Growing cannabis at home – illegal, but how risky?

While visiting hobby growers, it becomes apparent that indoor cultivation is booming in Berlin. And the legalities? 

Making the most out of a small kitchen.
Making the most out of a small kitchen.Maurice Frank

Berlin-Last summer, during a press conference, Germany’s drug czar Daniela Ludwig said something goofy: “Just because alcohol is dangerous doesn’t mean that cannabis is broccoli.”

The quirky statement was widely ridiculed online as typifying her out-of-touch approach to recreational cannabis consumption. And the drug czar seems to be in denial of how widespread cannabis use is. According to one survey, 28.3 per cent of Germans aged 18 to 64 have consumed the drug at least once in their lifetime. In Berlin, of course, weed and hash are omnipresent: On the street, in parks, wafting from balconies.

So when two senior citizens were arrested for growing 300 plants in their Brandenburg hayloft this autumn, it occurred to me that growing your own – albeit it at a smaller scale – is probably a popular lockdown pastime: Indoors, time-consuming and with tangible rewards.

To find out whether there had been an uptick in DIY marijuana cultivation during the pandemic, I phoned a well-known grow shop in Prenzlauer Berg. When I brought the c-word into our conversation, the shopkeeper said, “Excuse me, this is a garden centre. We don’t have anything to do with illegal plants.”

A garden centre that sells bongs and hydroponic kits shares a name with a Bob Marley album. Sure, why not?

Ringing up a couple more grow shops around town, I was able to get anonymous confirmation that the “grow” business had, in fact, been booming during the November to December lockdown light.

The ordered beauty of the grow box

“People are overrunning the place,” a woman working at a Kreuzberg store said – her grin audible over the phone.

To get an idea what it was like to grow cannabis on a small scale indoors, I wanted to talk to a real-life grower. I asked around and soon found friends of friends of friends who were cultivating grass at home. Lots of them, in fact - teachers, lawyers, engineers – were people in the “middle of society”, as the Germans say. But very few were willing to talk.

But a guy I’ll call Sam was. Based on a description of his grow efforts from an acquaintance, he takes his hobby extremely seriously. He agreed to let me check out his set-up at his flat.

Sam is a mild-mannered American, an artist who has lived and worked in Berlin for many years. He began growing pot on his balcony in the spring of 2020 but moved the operation indoors in late summer.

Sitting in his kitchen, listening to Sam get technical about lights and plant food, I wonder where his indoor garden is. Then he pulls a curtain over the window and removes a magnetically attached panel from an innocuous looking cabinet. The pungent aroma of budding marijuana fills the room. I now understand the purpose of the ventilation system with carbon filter he’d just been telling me about.

Beneath the kitchen counter is a strange little secret world. I’m looking at a High Times centrefold: Under the white light of grow lamps are three stout, elegant looking pot plants. Like a jeweller, Sam squints at a flower through his loupe then lets me have a look: The magnified bud’s tendrils are covered in tiny, glistening hairs called trichromes – technically the “resin glands” – and they’re probably oozing with obscene amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

As one grow site puts it: these are “the grooviest and gooiest part of the cannabis plant.”

Not quite harvest-ready.
Not quite harvest-ready.Maurice Frank

A small fan hums in the cabinet. It’s to “blow the branches around, to strengthen them so that they can support the weight of the buds.” Sam tells me he’s spent €500 to €600 on the whole get-up. Coming soon: an automatic hydroponic watering system.

“Now that it’s legal in much of the US, there’s research being done on how to grow at universities and they publish their results. It’s super interesting,” he says. 

I’m beginning to realise that Sam has taken an extremely deep dive. And, in a way, I understand the appeal: There’s an ordered beauty about the grow box. The plants are bonzai-sized, maybe 30cm tall – and the branches are being “trained” by pipe cleaners or strips of wire to “flatten out the canopies so that all these bud sites get enough light,” farmer Sam explains.

It looks like slow, super-fiddly work. Sam says he has often spent hours a day perfecting his clandestine grow box: watering, training, pruning, feeding the plants.

And then, after about three months, comes harvesting.

“After you cut the plant down you hang it in this box with some holes in it for ventilation for three or four days,” Sam says, pointing at a simple cardboard box. “After that it goes into a jar – for three weeks to a month, minimum – which allows the humidity to even out within the plant matter.”

Move over, kimchi.
Move over, kimchi.Maurice Frank

And there they are: three old-timey pickle jars filled with the previous batch. Each jar contains its own digital humidity sensor. Curing is key, Sam says: “You can have a great plant that has been cared for really well, but if you don’t cure it properly if can produce negative effects, like you get a headache.”

Gaging by the depth of his technical knowledge, you’d think Sam was a major pothead. But no: “I generally smoke while I work in my studio, just a cigarette with a little weed in it. I don’t smoke a lot. I don’t need nearly this much.”

“Instead of a beer in the evening, I have a tiny little joint, which helps me deal with the toddler [Sam is a father]. I feel completely coherent. It was, weirdly, from a desire to be a more relaxed parent ... and I drink a lot less.”

The hobby aspect is, undeniably, also a huge part of the allure for Sam: “It’s about growing really amazing plants as it is about producing good weed. This is the first hobby I’ve had, like, ever!”

I remind him that possession of pot plants – and, of course, three jars of ready-to-smoke marijuana – is very illegal under the Betäubungsmittelgesetz, Germany’s controlled substances law, even if that’s sometimes easy to forget in Berlin.

“I’m not so worried about getting caught. I’m not telling many people that I do it. I’m not planning on selling it.”

Before he set up his grow box in the kitchen, he kept his plants outdoors but had some low-level anxiety about it. “I asked my neighbour whether he could smell my plants on the balcony and he said, ‘No can you smell mine?’”

Seeds have to be ordered online from the Netherlands or elsewhere, because they're illegal in Germany. 

“I try to minimise my online ordering and get most of my stuff at the grow shop,” he says.

The one woman growing grass

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that expat men are the only ones growing pot in Berlin, but it did seem odd that not one woman appeared to be doing it – until Sam introduced me to Steffi – a 37-year-old German who grew up in Marzahn and now lives in Neukölln.

On the phone, Steffi tells me she grew her first plant in her parents’ garden at the age of 15 without their knowledge. She says her folks wouldn’t have even recognised a cannabis plant.

In her twenties she spent several years in Australia, where she grew weed outside with friends. Now that she’s back in Berlin, she cultivates it in a greenhouse out on a plot of land she has outside the city and in a sealed, fridge-shaped box in her Neukölln flat which has room for just two plants.

Like Sam – and everyone I talked to – Steffi doesn’t sell her crop. She gives it to friends and consumes it herself. Because she doesn’t like to smoke, she only vapes.

Not unlike Sam, cannabis is a way for Steffi to relax at the end of a day at work. She doesn’t buy into the idea that it’s a gateway to other drugs: “I had an opportunity to take other stuff at parties. But I don’t like anything that’s chemical. I drink less alcohol than people I know."

“I have a lot of other plants. I love plants. You keep learning new things: how much soil, how much light, how much fertiliser. Every time you harvest it’s always a bit different.”

I tell her that I’ve been unable to find any other female pot growers and ask her why she thinks that is. She responds that as a queer woman, she is more technically minded than other women she knows.

“None of my friends would have even thought of doing something like this. Maybe because most women aren’t so interested in technical hobbies but for me that’s the case.”

The broccoli question

In September, the political party Die Linke submitted a “kleine Anfrage” – a parliamentary query – to Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU-SPD coalition government on the prospect of cannabis legalisation. The query contained 32 questions, one of which was the jokey, “Why isn’t cannabis like broccoli?” – referring back to the drug czar's summer non-sequiter.

In its response to the query, the government last month wrote that it rejects the “use of cannabis for non-medical, pleasure/intoxication purposes in the name of protecting the health of the population and the individual.” Later, it says cannabis can have negative effects on the mental health of young people.

Further down, however, the report concedes that while tens of thousands of people die every year from the effects of consuming tobacco (121,000) and alcohol (74,000), no deaths have been directly linked to the consumption of cannabis during the 19th legislative period.

That’s at least one similarity to broccoli.

I phone up Patrick Welter of H.A.N.F. e.V., a Berlin association that lobbies on cannabis-related issues and runs the Hemp Museum in Mitte. I ask him whether Germany will ever legalise recreational marijuana use.

He starts by telling me how in a pilot project some medical marijuana users are expected to soon get permission to keep 3 to 4 cannabis plants at home. But here the rules will be very strict. He says Germany simply takes a hardline approach to anything the state might be able to collect taxes on. Welter compares the attitude to rules on DIY distilling or tobacco: “You can only make 1.5 litres of liquor, and can only have two or so tobacco plants.”

That said, Welter says, while he’s uncertain whether Germany really wants to see cannabis products (apart from CBD and the like) sold in kiosks and supermarkets, he feels decriminalisation is coming.

Decriminalisation on the horizon?

Welter refers to another drug-themed press conference in September – this time drug czar Ludwig was joined by Holger Münch, head of the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), the closest thing Germany has to the FBI. After pointing out that Germany was observing other countries’ decriminalisation efforts such as in Portugal, Münch said that “in Germany we have de facto de-penalisation for minor possession and consumption infringments. Some crimes are prosecuted, but a very low number lead to convictions.”

While stressing that efforts should be focused on preventing young people from using any kind of drug, he also said he could envisage decriminalisation for possession of small amounts. Münch isn’t a lawmaker, but as the head of the BKA, he has the sway to hugely influence the debate in one direction or another.

<em>Bundeskriminalamt</em> president Holger Münch with Germany's drug commissioner (czar), Daniela Ludwig, on 8 September.
Bundeskriminalamt president Holger Münch with Germany's drug commissioner (czar), Daniela Ludwig, on 8 September.imago images/Felix Zahn

Nonetheless, it also appears that currently the Berlin police still take cannabis pretty seriously.

“When a neighbour spots a cannabis plant on a balcony and calls us, officers will come to that person’s home, probably search the apartment, and initiate criminal proceedings either for possession or for dealing,” police spokesperson Sara Dieng told me.

It’s hard to get precise data on how many cannabis plants the Berlin police have found and confiscated. The press office emailed stats for the past two years, but only for finds of 20 plants and above. According to the data, 54 “indoor plantations” were found in 2018, 33 in 2019. These figures include 17 plantations of 100 to 1,000 plants and 3 of more than 1,000 plants over the two-year period.

In short, they didn’t even bother to count the “hobby” projects of people like Steffi and Sam because they’re focused on commercial-scale operations.

When I put it to Sara Dieng that Berlin is known for its lax enforcement of drug laws, she corrected me: “I know what you mean. Berlin is relatively liberal in this respect, but that’s a matter for the justice system, not the police.” In other words, until the laws change, police will keep following up on calls from nosy neighbours.

Sam and Steffi might need the weed to help relieve the strain of the world, but not the long arm of the law.