This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
I work for VICE Germany and yet I have absolutely no clue about weed. My editorial team have published over 600 articles about it, and I’ve taken maybe two puffs from a joint my whole life. How do I fit in? I don't. Weed was never a drug that fascinated me. In fact, it kind of repelled me. I saw stoners as people who talk slowly and live their lives on stained sofas – at least, that's what I learned from pop culture and politicians.
But times are changing. The German government is moving to legalise cannabis for recreational use. Despite a few setbacks, a law proposal is on the way. Legalising weed would change many things in the country. For some people, the after-work beer would become the after-work joint. And the 4.5 million Germans who already smoke pot would no longer have to hide.
I want to prepare myself for this time of normalisation and give the drug the chance it deserves. After all, in some big cities, weed is already easier to score than a parking spot.
In early March, I found myself on the grounds of a former slaughterhouse in the southern German town of Ebersbach, near Stuttgard. With surveillance cameras pointed at me from every direction, I approached the 24-centimetre-thick concrete walls beyond which people are no longer butchering animals, but cultivating plants. The plantation is owned by Demecan, one of the only three companies that hold a permit to grow medicinal cannabis in Germany, and today is harvest day.
“It's OK, she's with me,” says Muhammad Abd El Qadir, Demecan's press officer, leading me past security. He shows me around the 100,000 square metre factory, where the team harvests one tonne of cannabis flowers per year. That still doesn't cover the demand for medicinal weed in Germany by a long shot, though. According to the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, over 20 tonnes of cannabis are imported into the country for medicinal purposes every year.
Demecan have enough space to grow much, much more – up to ten tonnes of cannabis on this premises alone. They don’t have a permit for that yet, though. But everything could change with legalisation.
Before El Qadir lets me anywhere near the plants, I have to change my shoes for red Crocs in a waiting room. I’m then led to a second room, where I wash my hands and exchange the red Crocs for green ones that squeak with every step. I also have to put on a white protective suit that makes me look like a sperm cell, and wash my hands again. All sterilised and free from pathogens that could compromise the plants, El Qadir and I enter the farm.
The first thing that hits me is the smell – insanely strong and musty. I also detect a fresh orange note reminiscent of cleaning products. Looking around, though, I see nothing but a labyrinth of white corridors with lots of doors and cameras. As if reading my thoughts, El Qadir whispers that he’s already got lost here a few times.
“We'll start with the babies,” he says, entering a room with the largest fridge I’ve ever seen. There was no food in it, though, but tiny little baby weed plants floating in plastic cans.
These babies are the future of the company: They’re clones, descended from a single mother plant per variety. Two strands are planted here – bubba kush and orange velvet. Now the orange smell makes sense. The plant babies grow in a nutrient-rich goo and are allowed to leave their boxes as soon as they reach a certain size.
Relocated in a yellow foam block, each grown-up plant is equipped with a GPS tracker and supplied with the perfect amount of water and fertiliser around the clock. Why the GPS? Because each of these plants is worth up to several thousand euros, depending on the yield. Anyone tempted to remove one of the trackers would have to reckon with being filmed by what feels like a billion cameras.
The next station, the “flower room”, is kept at a cosy 25 degrees. There, the plants – barely a metre high – bask in the golden light from the ceiling lamps, which motivates them to grow as much as possible. These particular plants have been maturing their stinky and syrupy flowers for three to four months. Everyone here has been waiting eagerly for harvest day, which happens twice a month.
Then, El Qadir leads me to a third room, which would make any stoner's heart burst with joy. The smell of weed so far had been nothing compared to the wafts of fragrance in there. Working on top of four metal tables, employees were snapping off the flowers from the branches. Students who work part-time in the company's Berlin office had travelled here especially to help today.
With 90s hip-hop music blasting, they harvested 50 kilos of weed – even the legal department helped out.
I ask a staff member if he sometimes gets passively high in this department. “I can't tell you exactly, because I'm a weed patient myself,” Michael Müller says. He’s a trained gardener and thought this job would suit him quite well. “My friends used to make a few jokes about me being a drug dealer, but I didn't care back then and I still don't.”
In fact, cannabis needs to be heated to release THC. So although you can get high by breathing in other people’s smoke in a badly ventilated room, that can’t happen if you’re simply near a plant.
Cannabis is most often prescribed for chronic pain, anxiety, depression and insomnia. But it can also help with epilepsy, muscle spasm or various symptoms of multiple sclerosis, as well as nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy. For people who suffer from anorexia or who have no appetite due to cancer, the use of cannabis can help them eat.
After Müller and the rest of the team finish picking the plants, a few leaves were still hanging onto the flowers. That’s when the trimmer machine comes into action in the next room. As loud as a jackhammer tearing up a road right next to your ear, it shakes the last small leaves off the flowers. To protect themselves from cannabis fine dust, the workers here wear masks with oxygen tubes that make them look like astronauts.
After trimming, the weed can be dried. Employees tip the flowers into metal tubs and push them into a drying oven, whose heat removes all moisture and a third of their weight over several days. Then, the buds are packed airtight and shipped to pharmacies. “And that's actually it,” El Qadir says. My visit was over and although I didn't get to actually help out, at least I learned a lot.
Besides the scent, what struck me most about the farm was the dedication of the employees, how they treated each plant as gently as if they were puppies. The rooms seemed cleaner than in a hospital, every production step optimised down to the smallest detail.
My outdated prejudices about cannabis were certainly challenged – weed can actually do quite a lot, especially medically. Who knows, if one day it becomes legal for recreational use, I might even take a third drag from a joint.
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