The pharmacists of Kiel, Lubeck, Hanover and Hamburg could soon become meccas for the cannabis connoisseur. The north German state of Schleswig-Holstein, tucked up by the Danish border, is an uncontroversial place. Kiel, its capital, is best known for its annual international regatta. Lubeck, the state's second city - birthplace of Thomas Mann, and city of marzipan-makers - retains the quaint medieval charm of a Hanseatic port.

But Schleswig-Holstein retains a cussed non-conformity. The state has come up with a set of proposals that could have a historic impact on German and European drug law for years to come: making it possible to buy up to 30g of cannabis products at a time, at the corner pharmacy. The idea is summarised in the unanimous German headlines: "Hash at the chemist".

The state is not alone in seeking to bring cannabis more into the mainstream. In a sense, the Schleswig-Holstein proposals are equivalent to the famous coffee-shops in Amsterdam, with their pot price lists. In the US, Cannabis Buyers' Clubs have sprung up across the country - 26 at the last count - which allow gravely ill members to buy and smoke pot without fear of legal reprisals. A doctor's letter of diagnosis and an ID card are all people need to join.

Many liberal German politicians were attracted to the Amsterdam model, not least because it clearly separates soft drugs from the hard-drug market. The idea is that by channelling sales through tolerated outlets, the cannabis-buyer does not need to have dealings with criminal drug-sellers - who might persuade customers to graduate to more expensive and lethal habits.

There is a crucial difference between the system which operates in the Netherlands and the new German proposals. The Dutch tolerate the coffee- shop owner's sale of cannabis but the original bulk sale to the licensed coffee-shop owner remains a crime under Dutch law. It just happens not to be prosecuted. Such legal contradictions would be unthinkable in Germany.

The Schleswig-Holstein proposals unleashed a fierce debate after a soundbite-loving judge ruled that every citizen has a Recht auf Rausch - a "right to intoxication" whether from alcohol or cannabis. The constitutional court in Karlsruhe disagreed. But the judges also ruled, in the spring of last year, that the possession of "small" amounts of cannabis products, though still against the law, should not be punishable. Or, as one official put it, "The police are obliged to take your details, and to report you. And the state prosecutors then throw that piece of paper in the bin."

Conservatives were furious. After the Karlsruhe judgment, the mass-circulation daily Bild published a huge photograph of a heroin addict, dead on the floor of a Berlin station toilet, with the banner headline: "She, too, started with hashish!"

For the law-makers, though, a different problem arose: how small is "small"? Answer: Germany's regional structure of governance means that each of the 16 states was entitled to come up with its own definition. The conservative Bavarians reckoned that "small" meant 10g (they would rather have settled for zero, but that would have meant defying the omniscient court in Karlsruhe); the Schleswig-Holsteiners, and others, settled for 30g.

Then, as though this was not already confusing enough, Wolfgang Neskovic - the Lubecker judge who had already gained a measure of notoriety with his Recht auf Rausch judgment - came back into the headlines once more, with the suggestion that several kilos might be described as a "small" amount. "If you buy that many potatoes at a time," he seemed to suggest, "then why not hashish?"

It was at that point that the politicians decided that some order needed to be brought to the whole affair. At the end of last year, Germany's regional governments entrusted Schleswig-Holstein with the job of breaking the legal gridlock. Which is where the chemists come in.

The chemists are reckoned to be professionally competent, and able to ensure the quality and quantity of the product on sale. Also, as a spokeswoman for Schleswig-Holstein's health ministry notes: "Pharmacists are a respectable profession. They're not just ageing hippies, who want a smoke." For the moment, it is proposed that a "field experiment" should begin in Schleswig- Holstein and elsewhere in north Germany. Neighbouring regions, including Hamburg and the large state of Lower Saxony, have expressed their willingness to participate.

But the impact of the scheme is unlikely to stop at Schleswig-Holstein's borders. The official proposals, due to be unveiled in a few weeks' time, would in due course go to the federal parliament to be enshrined in national legislation. But, as one German official noted: we don't want to make ourselves unpopular by encouraging dodgy imports which would anger the rest of Europe. Thus, the Germans, to ensure that they will not be in breach of European and international regulations, are considering suggesting that every other state in Europe should modify agreements covering the drug trade to allow Germany to import the weed.

If Britain's future is within Europe, then, given the power of the Germans, surely it can only be a matter of time before the Schleswig-Holstein Apothekenmodell becomes a model for the rest of the continent. So it's not inconceivable that in a future harmonised Europe, Boots, too, would be legally able to offer a selection of quality Lebanese and Afghan products, alongside the Strepsils, aspirins, and Mates.