Christoph Rossner is using a former NATO air base in his quest to become Germany’s leading medicinal weed grower
“I know we’re planning to grow weed, but working here won’t just be one big party,” Christoph Rossner says, while striding ahead of me towards the entrance of a deserted nuclear bunker, in the quiet countryside of the southern German region of Allgäu.
From 1956 to 2003, the bunker was part of the Memmingen military base, from where NATO planned to launch nuclear weapons in case the Cold War ever escalated. It’s abandoned now, but not for long if Christoph Roßner can help it. The 47-year old entrepreneur wants to transform the bunker into Germany’s largest cannabis plantation – and he’ll be working together with the Bavarian government to make that happen.
Since March 2017, it’s become legal to obtain medicinal cannabis in Germany with a prescription. Rossner wants to take advantage of the new law and become Germany’s leading legal weed grower. His ambitions aren’t necessarily based on delusions of grandeur – the legalisation opened up a potentially huge market. The German Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Abuse (DBDD) found that in 2015 alone, nearly five million Germans had smoked cannabis at least once that year – and that’s just the people willing to admit to it.
The nuclear bunker where Rossner hopes to start his empire is an intimidating structure – 50 meters long and 15 meters high, with ventilation shafts like a medieval fortress. “I think our plants will be pretty safe within these walls,” Roßner smiles.
As we pass through one of the massive doors – 175 tonnes of hardened steel, 8 meters wide and nearly one meter thick – it lets out a loud, mechanical groan. From there, we go through another door, before we reach the main atrium. Any eventual future employees of Rossner’s company, Bunker PPD, will need to leave their bags and clothes behind when entering the facility, change into overalls and have their fingerprints scanned. The German government designed those extensive security measures to reduce the chances of any product illegally leaving cannabis labs.
Rossner leads me past the former crew quarters and a radio control centre. The ceiling above us is made of five meter thick reinforced concrete. The space feels tight and suffocating – you almost feel like you need to duck when walking around.
The planned cannabis farm will be part of a study to investigate the effects of different strains of medicinal weed, and to develop quality standards for each strain. The research will be done in partnership with the Technical University of Munich and The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
Through the study, Rossner hopes to provide 150 patients with cannabis grown in his bunker. If both the research and the necessary production of marijuana are approved by the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Services and the Federal Narcotics Board in Germany, Bunker PPD, could start supplying clients with medicinal weed by March 2018.
Rossner is a strong believer in the healing powers of weed. When he was 18, his left shoulder was crushed by a steel beam during his apprenticeship at an industrial mechanics company. He smoked to ease the chronic pain he was experiencing as a result of the accident, and still does to this day. The only difference now is that he gets his weed legally with a prescription. “In case you’re wondering, I’m high right now,” he admits.
In 1994, the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany made it legal for individuals to carry a small amount of cannabis – between five and ten grams, depending on the German region. In the late 90s, Roßner took advantage of the increased demand by setting up an illegal “weed pharmacy”. His client base grew steadily and included cancer and arthritis patients. But eventually, the police came to see him, too. In 2000, he was sentenced to two years and one month in prison. He ended up spending five months there, and four months in therapy.
Now that medicinal weed is legal in Germany, authorities estimate that the country will need 4,400 pounds of weed per year by 2021 in order to adequately supply every patient. Rossner, for his part, thinks that officials are structurally underestimating just how many will turn to the drug for relief once it’s legal. He estimates Germany will need to produce six times that amount – over 12 tonnes of weed.
We descend deeper into the crypt. It’s quite desolate here, a feeling that’s only strengthened by drawings on the walls, made years ago by bored soldiers. We walk past a space filled with vaults the size of shipping containers. Here, the plan is to have chemists cloning highly potent strains of cannabis. The industrial furnace next to the space was once used to destroy toxic materials at temperatures of 900 degrees celsius, but these military grade incinerators will now be set up to burn any surplus cannabis – another requirement from the state.
But Rossner has a long way to go. As we step out of the bunker and back into the sunlight, he tells me that his lawyers are preparing a lawsuit against the Federal Institute for Drugs. The agency is requiring potential medicinal weed producers to prove that they’ve already grown, processed and delivered at least 50 kilos (or 110 pounds) of cannabis within the last three years. Considering it has been illegal to produce in Germany up until now, Rossner can’t understand why the government would expect anyone to have done that – let alone kept some sort of paper trail of it.
While he’s waiting for the German authorities to approve his plan, Rossner is keeping a worried eye on his competitors. In the US, a number of American companies are systematically buying up smaller producers – a dynamic that could expand into and take over the German market. Even though his lab doesn’t exist yet and there’s nothing to buy, Rossner already tells me he’s adamant he won’t be bought. He wants to do it on his own terms, in his own nuclear bunker.
This article first appeared on VICE