Why can’t Germany get its medical marijuana industry going?

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Technically, medical marijuana is already legal in Germany. But the demand since it was legalized in March 2017 has surprised government officials and led to frequent shortages in pharmacies, with no domestic production in sight.

The problems are compounded by the fact that Germany doesn’t yet have domestic cannabis production. All of the medical marijuana has to be imported, mostly from the Netherlands and Canada, which have established industries. Experts predict the domestic market will reach as much as €6 billion ($6.9 billion) in sales over the next 10 years.

The first cannabis farms were supposed to bloom this year, but the government bidding process for companies to apply to grow marijuana has taken longer than expected. A court in Dusseldorf briefly halted the procurement process in March because the application period was too short and the requirements changed halfway through. The process started anew in July, and the deadline was pushed from October to December.

And now the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices has decided it needs even more time for the procurement process, the Funke Media Group reported this week. The agency said it needs more time to determine the rules for awarding licenses, which will likely be awarded in the second quarter of 2019 rather than the first as reported this summer. That means the earliest possible harvest of domestic medical marijuana could be in 2020.

“Every day that no cannabis is cultivated in Germany is a bad day for the patients who depend on it,” Dr. Kirsten Kappert-Gonther, a member of parliament and health expert for the Green Party, told pharmacists’ newspaper DAZ.

Before medical marijuana was legalized in Germany, about 1,000 critically ill people had been given special permission to use it. Authors of the bill estimated that only about 700 patients per year would want the prescriptions, which are partly covered by public health insurance. But within 10 months, more than 13,000 people had applied.

As of November, an estimated 40,000 patients had been prescribed marijuana in Germany. The industry estimates that number could eventually climb to 1 million, and to 5 million total across the EU. With the annual cost of therapy between €4,500 and €30,000, it's potentially a multibillion-euro market.

Legalizing marijuana altogether is one of the rare issues that unites the pro-business Free Democrats, the Green party and the Left party. They all say keeping cannabis on the black market puts recreational consumers at risk of being exposed to bad weed that could be laced with harmful chemicals or harder drugs, plus it leaves millions of euros of potential tax revenue on the table. Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats have remained strongly opposed to legal cannabis. Germany's other ruling party, the center-left Social Democrats, is on the fence.

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