File image of weed cultivation. Photo: Edwin Remsberg/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
The two Lamborghinis were impossible to ignore. Printed with the company logo, the company JuicyFields had parked them in front of a hotel in Barcelona when the international cannabis industry gathered there for a conference in March. The message was clear: this is where the real money is made.
JuicyFields, a firm originally based in Germany but which moved to Amsterdam earlier this year, promoted itself as a business that would make investors, named “e-growers”, rich by putting their savings into legal cannabis plantations. But now, JuicyFields is looking like being the biggest cannabis industry scam of all time. Since mid-July, investors have no longer been able to log into their customer accounts. Up to 500,000 investors – that's how many there were at last count, according to JuicyFields - could be affected. The potential damage could be somewhere between tens of millions and several billion euros. Have you invested money using JuicyFields yourself, or do you have information about this case? Then get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org.JuicyFields had a large presence in the Spanish-speaking world. Spanish law firm Martinez-Bianco is representing 1,400 people who say they have lost money due to JuicyFields. It used data from crypto-analysis platform Etherscan to estimate that more than €5 billion (around £4.2 billion) passed through JuicyFields' crypto wallets. In Spain alone, Martinez-Bianco estimates 28,000 people have been affected, with some investors suspected to have lost the maximum of €180,000 (£150,000).
The then Berlin-based company went online in early 2020 with its self-described “cannabis crowdgrowing platform”. JuicyFields’ marketing team used messaging app Telegram, small news sites and online forums specialising in cryptocurrencies to spread the news: people would be able to gain financial stakes in cannabis farms by making investments of anything between €50 (£42) and €180,000 (£150,000). To do this, they had to create a user account through which all transactions would take place. Three months later, they were told, after the medical cannabis was cultivated, harvested and sold, returns of up to 66 percent could be reaped.On JuicyFields' online platform, users from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America could not only watch their plants grow, but also their fortunes. In several Telegram groups, the JuicyFields community reported profits that the company had paid out to them – simply as a bank transfer or in the form of cryptocurrency. This continued until July 11 this year, when Telegram chat groups filled up with concerned messages from investors who suddenly could no longer access their JuicyFields accounts. Almost at the same time, JuicyFields employees had announced a strike over unpaid salaries. As disquiet around JuicyFields grew, the company – sponsors of the Berlin cannabis fair, “Mary Jane”, which took place in the same week in mid-July, seemed to retreat into silence. JuiceFields organisers became unreachable. The company's Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram channels are now no longer accessible, and on YouTube all content gradually disappeared.
According to media reports, JuicyFields may have mimicked a Ponzi scheme, by using investor money to pay off other investors in order to generate euphoric customer feedback. This helped the company to build a winning image, which it spread vigorously, not only with sports cars, but also via social media and influencers, online advertising and trade fairs. The buzz overshadowed some voices that cast doubts around JuicyFields' fantastic profit announcements. Yet there were warning signs.In May, the Spanish national financial commission (CNMV) had placed JuicyFields on a list of companies that are not authorised to conduct investment business. And the German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin) had issued an official warning about JuicyFields in March. In June, it banned the company from operating in Germany because JuicyFields had broken the law by not publishing the necessary financial literature on its investment offers. At that time, JuicyFields had already moved its headquarters from Berlin to Amsterdam.
Despite all this, business apparently continued. As journalists from German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle report, they were able to continue to invest virtually in hemp plants even after the ban in Germany.Did these cannabis plants ever exist? Those who know the truth, JuicyField’s bosses, have gone off the radar. The company’s original CEO and founder American Alan Glanse, who denied any responsibility for the exit scam, resigned at the beginning of the year. South African Willem van der Merwe, listed as the new CEO, is said to have resigned mid-July. According to research by German financial magazine Finanztest, the trail of those behind JuicyFields led to a Swiss holding company and members of a German aristocratic family. The Spanish publication, El País Financiero, found a group of three men with Russian passports was behind JuicyFields, a story backed up by Glanse, the former CEO.
The JuicyFields saga comes not long after Ruja Ignatova, a German-Bulgarian, known as the Cryptoqueen, was put on the FBI's list of most wanted fugitives for allegedly relieving investors of 4 billion dollars in a crypto currency investment scam, OneCoin. Now, the Berlin public prosecutor's office is investigating Juicy Grow GmbH and its managing director. According to Finanztest, the German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin) has set a penalty payment of €1 million against Juicy Holdings B.V. “There’s a huge demand for cannabis legalisation and investments in Europe,” said Charlotte Bowyer, Head of Advisory at UK-based cannabis industry consultants Hanway Associates. “But part of the problem is a lack of good information. Many investors can’t tell a good cannabis investment from a bad one. “Public companies are heavily regulated in what they can and can’t say to unsophisticated investors. Currently there aren’t many on Europe’s stock exchanges to satisfy this demand.”Germany is set to become one of the biggest legal weed markets in the world after its new government announced plans to legalise recreational cannabis last year. In May, Minister of Health Karl Lauterbach announced the government will draw up a bill by the end of 2022, and it is expected to become law by the end of 2023. Meanwhile, a cryptic statement has been published on JuicyFields’ website, juicyfields.io. In order to register for refunds, it states, users should send them a selfie video with their official ID card. This though, with its obvious risks, has the air of being a scam itself. Follow Tim Geyer on Twitter.