decrease in violent or property crimes, It further states that it is unlikely that the legalisation of cannabis will increase crime rates. The studies reviewed, mainly focused on western US states, reveal heterogeneous findings with no clear causal pathway explaining changes in crime outcomes. It is worth noting, though, that cannabis-related arrests for possession significantly decrease following legalisation, indicating a shift in law enforcement priorities. Additionally, the report notes the lack of any study that focuses on the impact of legalisation on organised crime.
Perceived Availability among Adults:
Limited empirical studies exist regarding the impact of cannabis legalisation on perceived availability among adults. A Canadian study, conducted in a province with strict sales controls, showed no change in perceived availability among young adults after legalisation. However, due to the scarcity of research in this area, it is challenging to draw general conclusions.
Cannabis Use among Adults:
Figure 2. Study findings on the impact of cannabis legalisation on adult use outcomes, by use of external control, country, and length of follow-up. All studies provided one estimate, except for (6, 23, 73, 74, 75), which provided two or three estimates because of inconsistent age-stratified findings or because of different outcome definitions (e.g., past-year vs. past-month use).
The report highlights an increase in cannabis use among adults in North American jurisdictions following legalisation, but this finding is not consistent across all studies. Notably, Uruguay's experience shows no significant impact on prevalence. Self-reporting surveys may be influenced by increased willingness to disclose previously illegal behaviour, and data from non-self-reporting surveys do not exhibit consistent patterns.
Initiation of Cannabis Use among Adults:
While the available studies focused on the United States, they suggest that cannabis legalisation has increased the likelihood of adult non-users initiating cannabis consumption. However, it is important to note that the magnitude of concern regarding a small increase in adult initiation remains a topic of debate, and further research is needed to fully understand this phenomenon.
Frequency of Cannabis Use among Adults:
Among adults who use cannabis, the frequency of use does not appear to be affected by legalisation. Any increase in frequent use is likely due to new users entering the legal market. Limited evidence from Canada suggests that legalisation did not significantly impact cannabis use quantities, but further research is needed to draw more conclusive findings.
Risky/Problematic Use, Cannabis Use Disorder, and Psychosis/Schizophrenia among Adults:
The impact of cannabis legalisation on risky cannabis use, cannabis use disorder, and the occurrence of psychoses or schizophrenia among adults remains inconclusive. While some studies report small increases in hospitalisations for cannabis-related problems in certain US states following legalisation, these increases may be primarily driven by overall increased use rather than changes in problems among users. Longer-term studies are needed to assess the full implications of legalisation on cannabis-related disorders.
Acute Intoxications and Synthetic Cannabinoids:
Studies suggest that the number of acute intoxications among adults has increased in Canada and certain US states following legalisation. However, there is no immediate evidence of an increase in hyperemesis cases associated with cannabis legalisation. Moreover, states with legalised cannabis tend to experience fewer poison centre calls related to synthetic cannabinoids compared to states without legalisation.
Effects on Health and Public Safety:
The report highlights several areas where cannabis legalisation can have an impact. The sale of cannabis edibles can lead to increased intoxication among both children and adults, although the effects are typically temporary. Restricting the attractiveness of edibles to children and adolescents is crucial to mitigate these negative impacts. Market commercialisation, defined as a significant increase in physical availability through retail stores, may result in acute health problems related to cannabis use. However, capping the number of stores is likely associated with positive public health outcomes. Nevertheless, the analysis of these effects requires further refinement.
The technical report provides a comprehensive analysis of the effects of cannabis legalisation, dispelling common misconceptions while acknowledging the need for further research. It presents a nuanced perspective, offering insights into both positive outcomes and areas of concern. While not advocating for any specific policy outcome, the report leverages expert discussions to provide recommendations for achieving desired health and social outcomes. For those seeking a comprehensive understanding of cannabis legalisation, the report serves as an essential resource, promoting informed decision-making in the ongoing cannabis policy reforms in Germany.
Research becomes Policy
Germany's updated approach to cannabis legalisation has disappointed many stakeholders in the industry. The new rules, outlined in a draft bill, are significantly diluted compared to the original cornerstones paper released in October 2022. The approach now favours a two-pillared strategy, introducing cannabis social clubs and a five-year regional pilot project. However, the draft bill indicates that the regulations will be more restrictive than anticipated.
The draft bill mainly focuses on the regulation and operation of cannabis social clubs (CSCs), which were expected to provide adult access to "clean" cannabis quickly. The leaked information reveals the following key provisions for CSCs:
Cannabis consumption is prohibited within CSCs or within a 250-meter radius.
CSC premises and cannabis cultivation/storage areas must be secured with features like fences, burglar-proof doors/windows, and privacy screens for greenhouses.
Federal states can set minimum distances between CSCs and facilities like playgrounds, schools, and sports facilities.
Each cannabis association must develop a "health and youth protection concept" and appoint a trained addiction and prevention officer.
Board members of CSCs must present a certificate of good conduct.
Clubs must adhere to limits for pesticides and fertilisers, and maintain records of seed sources, plant quantities, and cannabis distribution to members.
CSCs must report their annual cannabis production, sales, destruction, THC/CBD levels, and current stock figures to authorities.
CSCs can distribute cannabis to members in neutral packaging, limited to a maximum of 50g, accompanied by a leaflet detailing weight, harvest date, best before date, variety, and THC/CBD levels.
Members aged 18-21 face a 10% THC limit and a maximum of 30g per month.
CSCs are limited to a maximum of 500 members, and members cannot join more than one club.
Outside of CSCs, the draft bill also includes provisions regarding general cannabis consumption. Smoking cannabis within 250 meters of facilities such as schools and playgrounds will be prohibited. Also prohibited is cannabis consumption in pedestrian areas from 7 am - 8 pm. The draft also establishes that personal possession will be capped at 25g and cultivation for personal use will be capped at 3 plants per year.
The new rules for CSCs have added to the disappointment already felt by many stakeholders since the revised plans were announced. The stringent restrictions on CSCs may render the first pillar of the plans unattractive to cannabis enthusiasts, potentially undermining its viability. While prioritising public health is essential, these restrictions may hinder the legal market's ability to compete with the illicit market and provide consumers with fair access to cannabis. Further disappointment is that this approach is not business-friendly and regulates the cannabis industry excessively which may enable the illicit market to remain in competition with the legal market.
It is important to note that the draft bill is subject to further deliberations and votes. It has been submitted to the "departmental vote," where other ministries will review its contents. Therefore, the final version of the law may undergo changes before its implementation.