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JuicyFields, Cannabis Cowboys and the “e-growing” scheme that went up in smoke

A new podcast tells the story of a cannabis-related ponzi scheme over eight jaw-dropping episodes.

Cannabis is becoming legal in Germany – but there is still dodgy business to be done. Photo: IMAGO / Emmanuele Contini

Nicolas Martin can pinpoint exactly when he first encountered the subject of Cannabis Cowboys, a new investigative podcast from Deutsche Welle. “I was at a cannabis conference in August 2021, and this company, JuicyFields, was the main sponsor. Their stand was really impressive, but it had too many clichés. There was a long-legged Latina girl and a Russian girl standing around trying to talk to possible investors, and although it was a business conference, they had these big SUVs parked in front of the door. It just seemed so weird.”

A certain coolness goes with cannabis, and Berlin works for that

Weird doesn’t begin to describe the events that unfurl over eight jaw-dropping episodes of Cannabis Cowboys, painstakingly reported by Martin and fellow DW business journalist Andreas Becker. Russian gangsters, shady German aristocrats, Berlin rapper Veysel and portable sausage grills all have walk-on parts. Time and again, when you think Becker and Martin have hit a dead end, everything turns upside down and the floor becomes the ceiling. “The story, like the product JuicyFields presented, is just too good to be true,” Becker says, with a smile and a shake of his head.

Berlin-based JuicyFields was a newcomer to an industry that is in itself relatively new: medical cannabis production. Rather than flogging gummies or vapes, they offered a new kind of investment opportunity, one they called “crowd-growing” or “couch-growing”. For as little as €50, anyone could buy a virtual cannabis plant; the real plant would be tended and processed by a small-scale producer and then sold by JuicyFields, harvesting a return of €68 for its owner. Should you choose to re-invest, you could, theoretically, double your money in a year.

Back at the JuicyFields conference stand, everyone had been strangely evasive and secretive “which of course made me want to know more,” explains Martin. But in Telegram groups and YouTube channels stretching from Latin America to Israel, fledgling investors or “e-growers” raved about making hundreds of thousands of euros through JuicyFields. To veterans like Martin and Becker, this bumper harvest was suspicious. “100% return on investment? That was definitely the first serious red flag,” says Martin.

For as little as €50, anyone could buy a virtual cannabis plant; the real plant would be tended and processed by a small-scale producer

As self-confessed audio junkies, both men were keen to see if that red flag could be turned into DW’s first ever investigative podcast. “Initially, the idea was not to go after those who set it up, but to show investors that a 100% return on investment within a year is just not possible. We wanted to show them their arguments weren’t valid,” Martin tells us.

Did they themselves have an idea of what was going on? “Pure gut reaction?” says Becker with a smile. “For me, it smelt 100% of Ponzi.” In other words, they suspected that those lofty returns were not the final blossoming of thousands of tonnes of marijuana flower, but stemmed from a less fragrant and infinitely less sustainable source: other peoples’ seed money. The pair got to work, recording interviews with investors, including one who’d given up his job as a dental technician to work as a self-employed promoter for JuicyFields and was now living the good life in Mexico funded by monthly payouts of up to €80,000. Other e-growers described cautiously investing small sums to see if it was legit before shovelling their entire savings into the virtual cannabis.

On an otherwise unremarkable morning in July, investors found themselves locked out of their accounts

The party ended overnight. On an otherwise unremarkable morning in July, investors found themselves locked out of their accounts, unable to access their money. Telegram blew up. Theories circulated on YouTube. No one can say for certain how much money has been lost by JuicyFields investors, but it is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions, or even billions, of euros. For Becker and Martin, it was a complicated moment. On the one hand, this was podcast paydirt: a real-time explosion to lend their series drama and tension. On the other: “Were we too slow?” Becker muses. “Should we have put out something earlier to let people know our doubts? But at the time, we didn’t have any victims, and with journalistic reporting, there are standards dictating what you’re allowed to say and when.”

Photo: Nicolas Martin and Andreas Becker

After that July morning, the whole tenor of Becker and Martin’s research changed. An enquiry into investment models had become a whodunnit, a how-dunnit and even a what-dunnit: with the website still live and being sporadically updated, there was still the slimmest of chances that JuicyFields might pay out. For months, Becker and Martin careened around Europe, knocking on the doors of castles in Switzerland and hotel rooms in Helsinki, and trawling for secret clues in a JuicyFields promotional video featuring the company’s CEO as an aeroplane pilot called Captain Blunt.

When asked why the company might have chosen Berlin as their base, Martin and Becker can only speculate. “Marketing-wise, you have a certain coolness that goes with cannabis, and Berlin works for that,” surmises Becker. “Plus, if you have any kind of investment scheme where you spin a story and ask people to send you money, it’s kind of nice if you are based in a country with a ring of credibility.”

“Berlin has a big Russian community,” Martin adds. “Aristocrats too. I don’t know if they all met in Berlin but at the end of the day, they’re all in Berlin, you know?”

There was a long-legged Latina girl and a Russian girl standing around trying to talk to possible investors

If you’re a longtime listener of investigative or true crime podcasts, you’ll be familiar with that feeling of anticlimactic fizzle as it dawns on both host and listener that in real life, explanations and neat endings are hard to come by. What sets Cannabis Cowboys apart is its final episode, in which the clockwork of the whole JuicyFields saga is taken apart and laid out for examination via an anonymous source

“We can’t be 100% certain what our whistleblower tells us is correct,” says Becker. “That’s our one small disclaimer. But yes, what happens in episode eight did answer almost all of our questions. Every piece of the puzzle fell so nicely into place. It’s what makes this whole thing almost too good to be true.”

The pair are content with the story they’ve uncovered; aside from the crazy plot details, there’s a real pleasure to listening while two experienced journalists dismantle the claims that were allowed to flourish in what Becker describes as “the ecosystem of alternative investments”.

“Where there’s a whole mass of people, especially young people, telling each other you’ve got to put your money here, the rates of return are fantastic: that is the ecosystem where stories like this grow,” he says.

“This summer is the next Cannabis Business Conference in Berlin. I think [that] played a huge role in legitimising JuicyFields,” Martin adds. “I’m kind of excited to see if any new shady or weird players pop this year, or whether the organisers have learned their lesson.”

What I’m listening to…

Chinese Whispers – The Spectator

The secret sauce to this fortnightly look at life in China is its host, twentysomething Cindy Yu, who is whip-smart and perceptive as she discusses everything from the implications of the 20th Party Congress to gay life in China with an international bunch of “long-time China-watchers”.

Normal Gossip – Radiotopia

When journalist Kelsey McKinney and producer Alex Sujong Laughlin found themselves parched of gossip during lockdown, they started a podcast to elicit and discuss the juicy stories of strangers. It’s been a huge hit, and April will see the start of a fourth season as well as a move to major podcasting stable Radiotopia.

A History of Delusions – BBC Radio 4

One from the archives but well worth a listen for its interviews with people who have suffered psychosis or delusion and can describe what they believed – and why – in fascinating detail. Experimental psychologist Daniel Freeman offers a historical overview and looks at the social context of mental health disorders.

Spandau20 – Spandau20

The techno mixtapes put out as podcast episodes by Spandau20, a record label operating out of you guessed it Spandau, are always worth a listen, but the recent mix from Gerd Janson is an absolute joy. The days are getting longer, summer’s not far off: is this the perfect podcast for your next Autobahn odyssey?