Dope to go on sale in German pharmacies

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Stoned, she may have expected to be, but not in this sense of the word. Heide Moser, health minister of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, has been showered with verbal missiles for her plan to legalise cannabis.

Ms Moser, condemned by the leader of Germany's governing Christian Democrats as "irresponsible", has been accused by another senior right-winger of "leading the march towards a Republic of the Inebriated". The dealers designated for the task were outraged: "A large majority of pharmacists oppose the sale of hashish," thundered their national organisation.

Schleswig-Holstein's government has approved a pilot project proposed by Ms Moser, a Social Democrat, to make cannabis available over the counter in chemists.

In order to prevent "drug tourism", shoppers will have to show identity papers to prove they are local residents. In addition, cannabis users, estimated to number 50-80,000 in the state, could be required to register to receive special coupons.

The scheme's objective is to sever the link between hard and soft drugs, thus depriving the underworld of a large chunk of its income. With no hash to peddle, it is thought, many dealers would go out of business.

The regional government, citing medical opinion, is adamant that marijuana poses less risk to health than the "intensive intake of alcohol or nicotine". Weaned off the dealers and at last decriminalised, the authorities hope that young users will shun the dodgy characters pushing harder drugs on street-corners. "The controlled sale of cannabis could be the suitable means for preventing drug abuse," Ms Moser asserts.

What kind of grass the youth of Schleswig-Holstein will be smoking is yet to be resolved. The government faces the dilemma of licensing the purchase of top-quality imports handled by the godfathers, or allowing local farmers to grow the an inferior brand in greenhouses.

The final word will come from the federal drugs agency, which is expected to pronounce its verdict within a month. But any hope that the decision will be based solely on medical grounds seems forlorn. The debate has taken on a left-versus-right complexion, pitting Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservative government against the "pinkos" of the north.

If the scheme is vetoed under pressure from Bonn, the humble hemp could trigger a constitutional crisis. Schleswig-Holstein, one of 16 Lander empowered to run their own affairs, claims it is acting on the instructions of Germany's supreme court, which ruled in 1994 that regional governments should seek new ways to combat hard drugs. But if Ms Moser's proposals go through, the people of Schleswig-Holstein can look forward to a merry Christmas, while the rest of the country will be drowning its envy in beer.