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Germany, the capital of beer, looks to Colorado with worry and curiosity as it considers legalizing cannabis

Curious Europeans have reached out to Colorado pot proponents to learn about the state’s experiences.

Left: The Drink Drunk store in the Berlin suburb of Kreuzberg. Right: A five-gram marijuana package for sale at a medical cannabis shop in Germany. (Carol McKinley, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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BERLIN On a warm Saturday evening at Berlin’s Gorlitzer Park, cherry trees protect strollers from the sun, and children chase kites on the lawn. Students hang out in a sunken crater where constant Frisbee-throwing has turned the grass to dirt.

The “Gorli” was once a proud bahnhof, a huge train station where Hitler stood during his campaigns, but it was bombed to pieces during World War II.  

Today, it is Berlin’s Green Half-Mile, a place where young African men hang out near old railway lines, rusted arteries that could not be destroyed. It takes under two minutes for a dealer to make contact.

“Hallo!” they call. If you say it back, you’re in business.

Recreational marijuana is illegal in Germany, but Gorlitzer is a not-so-secret place to buy black-market weed. Berlin police look the other way as long as the sales don’t go over 5 grams.  

Except for the Netherlands, where marijuana sales are tolerated, most legal marijuana trade in Europe is medical. But Germany, with its powerful influence in the European Union, may be the next frontier for legal weed advocates. Recreational pot advocates and critics are watching Colorado’s five-year experience with legal cannabis closely in hopes of borrowing from its successes and avoiding its mistakes.

Since Germany legalized medical cannabis just last year, the number of people seeking seeking marijuana prescriptions has exploded from 700 to around 20,000.

But in a country where beer flows like tap water, legalizing pot completely may be a tough sell. Conservative Germans don’t want to see their children grow up to become a nation of “kiffers” (that’s German for “potheads”).

“A lot of people think if we fully legalize cannabis then we will have it in the supermarket at a low level so that the children can grab it,” says Florian Rister, vice CEO of Deutscher Hanfverband, the German Hemp Association.

He added: “We tell people that we can create a system like Colorado did where there are dispensaries for cannabis where you only go if you want it and there’s no other reason to go there and there are no children. For a first mover, where the eyes of the whole world are watching, I think Colorado did it great.”

Gorlitzer Park (Carol McKinley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Germans “very afraid of marijuana”

A University of Dusseldorf study scheduled for release in November estimates that if the 200-600 tons of cannabis consumed in Germany every year was legalized, at 4 euros per gram, more than 1 billion euros would dump into Germany’s tax coffers.

Still, Germans  are known for their love of order, and many citizens want to see a plan for that money.

“I don’t see legalization happening any time soon in Germany,” says Clara Pfesser, 29. She says she will not support legal pot until she understands what will happen with all of that pot tax money. “There’s no big movement in education to let people know what that’s like. People here are still very afraid of marijuana.”

Carlo Kriekels is co-founder of Denver’s YESS Institute, which helps implement education programs with money from marijuana taxes. He believes that Europeans, and especially Germans who are considering the pros and cons of legalizing cannabis, should study how Colorado has evolved five years out.

“I think if the Europeans research what Colorado is doing with taxes from marijuana, they will see that there are programs in place here to educate our kids, and then they would be more open to legalizing marijuana,” Kriekels says.

In 2018 alone, the city of Denver spent $3.65 million of pot tax dollars on marijuana education and after-school programs for Denver Public Schools students. Further, Colorado School of Public Health’s most recent Healthy Kids Colorado survey found that the state’s high school students weren’t using any more marijuana in 2017 than they were two years before.

Looking to Colorado

Curious Europeans have reached out to Colorado pot proponents to learn about the state’s experiences.

Medicine Man Technologies CEO Brett Roper says he’s received several calls from private German companies, including one last spring, seeking help with the design and development of a medical cannabis grow. The project was derailed by lawsuits and has not been revived, so Germany now imports its cannabis from Canada.

“I tell them that medical always comes first, and then adult pot use follows,” he says.

“I would advise the Germans whose hopes are on hold to be patient and make their voices heard,” says Roper, who spoke to The Colorado Sun from Toronto where recreational pot was just legalized.

Tom Gorman, sometimes known as Denver’s “drug war soldier,” says European critics of pot legalization are also reaching out to Colorado experts. German, Swedish, French, Norwegian and Italian delegates have been to see him in his office at the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.

They want to understand “the pro-marijuana lobby and their strategy.” Gorman adds in an email, “We discussed use, fatalities, ER and hospitalization, and black market. Also discussed the pro marijuana lobby and their strategy.”

As one of the loudest and most persistent voices pushing for legal pot, Deutscher Hanfverband traveled to Colorado for boots-on-the-ground information. The result is a documentary on America’s great marijuana experiment. The camera follows Rister, breathless with excitement, as he lands at DIA and then appears in a pot shop where a tie-dyed budtender lays out various jars of bud.

Watch a video documentary of Deutscher Hanfverband’s  trip to Colorado

Rister chooses  “African Tangerine” over “Pineapple Express” as a joint-smoking Mona Lisa looks on with those sideways eyes. Showcased in the German-made doc are Colorado-familiar dispensaries like River Rock and Legal Eagle, meetings with industry leaders like NORML and a sit-down at ClubNed.  

For the record, Rister is not a fan of Colorado pot.

“Mostly, I would say it’s not too good. I was complaining because it’s dry! You have that low  humidity in Colorado. Your skin is always dry there, and so is the pot! You touch it and it goes to dust.”

He prefers pot grown in Germany, where humidity is high and the consistency is “fluffy.”

Huge demand for medical marijuana

Pot-only dispensaries like the ones in Colorado are a strange phenomenon to Germans, who are used to getting a prescription from their doctor and buying legal marijuana in a pharmacy or “apotheca” which advertises cannabis in store windows with the face cream and Bandaids.

The government health care system pays most of the cost; but there are setbacks. Huge demand for medical cannabis means it is in short supply, and at 25 euro per gram (around $29), drugstore weed costs almost three times as much as the street price.

In the past several years, Germans have been warming up to the idea of legal weed. A 2016 Infratest poll found that more than 80 percent of them favored making medical marijuana easier to obtain, with about 70 percent against legalizing it entirely.

Educational books seen in the window of MedShop in Berlin. (Carol McKinley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I believe that marijuana will soon be legal in Germany because more and more people understand that this is not a serious drug like heroin,” says Ozcan Mutlu, a liberal Green Party member of the German parliament.  

“The Greens” as they’re called, have been gaining traction in recent regional elections with their pro-pot, pro-immigration, pro-environment agenda. “Alcohol is a drug, too!” he tells The Colorado Sun. “We have a big open drug event in Germany, which is the Oktoberfest! Nobody cares about that!”

Mutlu is an electrical engineer who was born in Turkey, brought to Germany during the seventies at age 5, and educated in Omaha. He crosses the street near a train station in a mostly immigrant neighborhood, and points to a couple of  men casually talking on the corner with their hands in their pockets.

“See right there? Those guys are dealing black-market cannabis. Police won’t arrest them because they only sell in small amounts.”

The dealers Mutlu is talking about are almost always young African men who fled places like Gambia and Libya and can’t get a job because they are immigrants with no papers, so it’s illegal to hire them. Some of the pot dealers speak better English than they do German because they sell to so many Brits and Americans.

The Gorli

Gorlitzer Park is so well-known as an easy place to buy pot for cheap, it’s advertised on TripAdvisor. The greenway is a big attraction for tourists looking for a Bohemian experience in the “poor-but-sexy” Berlin borough of Kreuzberg.

A dealer named Josef is a master at targeting potential buyers.

“Wait here,” he whispers and goes to his hiding place behind a trash can where he produces a sandwich-sized Ziploc baggie decorated with a green cannabis leaf. Inside are five one-gram buds. Any amount over that, and he takes the risk of being deported; otherwise, he tells me, even though it’s illegal to sell, the Berlin police tolerate his small-time pot trade.

Josef wears baggy jeans, American sneakers and a gold medallion shaped like the continent of Africa that swings from his neck. He confides that he since can’t get real work, he has another job cleaning a restaurant so that he can afford an apartment where he lives with four other guys. He’s heard about Colorado’s marijuana.

“The pot is good there, yes?” Josef gets 10 euro for his time and permission to take a picture of his illegal marijuana. He says not to worry about him.

It’s 2 p.m. the next day and an aproned clerk at the Drink Drunk liquor store is lugging metal tubs of beer on ice to the center aisle for sale. People buy big bottles and drink it right away, walking down the sidewalk, which is legal. The lawful drinking age for beer and wine is 16 years old in Germany. Parents teach their kids to drink in the home when they reach puberty, as it’s legal for a 13-year-old to drink beer and wine as long as a guardian is around to supervise.

When he lobbies at the Bundestag, the German parliament, Florian Rister makes the same argument Coloradans heard when Amendment 64 was on the ballot.

“We say, ‘Hey there’s something wrong here!’ We tell people cannabis users shouldn’t be treated harder than alcohol users in a safe and legal system. Of course, I’d like to see full legalization, but that’s long-term. That’s why we are here.”

This story was reported with the assistance of the Rias Berlin Commission fellowship for U.S. journalists.

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