This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
Most people Brigitte Biesel's age use their mini scales to weigh letters, but the 80-year-old bought hers to measure weed. "Recently, I saw one similar to mine on Bares für Rares [the German equivalent of Antiques Roadshow]," she tells me excitedly. As she's chatting, she's also trying to concentrate on grinding the cannabis buds onto her delicate silver scale.
Today is baking day at Brigitte's terraced house in Köpenick, a picturesque district in south-east Berlin. "I think it's safe to say that I’m the first person to bake this specific variety of cookies here," she laughs.
Brigitte loves to bake. In the weeks leading up to Christmas she made vanilla rolls, cinnamon stars and other treats for her extended family and friends. But her baking today isn't about anyone else. I’m here to help her prepare her "medication", as she likes to call it – sweet biscuits spiked with cannabis from a nearby pharmacy.
Brigitte isn't trying to get stoned and blank out the world. "That's not really my thing," she says. On the contrary – thanks to cannabis, she feels more alive. It makes her chronic pain more bearable, it helps her get out of bed in the morning, and it allows her to comfortably sit down in her garden under the rhododendrons, which she especially loves when they bloom red, white and purple in spring and summer.
Her story is similar to the thousands of Germans who have found that cannabis works where conventional medicine has failed them. In March of 2017, it became legal to obtain medicinal weed in Germany with a prescription, but relatively few clinics will prescribe it and many health insurance companies don't want to cover the costs. By the end of last year, more than 13,000 people had submitted insurance claims to the three largest health insurance companies in the country. The German government had estimated that only 700 people would apply. "They have no clue," Brigitte says.
For the past 60 years, Brigitte has struggled with chronic pain. At 19, she was diagnosed with scoliosis – a condition where your spine twists and curves out of place. If you stand behind her, you can clearly see that her spine is not straight, but rather shaped like an "S".
Still, Brigitte was determined to live a full and active life, despite her condition, and spent her twenties skiing, cycling and swimming, while working as a costume tailor for the revues at the Friedrichstadt-Palast theatre in Berlin. But, in her mid-thirties, she woke up one morning barely able to feel the entire left half of her body. "I couldn't move my left hand – it just wouldn't work," she remembers.
In an East Berlin clinic, she was strapped onto a bed and pushed into an operating room. Bright lights, 20 students and two professors stared down at her like she was the sole survivor of some UFO crash landing, she tells me now. Nobody could explain her paralysis. At the time, hospitals in East Germany didn't have CT scanners, so the alternative was to push a hollow needle into her spinal cord in order to collect spinal fluid. The pain was so unbearable she fainted.
The doctors discovered the cause of her paralysis was a slipped disc between her fifth and seventh vertebrae. She lived with the paralysis for almost 15 years until, in the 1980s, three Berlin doctors managed to stabilise her neck with a piece of hipbone. She regained much of the feeling that she had lost. The doctors were allowed to leave communist East Germany to present their revolutionary surgery in West Germany, but they never returned. "I had to do rehab by myself and make sure that the scars healed properly," she says.
That wasn't the end of her medical troubles. In 2000, she suffered a stroke, and the subsequent medication she was given damaged her intestines and stomach lining. On top of that, she was recently diagnosed with PNP – a rare form of muscle paralysis in which your immune system fights against your own nervous system. At times, she can't get her legs to do what her mind wants.
For as long as she can remember, doctors in more than 50 different hospitals and clinics have prescribed super-strength painkiller after super-strength painkiller, but nothing has worked. And often, to combat the pills' side effects, she's prescribed even more drugs with even more side effects. When you listen to her outlining her medical history for half an hour, it becomes obvious why there's a small pile of cannabis lying there on the kitchen table, next to a vase with fresh tulips.
At the tail end of 2016, Brigitte's grandson came to visit and brought along some weed cookies for her to sample, to see whether they helped with the pain. She considered it for a moment, before deciding that, whatever they'd do, it couldn't be much worse than her usual medication, so she bit into one. It took about 30 minutes to kick in. "My pain didn't go away completely, but when I ate the cookies I felt lighter," she explains. "I don't think about the pain as much and I don't feel as sad either." She goes on to tell me that she's suffered from depression for the past 15 years, ever since she underwent a particularly difficult stomach operation. "Everything just isn't as bad when I have the cookies."
Brigitte paid €110 (£98) for 5g of cannabis and €160 (£140) as a consultation fee, while her husband drove ten miles to a pharmacy that actually stocks medicinal weed. Every time she bakes she makes a batch big enough to last about two to three months. Her insurance company should cover the cost, "but they can be difficult at times", she says.
Brigitte's latest doctor has prescribed her two different types of medicinal cannabis – Bakerstreet to help manage her pain in the morning, and Bediol to help her fall asleep at night. She'd rather not smoke a joint, she tells me, because smoking used to give her problems with her circulation. Her grandson also gave her a cookbook with weed recipes, but the cookies are her favourite. "And two a day won't make me fat," she laughs. "Anyway, shall we start baking?"
- 1.5 grams of crushed cannabis
- 200 grams of flour
- 100 grams of butter
- 50 grams of sugar
- A pinch of baking powder
- 1 egg yolk
Brigitte carefully pours some cannabis on the scale. At 1.47g she stops, before slowly adding some more, but overshoots the mark by 0.2g. "No, that's too much," she says to herself, before taking bits off until she hits exactly 1.5 grams. She knows as well as anyone that precision is key, with medication and with baking.
Brigitte kneads the ingredients for the dough together and covers the mix in clingfilm, before leaving it to rest for at least an hour. Next, she melts a knob of butter in a small pan and, as it simmers away on her stove, she stirs the crushed buds into the butter.
Her kitchen – with its framed pictures of cozy benches and watercolours of berries and roses – soon fills with the sweet scent of her grandson's recipe. "This all gets pretty smelly," she warns me.
As the cannabis butter cools down, she preheats the oven to 220C and kneads the weed butter into the dough until green speckles appear throughout. Before she finishes, she combines it with the leftover oil residue in the pan. "You don’t want any of it to go to waste," she explains.
"People who say [cannabis is] just a narcotic don’t know what real pain is," Brigitte says. She never takes enough to get high. Well, except once with her grandson for fun. "We were sitting outside in the garden and I ate three cookies," she remembers. "I felt like I had drunk a glass and a half of red wine."
After an hour, she rolls out the dough "evenly and thinly for a consistent effect", before picking up a shot glass – her make-do cookie cutter – and shaping 30 round dough balls onto a tray. They then go into the oven for 12 minutes. When they come out, Brigitte has a way to manage her pain for the next few months.