Inside Germany's Legal Weed Gold Rush

No-one is sure what Europe's largest legal weed market will look like. But behind the scenes, cannabis firms are gearing up for a piece of a £3.3 billion market.
January 11, 2022, 10:50am
Credit Peter Yeung 2
Photo: Peter Yeung

NEUMÜNSTER, Germany – Protected by barbed-wire fences and 24cm-thick concrete walls, Aphria RX’s high security cannabis-growing facility is currently producing 1.1 tonnes of weed for medicinal use each year under a contract with Germany’s Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices. 

“Just wait until you see this,” grins Thorsten Kolisch, a bespectacled scientist in crisp white overalls, before pushing a button to uncover the contents of his state of the art laboratory which uses UV lighting to maximise plant growth. “It's like taking a hallucinogen.” 

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As the window blind rises, a truly psychedelic scene is revealed: hundreds of towering cannabis plants coloured a deep purple; others are tinged with violet, mauve and lilac. The air is sticky with THC. “Now look over there and look back,” says Kolisch.

The previously whitewalled corridors have turned green. And the laboratory is now a pristine white, apart from the rows of luminous green weed. “Your eyes are adjusting to our special lighting recipe,” adds Kolisch, who is general manager of Canadian firm Aphria RX’s facility in Neumünster, which last July dispatched the country’s first ever legal medicinal cannabis harvest. 

Things are about to change dramatically for Germany’s legal, and illegal, cannabis trade. In November, Germany’s so-called “traffic light” coalition government went green and agreed on plans to legalise the sale of cannabis for recreational use. “[Legalisation] will control the quality, prevent trade of contaminated substances, and guarantee the protection of minors,” the pact states, noting that the social impact of the law will be evaluated after four years.

Beyond those sparse details, little has been confirmed about what the legislation will look like in practice. Who will be able to grow, process and sell cannabis – and under what conditions? How much will it be sold for? Can only cannabis grown in Germany be sold or can buds cultivated in the Portuguese sun be imported? Will it be sold in sterile packages in pharmacies or as chic lifestyle products? Will there be pre-rolled joints, bottles of liquid cannabis or weed gummy bears? It could all be up for grabs in the green rush.

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Cannabis plants growing at Aphria RX's high security facility in Neumünster, Germany. Photo: Aphria RX

Experts say Germany’s legalised recreational cannabis industry – which would become one of the biggest in the world – will quickly become a multibillion euro sector. In November, a study by economist Justus Haucap of Heinrich Heine University found that Germany’s annual demand would be 400 tonnes, which if sold at an average £8 (€10) per gram would value the market at £3.3 billion (€4 billion), and that legalisation will create some 27,000 jobs. Currently, Germany’s medicinal market demand is about 10 tonnes.

Businesses told VICE World News they are gearing up in preparation. Demecan – one of three companies, alongside Aurora Cannabis and Aphria RX already producing the national medicinal supply of weed –  said it’s “thrilled” about the “huge growth opportunity” and that it can “quickly ramp-up our production” from its growing facility near Dresden. 

Munich-based company SynBiotic said it could “bring recreational cannabis products to market quickly” and that it’s exploring opening Amsterdam-style coffee shops. Berlin’s Cantourage, which imports weed and processes it for medicinal use, said it has had significant investor interest since the announcement and Frankfurt-based medicinal weed distributor Cansativa called for “barrier-free and stigma-free access to cannabis.”

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Jürgen Neumeyer, managing director of the German Cannabis Business Industry Association (BvCW), told VICE World News that most of the 50 medicinal cannabis companies his organisation represents are “really interested in the recreational scene” and that he is receiving “20, 30 or 40” queries about licences every day.

“We welcome the announcement,” he said. “But there are many details we don’t yet know and we will help the political process in Germany to find a good management of the scene over the next years. It could take a year or two for growing to begin.”

Outlining his vision for legal recreational cannabis in Germany, Neumeyer said there should be a “hybrid” distribution model for consumers which would involve using licensed drop-off points, as well as shops, pharmacies, and dispensaries. In contrast with the Netherlands, where use is decriminalised but production is illegal, he says cultivation and sales should be allowed alongside consumption. “Sensible” advertising rules will have to come in, he adds, and restrictions on imports and exports “should be loosened”.

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Weed inspecting at Aphria RX. Photo: Aphria RX

Supporters of legalisation say it will reduce the black market, improve quality, free police resources and raise tax revenues that could be spent on education and user support. Detractors claim cannabis is a gateway to harder drugs, that legalisation will encourage more people to smoke than would have otherwise and that it won’t eradicate the illegal market. However, experts say that legalisation is a complex process that can take many turns, as the UA, Canada and Uruguay, which in 2013 became the first country to legalise recreational use, have shown. 

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“The genie is out of the bottle in Germany,” said Alfredo Pascual, an analyst at investment company Seed Innovations. “But everything is uncertain. In Canada, medical growers have transitioned to the legal market. In the Netherlands, the growing of medicinal and recreational are strictly separated. Who knows how it will be in Germany? How it is done will have huge consequences.”

That includes the consequences for the illegal market in Germany, where recreational sales and cultivation is banned, while possession of small amounts for personal use is partially decriminalised and vary by region. For example in Berlin, a prosecutor can decide (but doesn't have to) to let you off with a warning if you're carrying under 15 grams, but in most other places the limit is 10 grams or just 6 grams. Dealers are encouraged by the announcement to legalise, but are concerned that it could have a long-term impact on their business. 

“Maybe our clients are going to be more relaxed because of it,” says André, a 27-year-old in Berlin who has been dealing since 2015 who spoke anonymously because he fears arrest. “That’s a good thing. Cannabis makes people happy and more people should try it. But maybe there’s going to be a crackdown on our supply. It could be an excuse for the government to be super strict on us.”

Asking not to share his surname for privacy, Constantine, a 28-year-old musician in Berlin who vapes weed every day, told VICE World News that he hopes legalisation will improve the quality of and information about what is being consumed. “I’m very happy about it,” he says. “It’s become so scarce now and that means it’s difficult to maintain quality. It will be cleaner and knowing what strain you have or the terpene content [chemical compounds that induce different highs] is so much better.”

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A liberal, California-style model would work best, he said, but Constantine is firmly against any suggestion that recreational users could be put on a registry in order to buy cannabis. “It will make my life much easier,” said Constantine, who also uses cannabis to help treat back pain from an old sporting injury. “I’ve always been kind of anxious. From the first time I started smoking, it makes me much calmer.”

When contacted by VICE World News, a spokesperson for the Federal Ministry of Health confirmed “the agreement to introduce the sale of cannabis to adults in licensed shops in the future,” but declined to provide further details.

But proponents say the success of medicinal cannabis in Germany bodes well. It is now the largest and the most profitable medical cannabis market in Europe and will be worth €7.7 billion by 2028. Recreational use of cannabis in Canada, which has a population of 38 million compared to Germany’s 83 million, was legalised in late 2018 and its market is already worth more than €2 billion. Momentum appears to be growing worldwide as countries including Mexico, Malta, Lebanon and Luxembourg have recently legalised or are on the brink of doing so.

Back at Aphria RX, as speculation abounds over Germany’s recreational sector, the 30-person team is using A-B-C testing to constantly adjust factors such as humidity, fertiliser and lighting to improve its harvests for a new age of cannabis consumption. “It will be very easy for us to scale up,” says Sascha Mielcarek, managing director for Europe. “With our expertise and innovation, we can deliver the world’s best quality.”