Karl Lauterbach is planning the big hit. With a new law, the Federal Minister of Health wants to legalize the possession of cannabis up to an amount of 25 grams for adults from April 1.
The SPD politician from Cologne repeatedly insists on the advantages of the new regulation: the previous policy of controlling marijuana and hashish has failed. The tenor of the traffic light coalition is that it's time to get stoners out of the dirty corner and decriminalize users.
Meanwhile, however, criticism of the Legalize-it project is increasing. Doctors' associations, health and interior politicians, as well as police unions, are up in arms because they fear an increase in health problems among young people and a booming black market.
“All prisoners must be released before the deadline of April 1”
The German Judges' Association also shot down Lauterbach's blunt announcement that the law would save €1 billion because the judiciary would no longer have to deal with small drug-related crimes “with an additional burden.”
How right you are. A passage that has so far attracted little public interest is significant, according to FOCUS online research. The bill stipulates that possession of 25 grams of cannabis will not only remain unpunished in the future, but also retroactively.
The result: Prosecutors and courts have had to reopen all proceedings against people convicted of minor cannabis possession since 2014 due to potential statutes of limitations.
When asked, Elisabeth Stöve, spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice of North Rhine-Westphalia, explained: “Specifically, this means that all prisoners who fall below the 25 gram limit must be released before the deadline of 1 of April”.
This also means: “Once the law comes into force, all ongoing criminal investigations and proceedings should stop,” added his colleague from the Lower Saxony Ministry of Justice. Fines or prison sentences that still need to be served in old cases will no longer apply.
In 2021, 180,000 cases of cannabis-related crimes were registered
In this context, prosecutors must examine hundreds of thousands of drug files to determine whether the perpetrator is subject to the new law or not. According to the Federal Criminal Police Office, 180,000 cases of cannabis-related crimes were apparently recorded nationwide in 2021 alone.
To filter the relevant proceedings, judicial authorities across the country have to “manually evaluate” drug-related violations. In computerized queries to the Federal Central Registry, only the reference “Violation of the Narcotic Drugs Law” appears.
Not if it's ecstasy, cocaine, heroin or marijuana. According to Stöves, the number of cases before the major public prosecutor's offices in NRW is around four digits. At the Cologne Justice Center experts expect even five-figure figures, in Düsseldorf they are talking about at least 3,500 and up to 20,000 cases, and in Bielefeld 1,400 and more.
According to the Bavarian Ministry of Justice, the Munich public prosecutor's office alone “has already examined several thousand cases” for possible release from prison.
The process backlog is scheduled.
According to first estimates, more than 16,000 investigations and enforcement proceedings are carried out in Lower Saxony. The Ministry of Justice of Baden-Württemberg speaks of 18,900 cases “that were sent to the criminal authorities (prosecutors, juvenile judges as heads of execution) for review.”
However, “more procedures probably need to be tested.” The resulting additional effort will especially affect law enforcement authorities, which are already under extreme pressure due to the coronavirus pandemic, said the ministry spokesperson in Stuttgart.
Especially since the number of old cases that need to be proven will increase dramatically. Too often, defendants were convicted not only of cannabis possession, but also of other crimes such as theft or robbery. The courts used this to form a general ruling. The judiciary must now separate this mixture. The courts can then hand down new sentences and drug possession is no longer applicable. The process backlog is scheduled.
More problems arise: marijuana owners can claim a refund of fines paid if they fall below the 25 gram limit. Or defaulting payers who had to pay a compensatory fine can claim damages from the respective federal states.
“Colleagues are angry”
The Lauterbach project also does not provide for transitional periods, so the judiciary will have to have processed hundreds of thousands of cases by April 1. Otherwise the Penal Code applies. Consequently, public officials can be prosecuted if they do not fail to timely carry out sentences against those affected who are innocent according to the new cannabis law.
Convicted persons can also ask the prosecutor's office to have their drug entries in the Federal Central Register deleted. Another huge administrative burden. “Given the precarious personnel situation in the judiciary, no one knows how we should handle these mountains of files, our colleagues are angry,” it is said in judicial circles in the Rhine and Ruhr.
NRW Justice Minister Benjamin Limbach (Greens) made it known that they were seeking a solution with the judicial authorities. However, he does not want to comment on the controversial cannabis plans of the traffic light coalition in Berlin.
After all, his party strongly supports the law. Her counterpart from Lower Saxony, however, has a clear position: Kathrin Wahlmann (SPD) accuses her party colleague Lauterbach of technical errors: “I have never hidden my professional concerns about the possible legalization of cannabis and nothing has changed to this day “
“The federal government is placing an unnecessary burden on the judiciary”
At the same time, the lawyer criticizes: “In fact, the law in its current version would be the opposite of a relief: it would present prosecutors and courts with an administrative burden that would be difficult to manage. As Minister of Justice, I will not stand by and watch our prosecutor's offices and courts paralyze themselves with meaningless administrative tasks, especially since our colleagues are already working to their limits and sometimes even beyond them.” Wahlmann now wants ensure that improvements are made accordingly through discussions at the federal level.
Bavarian Justice Minister Georg Eisenreich (CSU) expressed a similar critical tone across parties: “The additional effort involved in the cannabis bill is already enormous for the judiciary. The federal government is placing an unnecessary burden on the judiciary rather than easing it. “In my opinion, the call for cannabis legalization is fundamentally going in the wrong direction.”
Jörg Geerlings, vice-chairman of the NRW legal committee, vehemently criticized Lauterbach's cannabis plans. “The cannabis legalization bill will cause lasting damage to the health protection of young people in particular. The risk of cannabis-related brain damage in adolescents and young adults is sufficiently demonstrated,” said the CDU member of parliament.
“The federal government ignores health risks”
“The federal government is ignoring the health risks. Like the German Association of Judges, I fear that the judiciary in particular will have to bear additional burdens: the new law will lead to a high level of regulatory scrutiny, many new litigations and numerous court proceedings. “The Prosecutor's Office faces considerable difficulties in presenting evidence and a great investigative effort.”
Conclusion: Almost all Ministers of Justice and the Interior of the 16 federal states harshly criticize the cannabis law. Only the Federal Minister of Health seems to ignore the facts.
Rather stereotypically, a spokeswoman for Lauterbach stated in response to a FOCUS online request that “legally enabling unpunished possession of cannabis reduces the effort required for prosecution by police and regulatory authorities, as well as the prosecutor's office in the area of crimes related to cannabis.
In the future, “a very small number of criminal prosecutions for cannabis-related offenses can be expected and it can be assumed that there will be significantly fewer criminal prosecutions for actions related to the cultivation and possession of cannabis for personal use.” Questions about the current additional workload of courts and prosecutors remain unanswered.