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BERLIN, Aug 16 (Reuters) - Germany's cabinet passed a contentious bill on Wednesday to legalize recreational marijuana use and cultivation, one of the most liberal cannabis laws in Europe that could potentially provide further momentum for a similar worldwide trend.
The legislation, which still has to pass parliament, would allow adults to possess up to 25 grams (0.88 oz) of the drug, grow a maximum of three plants, or acquire weed as associates of non-profit cannabis clubs.
The centre-left government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz hopes the law will curb the black market, protect consumers against contaminated marijuana and reduce drug-related crime.
A key pillar of the plan, which removes the taboo around cannabis use, is also a campaign to raise awareness about the risks, which should ultimately curb consumption, said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, of Scholz's Social Democrats (SPD).
Such a campaign would not gain the same level of attention if it were introduced without a change in the law, he said.
"With the current procedures we could not seriously protect children and young people, the topic has been made a taboo," Lauterbach told a news conference in Berlin to present the law.
"We have rising, problematic consumption, we couldn't simply allow this to go on," he said. "So this is an important turning point in our drug policy."
The number of adults in Germany aged between 18 and 25 years old that consumed cannabis at least once nearly doubled in 2021 from the previous decade to 25%, according to the health ministry.
Young adults are considered more vulnerable to the health risks of cannabis. The new legislation will limit the amount of cannabis young adults can buy to 30 grams a month, compared to 50 grams for older adults.
CRITICISM FROM BOTH SIDES
Opposition to the legislation is fierce, with conservative policymakers in particular warning that it will encourage marijuana use and that the new legislation will create even more work for authorities.
"This law will be linked to a complete loss of control," Armin Schuster, conservative interior minister for the state of Saxony, told media group RND.
A U.N. narcotics watchdog said in March moves by governments to legalize the recreational use of marijuana have led to increased consumption and cannabis-related health problems.
Lauterbach said Germany had learned from other countries' mistakes, however.
Scholz's government had already watered down original plans to allow the widespread sale of cannabis in licensed shops after consultations with Brussels.
Instead, it said would launch a pilot project for a small number of licensed shops in some regions to test the effects of a commercial supply chain of recreational cannabis over five years. For that, it will need to present separate legislation in a second phase.
Similar such projects already exist or are planned in the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Many countries in Europe have already legalised cannabis for limited medicinal purposes, including Germany since 2017. Others have decriminalized its general use.
Malta became the first European country to allow limited cultivation and possession of cannabis for personal use in late 2021. Germany would become the first major European country to do so.
The legislation presented on Wednesday includes strict rules for growing weed - cannabis clubs of up to 500 associates must have burglar-proof doors and windows, with greenhouses fenced off. Associates will not be allowed to smoke weed at the clubs or in the vicinity of schools, nurseries, playgrounds or sports grounds.
Germany's hemp association said the rules were "unrealistic" and the black market could only truly be fought with the introduction of cannabis sales in shops.
The parliamentary drug policy spokesperson of junior coalition partner the Free Democrats, Kristine Luetke, accused Lauterbach of continuing a "prohibition policy" and creating a "bureaucratic monster".
Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Andreas Rinke; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Bernadette Baum