By Christoph Scheuermann
She should have put down the crossword puzzle, if only for a moment. She should have glanced through the kitchen window, down at the street, and perhaps she would have noticed the two men sitting in their car. They were narcotics detectives in the southwestern German city of Karlsruhe.
But 72-year-old Elfriede B. never noticed that she had been under surveillance. She owns six pairs of glasses at various prescriptions, and if she isn't wearing her hearing aid, sounds barely penetrate into her consciousness, which doesn't make things easier.
But the main problem was that she hardly knew she had done anything wrong. Isn't everyone clamoring that Germany's pensioners should take matters into their own hands instead of complaining about their pensions? Elfriede B. was a woman of action. Why should she have worried about the cops?
An energetic woman with snow-white hair, Elfriede B. realized early in life that those in need could not rely on other people or the government for assistance. Her father returned from the war with a tumor in his stomach, and because he was too poor to pay for drugs, he decided to grow his own pain medication.
His daughter watched him grow the plant and dry its sticky leaves, which he then crumbled and smoked.
She watched as he became calmer, as if he had been given an anesthetic for the pain.
As an adult, Elfriede B. repaired TV sets for Schaub Lorenz, an electronics company, and worked as a waitress in small-town pubs. When she retired at 61, after a life of hard work, she found that she couldn't stop working. She lived in the country. She was out in the fields by six in the morning, tending crops on a piece of land half the size of a soccer field, where she would climb ladders to pick cherries, and dig potatoes and onions out of the soil. She gathered walnuts to supplement her small pension of 548 ($850), but age was taking its toll. Sometimes the pain would travel through her body like an electric shock, and at some point she thought about her father and the mysterious plant he had once grown to treat his pain. She had an idea. She would take matters into her own hands and fight her own pain.
A Quiet Life
At a local train station, she bought a copy of a publication called the Hanf-Zeitung (Hemp Newspaper) and scanned the classifieds. One day, a short time later, she opened her mailbox to find a letter containing "Super Skunk" hemp seeds. She bought the book "I Love It," a manual for growing hemp. The 72-year-old embarked on her new project with the care and attention to detail of a woman who has been making strawberry preserves for decades.
She began spending time in dimly lit, pot paraphernalia shops, and she spoke with other hemp growers. This could be a huge business, Elfriede B. thought to herself.
She knew growing cannabis was illegal in Germany. Perhaps she was naïve. Or perhaps she didn't care.
She emptied out a closet next to her living room and lined the walls, up to waist level, with plastic sheeting. She bought 400-watt fluorescent tubes, fans, an exhaust hose and fertilizers: Rhizotonic for the roots, Terra Vega for the leaves and Terra Flores for the blossoms. She built a cabinet for the seedlings and even decorated it on the outside with old movie posters ("Casablanca," starring Ingrid Bergman, and Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho").
She propagated her own seedlings with the meticulousness of a passionate gardener. The hemp cabinet became her second, small plot of land -- in her apartment. She would spread out the harvest to dry on a baking sheet.
Every day she would snack on a few bits of the hemp blossoms to help against the pain in her legs and arms. She sold the rest. In the city, the going price for a gram of marijuana is about 7.50 ($11.63). She told her only customers, three young men, not to ring her doorbell after 6 p.m., because she wanted her peace and quiet. Her life as a pot dealer remained relatively unchanged for about five years.
Her customers sold the marijuana to others and told stories about the cannabis grandmother. The stories got around, and smoking "Oma's" grass eventually came to be considered cool in Karlsruhe. The rumors also helped police track her down. After a two-week investigation, eight officers raided her apartment -- but deliberately on a day when "Oma" wasn't home.
Instead of Elfriede B., they caught two men who had climbed a ladder into her living room. One of them was a regular customer. He and his accomplice had planned to make off with her pot. Elfriede B. returned home two hours later, after picking cherries in her other field.
Now she sits at her kitchen table, wondering what will happen next. There will be a trial, eventually. Her pot-dealing days are over, now that the police have confiscated her plants, 380 grams of marijuana. She plans to open a pub with her granddaughter. Elfriede B. will stand at the stove and cook, as meticulously as ever. She'll be making sausage salad and fresh dumplings on Tuesdays.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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