Stern German Judge Supports Legal Pot in Court and Rap Videos
Although the judge had steeled himself for a grueling fight, the cannabis case was over in mere minutes.
The defendant had been caught in his parents’ house with 7.5 ounces of marijuana, and the judge was getting ready for the prosecution to try him as an adult since he was just 18, and technically could be held responsible under the adult laws.
But the district attorney said he planned to try the case under Germany’s youth laws.
That gave Judge Andreas Müller an opening. Presiding over the courtroom in the traditional black robe and white tie, he immediately threw out the case, citing a youth court statute that encourages rehabilitation rather than punishment.
“Maybe one day, when you’ve had the chance to learn to become an able businessman, you can become a cannabis entrepreneur,” Mr. Müller told the defendant, eliciting chuckles in the courtroom in Bernau bei Berlin, a small, picturesque community north of the German capital. The defendant, Justin H., whose surname is protected by Germany’s strict privacy laws, was too stunned to react other than to nod.
Judge Müller is famous in Germany for his relentless criticism of the law criminalizing cannabis possession. Often with obvious anger in his voice, he has argued against Germany’s cannabis law in numerous TV discussion panels; at pro-cannabis demonstrations; in a book; and even in a rap video, all while serving as an active judge. In his courtroom, where he hears mainly youth but also adult cases, he has repeatedly thrown out minor possession cases.
“It makes me so mad to see so many young people locked up and criminalized just because they use cannabis and not alcohol,” he said during a cigarette break at Bernau’s busy municipal court.
Part of his anger arises both from the frequency of cannabis arrests — 181,000 on minor possession or use charges in 2021 — and the billions of euros spent enforcing what he said was the “absurd” law against getting high.
In 2020, Judge Müller wrote the first complaint to Germany’s highest constitutional court, asking it to overturn the cannabis law. Other judges followed, and the court is now reviewing 10 drug cases sent by three different courts in Germany.
“For young people like us, it’s pretty inspiring to have someone from an older generation, who is a judge, advocate for a thing that maybe goes against conventional opinion,” said the rapper GReeeN, 33, who often sings favorably about cannabis. “It’s important — we need people like him for change.”
GReeeN, whose real name is Pasquale Denefleh, knows the judge from a video they made together. The judge, playing himself, raps about the evils of cannabis prohibition. “Smoking weed is not criminal; smoking weed is normal,” he sings.
The German government has begun taking the judge’s side in the cannabis debate just as the judge, 61, is preparing to retire from the bench.
In mid-April, Karl Lauterbach, the country’s health minister, presented a plan legalizing cannabis for personal use; in the coming months, a more comprehensive plan that would eventually legalize and tax the sale of cannabis is expected to be proposed.
After years of a conservative-run government, the new center-left coalition under Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, has signaled it is likely to approve the proposal, which would make Germany the first European country where not only the possession but also the public sale of cannabis is not just decriminalized, but legalized.
Although the changes to the law would have come without his help, Judge Müller and others believe he played a small part in the overhaul.
“It’s fair to say that he was instrumental in showing that demands for reform were not just coming from the cannabis community, but from a more established perspective, too,” said Ates Gürpinar, a member of Parliament and the drug policy spokesman for the far-left Die Linke party, which supports legalizing cannabis.
Before the coalition’s latest plan was announced, Judge Müller had threatened to organize street protests to put pressure on the government.
That pugnaciousness is a signature part of the judge’s style.
“Because of his rough edges, he’s not just well-known, he’s also feared,” Mr. Gürpinar said. “He will just fire off things even if he knows that it could irritate potential allies.”
Judges in Germany wield a lot of power in their courtrooms, but with a few exceptions — like a judge arrested for her part in a plot to overthrow the federal government last December — they tend to stay out of the political fray.
Not so Judge Müller, who regularly gets into spats on Twitter, where he has 60,000 followers. He also is the deputy director of the German chapter of LEAP, or Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a cannabis advocacy group run by law-enforcement officers, lawyers and politicians.
Some law-enforcement officials say the judge does not sufficiently separate his activism from his day job. In 2020 the local district attorney’s office applied to have him recused from hearing cannabis cases. Ricarda Böhme, a prosecutor, said in an interview that given “the objective overall view of his public statements” the judge could in “no way be able to reach an unbiased decision” on such matters.
But a higher court ruled for the judge and he was able to continue hearing those cases.
Judge Müller was born in the town of Meppen in Lower Saxony. His father, traumatized by his experience as an 18-year-old soldier in World War II, drank himself to death when the judge was 11. His brother spent time in jail on a drug charge and died young. Judge Müller was the first member of his extended family to graduate from high school.
“It was a present to my mother,” he said about his career choice.
Starting in Bernau as a judge in 1997, Judge Müller was part of a generation of judges from the former West Germany who came to the former East Germany to help modernize and democratize the judicial system after the collapse of communism.
For all the leniency he has shown in cannabis trials, he has a reputation as an unsparing judge in other cases.
“I’ve sent quite a few people to prison,” he said. A tabloid started calling him “Judge Merciless” until he threatened legal action.
Before he became known for his advocacy on cannabis, Judge Müller was feared among far-right youths for his aggressive stance on prosecuting neo-Nazis.
For a while he declared a specific footwear worn as an identification marker by German neo-Nazi skinheads — the Dr. Martens 16-eyelet boot with white shoelaces — a weapon in his courtroom, forcing visitors and witnesses who came wearing the boots to appear in socks. He gave conditional sentences that forced right-wing youth to visit mosques and share meals with immigrants from inner-city districts. He had people visit concentration camps and write essays. He meted out prison sentences for first offenses.
“He’s an activist in some ways and has been committed to liberal drug policies for years, but when it comes to other offenses, he’s also known as a strict and uncompromising judge,” said Hasso Suliak, lawyer and an editor at Legal Tribune Online, a German legal news site, who has followed Judge Müller’s court cases.
All this has made the judge at least a minor celebrity, especially in Bernau bei Berlin. A recent packed day of trials in Bernau had to be delayed because Judge Müller heard a local electrician wanted to meet him.
When he found his admirer, he gave him his latest calling card: a package of cigarette rolling paper with the judge’s own image emblazed on one side and the words “legalize it” printed on the side.