Chronically and terminally ill patients in Germany can’t get enough cannabis. Demand for medical marijuana has far outstripped supply since becoming legally available early last year to patients suffering from debilitating pain.
“We’re not as surprised as the government is over the huge surge in demand,” said Georg Wurth, head of the German cannabis lobbyist organization Hanfverband, pointing to a growing awareness among consumers of the risks associated with the continuous use of powerful painkillers and the opioid epidemic in the United States. “Officials totally underestimated it.”
Prior to legalization, only some one thousand people suffering from certain diseases such as cancer or chronic pain had permission from Germany’s federal drug institute (BfArM) to use cannabis for medical purposes. Authors of the bill had estimated that only about 700 patients per year would want prescriptions, partly covered by public health insurance.
But they guessed wrong: Within 10 months, more than 13,000 people had applied, according to a survey of three large health insurers by the Rheinische Post newspaper. Nearly two-thirds of the applications were approved, and some of the remainder are pending further information from patients and their physicians.
Why are people so fired up about medical marijuana? Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is a chemical component of marijuana that binds to certain receptors in the central and peripheral nervous system, alleviating pain and increasing appetite.
Günter Weiglein swears by it. The German patient from Würzburg regularly takes cannabis with a vaporizer to relieve back pain stemming from a severe motorcycle accident he had several years ago. Medical marijuana, he says, has eliminated the need for strong painkillers. “All these traditional drugs have side effects, which cannabis doesn’t have,” Mr. Weiglein told Handelsblatt Global. “Consider the damage they can do to your liver.”
Cannabis is also being used to treat people with multiple sclerosis (MS), an incurable disease that prevents the brain from sending signals correctly through the body. THC, by changing the way transmitters hop across the synapses between neurons, helps regulate these body functions.
“Cannabis can help MS patients feel better,” said Jürgen Metken, who worked in the pharmaceutical industry before becoming a surgeon. “But the relief is only for a short time,” he told Handelsblatt Global. Mr. Metken, who was forced to abandon his medical career after contracting MS, decided to use traditional medicine, but he understands why others embrace marijuana. For them relief — no matter how short — is relief.
The dilemma now facing Germany, which has some of the strictest narcotic drug laws in Europe, is how to get more weed, which is currently imported from countries with legalized operations, like Canada and the Netherlands. A program to produce its own medical marijuana is underway: Last year, Germany’s federal drug institute issued 10 tenders for companies to grow up to 2 tons per year through 2021 and 6 tons from 2022 onward. The first harvest is scheduled for next year.
There’s just one hitch: The law requires companies to have previous experience with medical marijuana, which German companies don’t have. So that is forcing them into joint ventures with foreign rivals, and some are taking the government to court over the issue. Experts predict domestic sales of up to €6 billion ($7.3 billion) over the next 10 years, which explains why more than 100 companies are bidding.
Growing your own is not an option, which Mr. Weiglein learned the hard way. With a prescription to purchase cannabis since 2009, he saw the monthly cost for his daily 3-gram dose soar from €900 to €2,400 under the new law last year. Apart from the price (one dose of 5 grams of medical marijuana costs €30 in the Netherlands, compared to €125 in Germany), he also had trouble finding his preferred varietal or sometimes any of the 16 varieties at all in local pharmacies. So he grew his own from seeds purchased in the US, got caught, went to court and lost.
Another hurdle for German patients to clear in obtaining medical marijuana is finding physicians willing to prescribe it. “There aren’t enough of them,” said the lobbyist Mr. Wurth. “The government should support an education program in this area.” Mr. Weiglein noted that many physicians are also worried about being labeled “Dr. Dope” in the community.
When and if Germany ever approves marijuana for recreational use is another issue. Government research found 13.3 percent of Germans age 18 to 64 reported using cannabis in the past year. Among young people age 18 to 24, the average rises to 19.5 percent.
Cannabis is not part of the coalition government talks between Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats, but the environmental Greens, the pro-business Free Democrats and the left-wing Linke parties are all proponents of legalization.