Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Hempiricist Hits the Road, Days 3 & 4: Medford, OR

The gorgeous Applegate Valley as seen from Wooldridge Creek Vineyard and Winery.
 It has been a very busy couple of days here in Southern Oregon's Applegate Valley.

Yesterday I met up with archaeologist Chelsea Rose of Southern Oregon University, who owns land where a pot grower and breeder, Timothy Williams, supposedly came up with the famous "Trainwreck" strain back in the 1980s. She hasn't been able to pin that down yet, but she did lead me to a fascinating collection of old grow sites (pictures below) that I was able to check out today; on a hike together we even found another grow site that she hadn't seen before.

I'll have more about my time in the Applegate Valley in a later post. After meeting with Chelsea on Friday morning, I spent some time at the Southern Oregon Historical Society (picture below), where I pulled dozens of old newspaper and magazine reports on cannabis growing from the 1970s through the present. These will help bulk up my source base on Oregon, which checks off a major goal of this research trip.

I also hung out at a local dispensary, Pharm to Table, where I talked with the manager, a chill Russian dude named Vlad, the friendly and outgoing business part-owner Jason, and another Jason who works in a lab that tests all kinds of Oregon-grown cannabis for pesticides and other contaminants. More to come on those conversations as well (possibly).

That's all I can spit out for now - hopefully I'll have more time to blog when I get back to Denver, some 1,300 miles from now. I'll leave you with these photos from the last two days of my trip.

Pharm to Table dispensary in Medford.

The menu at Pharm to Table.

This old hoop house was used by growers in the Applegate Valley before the days of legal medical cannabis.

Today, this shed is used as a water station, but historically it was used to hang, dry and cure cannabis.

Views of the Applegate Valley from a gravel road near my host's property.

Many pot grows in the Applegate Valley are marked by modified, extra-tall fences

Richard Davis of the Applegate River Lodge is an eccentric cannabis grower and user who has been featured on chef Gordon Ramsey's show "Hotel Hell" and "The Daily Show."

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Hempiricist Hits the Road, Day 2: Reno - Oakland - Medford, OR

Oaksterdam University was established in 2007 by Richard Lee, one of the most influential leaders of the  medical cannabis movement in the Bay Area.
Beginning around 5 AM in Reno, Day 2 of my research trip took me over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across California's Central Valley to Oakland, where I sat in on a class on cannabis cultivation at Oaksterdam University, the nation's first cannabis-growing college.

My visit was extremely productive, but I'll have more on that in a later post. The biggest news is that Oaksterdam is working on establishing its first satellite campus in Jamaica - yes, the land of Bob Marley and the ganja-toking Rastafarians is turning to Babylon itself for help as they develop their brand new legal cannabis industry. Turns out the Jamaican government thinks so highly of the cannabis curriculum at Oaksterdam that it wants the university to help educate Jamaican growers
 on modern, environmentally sustainable practices such as greenhouses and organic pest treatments.

After a lunch and iced mocha downtown, I jumped back on the road and drove all the way up Interstate 5 to Medford, Oregon, where I am still somehow awake. That is about to change, but I'll still leave you with pictures:

Hands-on learning is a big part of the curriculum at Oaksterdam. These cannabis plants are growing in the corner of thelecture room at Oaksterdam. The specially modified containers can be zipped up to cloak the plants in total darkness, a necessary step in drug production.

Some of the literature available at Oaksterdam. Note the postcard for the local cannabis workers' union at top left.
Oakland's Fox Theater opened in 1928. Oaksterdam is across the street.

Yes, there is actually a town called Weed, and yes, it's in Northern California. But it wasn't named for pot; it was founded in 1897 by lumber mill operator Abner Weed, who found the area's high winds useful for drying out timber.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Hempiricist Hits the Road, Day 1: Fort Collins, CO to Reno, NV

The Hempiricist has made it to Utah.

Writing a book - especially writing one's first book - can be overwhelming at times. Thus, it is always encouraging when one can call on and receive much-needed support from his or her friends, acquaintances, and colleagues.

Over the last month or so I have been fortunate to receive that support from many people I know. Thanks to those many generous individuals, this morning I was able to embark on a six-day road trip across the American West to do research for my book, Grass Roots: An Environmental History of Cannabis in the American West. To all who gave - thank you. Your support means more than I can say or write, but I am certainly indebted to each of you and will do my best to write a book that is well-researched, accessibly written, and most importantly - doesn't suck.

It might be more than a little ironic that I began a cannabis research trip at 4:20 AM, but that's the time I left Fort Collins, Colorado this morning. I'm writing this post from a coffee shop in Salt Lake City, taking some time to rest and have lunch. My final destination today is Reno, Nevada.

Thanks to some last-minute research and correspondence, in a few minutes I will hopefully be talking to Aron Swan, General Manager of Silver State Relief, the first medical cannabis dispensary to open in Nevada.

Sixty-five percent of Nevada voters approved medical cannabis in 2000; Swan's dispensary opened last Friday. I haven't read much on Nevada's cannabis history; I'm hoping Swan can tell me why it took the state legislature fifteen years to enact the will of its voters.

As a parting gift, enjoy these photos of some impressive landscapes in Wyoming and Utah.

Rest area east of Laramie, WY.

Rock formations near Green River, WY.

South-facing view of Echo Reservoir off I-80 in eastern Utah.

View of Iron Mountain and the skiable foothills west of Snyderville, Utah.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Day at the Annual Cannabis Business Summit, Part II

 As I mentioned in Part I of this post, on June 29 I spent a day at the National Cannabis Industry Association's (NCIA) annual Business Summit and Expo at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver. I spent about 9 hours at the expo attending workshops, chatting with attendees and panelists, and trying to find the pulse of modern cannabis agriculture. Part II picks up at lunch and moves on to a workshop presented by "Greening Corporate Cannabis," an organization working to make the industry more environmentally sustainable.


Say what you want about it - the National Cannabis Industry Association doesn't skimp on lunch.

This is no quaint observation; amped by coffee, my already-blazing metabolism had burned through my breakfast during the three-hour midmorning seminar on how to put a greenhouse together. I required sustenance.

I found it in the Colorado Convention Center's ample buffet of succotash, barbecued beef brisket, homestyle mac and cheese, salad, and (non-medicated) brownies and other baked goods.

Lunch was in the convention center's atrium, and after generously filling a plate I wandered the room looking for a place to sit. The tables were filled with cliques of lawyers, consultants, industry buddies - walking around with my plate, I suddenly felt like I was a way nerdier version of myself back in high school.

I sat down at a half-empty table next to a lawyer who was just finishing lunch. After a few ravenous forkfuls of succotash, I napkined up and introduced myself. I told him I was working on a book about the environmental history of cannabis. The words barely reached his ears before he responded.

"We've got to get that under control," Sean T. McAllister said, referring to the negative environmental effects of modern pot growing. "That is just horrible."

McAllister's Denver-based firm handles an array of cases for the Colorado marijuana industry, and he has experience litigating pesticide standards, writing local medical marijuana initiatives, and suing municipal governments who have attempted to restrict patients' access to medical marijuana. Sean also used to be an environmental lawyer, which explains his immediate sensitivity to my topic.

One of McAllister's team members, a tall, well-dressed woman, walks behind Sean and they chat for a second. "Alright, go team!" Sean concludes, and politely excuses himself from the table - but not before sliding his card over to me.

I return to shoveling brisket and succotash, and notice that a woman I was speaking with during the break in the morning workshop has sought me out. She sits down next to me and briefly meets Sean before he leaves.

Nancy Mercanti is an entrepreneur who runs Herb-Sun-limited, a company that sells freeze-dried chopped herbs. At intermission during the morning workshop, she told me about a new project she's working on - freeze-drying THC into carefully measured dosages for use in edible products.

Edibles can be tricky to dose. While THC itself can't kill you, an overdose can have unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects such as panic attacks, hallucinations, and erratic thoughts or behavior. To help avoid this, regulators and the industry have determined that 10 milligrams of THC constitutes one dose. But the amount of THC is only one of many variables that influence a cannabis experience - a person's expectations, previous experiences, surroundings, body weight and chemistry, as well as the chemical profile of the plant that produced the drug, are all factors that combine for good or bad trips. Plus, as members of the French Club des Haschischins found out all the way back in the 1840s,  most people don't begin to feel the full effects of edible THC for about 45 minutes.

In other words, Nancy has her work cut out for her. Even if she and others in the edible business come up with a reliable way to precisely measure the amount of psychoactive THC, the retailer and consumer bear a good deal of responsibility for the effects of the product as well. As with any legal vice, regulations are a must, but so are education and individual responsibility.

Nancy asks me about my career goals, and I tell her I'd like to one day teach history at a community college and write. We spend lunch talking about the vicissitudes of higher education and the need for better history education more generally. I check the time and realize it's time to head to the afternoon workshop. Nancy and I are going to the same one - "Greening Corporate Cannabis."

This is the workshop I've been waiting for - the one that tackles the task of turning legal cannabis production into an environmentally sustainable industry. It's 4 hours long. I snag a brownie on my way out of the atrium and head to the workshop.

 GCC advocates for a more eco-friendly cannabis industry.

On the panel for the Greening Corporate Cannabis workshop is David Rice, founder of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association and the grower who invited me to the summit; Alex Cooley, vice-president of Solstice Grown; Jacob Policzer, co-founder of Greening Corporate Cannabis; Eric Brandstad, general manager of Forever Flowering Greenhouses; and Scott Zeramby, horticulture and energy efficiency consultant at Entity X Cannabis Consultants and co-author of the study "Up In Smoke: The Carbon Footprint of Indoor Cannabis Cultivation" (2011).

Highlights from workshop # 2

Alex Cooley (left) talks about transitioning his Seattle-based cannabis company from inefficient indoor to more sustainable outdoor cultivation.

1) "Pot Porn" magazines helped make cannabis unsustainable

By mid-2015 the study that Zeramby co-authored with University of California scientist Evan Mills is a bit dated, but it still definitively and convincingly outlines the environmental costs of indoor cannabis growth, which produces about a third of the nation's drug cannabis crop. A full two percent of all the energy produced in the United States is being consumed by indoor cannabis growers. Making one joint puts three pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere; producing a pound of weed adds about 4,600 pounds of CO2.

"Cannabis cultivation facilities are the most energy-intensive of any US building type," Zeramby added. "More intense than all of the pharmaceutical industry."

Why? Zeramby notes that many indoor growers rely on "pot porn" magazines such as High Times to tell them how to grow. Sexy and noisy advertisements in the pages of those magazines assure growers that if they just buy the brightest lights, the chillest AC systems, and the strongest fertilizers, they will produce a big, profitable indoor crop. Essentially, Zeramby says, the horticultural strategy advanced by these publications is to "buy a bunch of expensive products and plug them in."

Zeramby is an advocate for energy efficiency labeling on cannabis products, right next to THC content labeling.

"As more states come online ... we are going to see more energy used," Zeramby said. "So we really need to get ahead of this before it bowls us over and before it becomes the thing that doubters and naysayers point to and say, 'look at how much energy you use, you're ruining the world'" - a charge that, as of now, Zeramby admits "is partially true."

Such an energy-intensive strategy isn't just environmentally negligent; it's also counterproductive, because

2) More often than not, indoor growing makes an inferior crop

Direct lighting indoors makes life stressful for cannabis.
That's what Eric Brandstad's talk was all about - how greenhouses are much better equipped to take care of the plants than a warehouse full of lights and AC units.

"When it comes down to the growing, that's where it really matters," Branstad said. "One of the things I like people to undesrtand is the plants. .. I like to look at them as  a lot like people. They're made of water; we're made of a lot of water. We perspire; plants transpire. So when a plant heats up, mother nature put that self-regulating system in there so that they can sweat it out."

The intense overhead lighting in most warehouse and other indoor operations overheats plants - even sun-loving ones like cannabis - which causes excessive transpiration. Overheated plants are stressed, and they not only require more water but are also more vulnerable to insect infestations, which then requires the use of pesticides. Stressed plants also produce an inferior drug product because so much of their energy goes into simply staying alive instead of producing flowers and the all-important resin.

But in a greenhouse, UV rays are dispersed through the panels across the entire crop, reducing the plants' stress level. On hot days, overheating can still occur, but greenhouses can also be designed to have roof vents and removable or retractable walls, features that eliminate the need for AC and reduce the need for other cooling systems such as industrial fans. Thus, cannabis plants grown in greenhouses use less water because they are cooler, and the lack of stress from overheating eliminates the need for pesticides and ultimately allows the plant to produce a high-quality drug product.

Other energy-efficient cooling strategies Brandstad mentioned were potting plants in white or or organic containers instead of black ones and covering the floor of the greenhouse with a white material; both strategies help control surface temperatures, key indicators of plant stress.

Modern greenhouses include retractable side panels for natural cooling.
White floor material helps reduce surface temps and plant stress.
This is the second workshop where cannabis was discussed entirely in the context of agriculture - which was quite reassuring in the midst of all the horrific statistics on indoor cannabis growth. Sean McAllister is apparently not the only one worried about getting this situation "under control." And indoor growers need not be shamed or afraid of the change, because

3) It is possible to convert an indoor operation to an outdoor operation

Just ask Alex Cooley. His company, the Seattle-based cannabis producer/processor Solstice, was the first permanent cannabis production facility in Seattle, and it is in the midst of transitioning from large-scale warehouse grows to more sustainable greenhouse grows.

"I hate to admit it when these guys are around, but I am a warehouse grower," Cooley said. "I run lots and lots and lots of [high-intensity] lights." Cooley's goal  is to transfer all of his company's indoor cultivation out under the sun, whether in greenhouses or completely outdoors.

Cooley explained that when he first began growing cannabis, growing outdoors was simply not what anyone did.

"When I did research about growing cannabis in the city of Seattle, it was growing it under a lamp," he said. "And for me that grew from one light to two lights, to fifty to 100. ... That's the culture I've been a part of being in Seattle, and now [I'm] trying to change that culture and shift that preference."

Cooley broke down the process for shifting the preference - of both growers and consumers - from indoor- to outdoor-grown cannabis into two major hurdles: financing and creating a sustainable facility, and what Cooley refers to as "selling the sun grown," or creating demand for sustainably grown cannabis amongst consumers.

To clear the first hurdle, Cooley advised potential growers to identify and work with financial partners and developers who have a vested interested in building an environmentally sustainable operation. Developers must also be convinced that sun-grown cannabis is more valuable in the long-run than warehouse growing. For example, Cooley said pitching the financial sustainability of his company's new outdoor sites was key in getting his developers on board for a huge shift in investments.

"A warehouse facility, in my opinion, will not be viable in ten years at the longest. At the shortest it won't be viable in five years," Cooley said. "So tell your developer, 'look, all this infrastructure you're putting in a warehouse - 5,000 amps of power and all of this HVAC and doing a change of use like this ... it's not going to work for a tech company in five years when you have to lease to someone else.'"

Cooley notes that consumers are trained to prefer indoor cannabis because of prohibition, which made indoor cannabis into an underground horticultural art and produced a cornucopia of different cannabis strains, each with its unique profile of smells, tastes, and psychoactive effects. In short, indoor cultivation has spoiled consumers into expecting a high-quality product that they assume can only come from the indoor environment.

"I have a negative experience with sungrown, like a lot of people have," he said. "I used to throw a couple plants outside; it did what it did, half the time it got botritis and it rotted out, and I really didn't care. Maybe there was a little bit to smoke [but] it wasn't great, it wasn't like the stuff I was growing in the basement."

But as Brandstad's talk explained, that has changed, and consumers need to know that greenhouses can produce the same quality of cannabis as warehouses. For Cooley, creating a marketing campaign that educates consumers about sun-grown cannabis is an essential part of "greening" the industry. He cited Harborside Health Center, one of the largest medical cannabis dispensaries in the Bay Area, as one of the leading promoters of such a campaign:

"Today with  really great greenhouse-grown [cannabis] you can't tell the difference," Cooley said. "It is that quality. So, [it's about] moving away from that and just having an honest discussion ... that allows the consumer to see a side-by-side comparison and say 'wow, this really is quality cannabis.'"

Overall, my day at the NCIA's annual summit left me confident that, although most cannabis isn't currently being grown sustainably, a combination of market forces and the will of a significant number of environmentally conscious folks within the industry is pushing it in that direction. It seems that one day in the not-so-distant future, the domestic cannabis industry in the United States will be fully reliant on the more efficient, more profitable, and more environmentally sustainable practice of greenhouse growing.

Then, instead of talking about when people used to grow shaggy outdoor plants in the '60s and '70s, old-timers in the industry will reminisce about the silly days when "ganjapreneurs" thought it necessary to affix thousands of lights to the ceilings of re-purposed warehouses in order to productively and profitably grow a plant that - just like any other - is perfectly happy in the sunshine and the breeze.

Friday, July 17, 2015

A Day at the Annual Cannabis Business Summit, Part I

To get a sense of how legal cannabis farmers are thinking about and growing their crop, I recently spent a day at the National Cannabis Industry Association's (NCIA) second annual Summit and Expo at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. Since it was a pretty long day, I'm doing my readers a favor and breaking it up into two posts - one before lunch and one after.

NCIA calls itself "the voice of the cannabis industry."
I had heard about the expo from David Rice, cannabis farmer and founder of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association (WSIA). Rice's organization, like similar ones in Oregon and California, seeks to unite and be the voice of growers lobbying for an environmentally sustainable industry and for regulation that treats cannabis as a crop instead of purely as a drug. Two weeks earlier, over a spotty cell phone connection from the rolling hills of Northern California, Rice told me he was part of a panel for one of the expo's workshops and invited me to attend.

When I inquired about a press pass, an NCIA rep practically hurled one at me across cyberspace. On day one, June 29, I arrived at the convention center a few minutes after registration opened at 8:30 a.m. The registration line was already long. As I shuffled to the end, a woman filing in behind me asked if she was in the right line, and I confirmed. Her employer, a Nevada investment firm, sent her to scout out the industry for potential business opportunities. Based on the seventy or so people already in line - a generally well-dressed amalgam of growers, aspiring growers, lawyers, consultants, and reps from lighting, construction, and who knows how many other companies - I figured she would leave with plenty of options.

The registration line for the NCIA expo on June 29, 2015 in Denver. 

After picking up my registration materials, I was directed to the end of a second line to get my name badge electronically tethered to the sessions I'd registered for. Not being familiar with this process, I hadn't registered for any, but it turned out that the press pass allowed me to attend all of the workshops. Nice, I thought - though I already knew where I would spend my time. There were two workshops on the schedule for day one that seemed to directly address growing practices: one in the morning on greenhouse system design, and Rice and co.'s four-hour afternoon panel on directing the cannabis industry toward environmental sustainability.

About eighty people attended the first workshop on greenhouse systems, filling out the eight long rows of tables and chairs that faced the panel's stage in a dimly lit conference room. They came from all over the country - Hawaii, Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were all represented - and a man sitting next to me in the front row came all the way from Australia. The title of the three-hour workshop - "Complete Cultivation System Design Process" - sounded about as thrilling as pencil lead; fortunately, the panelists had many interesting things to say and the audience didn't seem to lose interest. Panelists included three reps from a greenhouse company - the company's founder, a thermal environment specialist, and a water systems specialist - a  lawyer, and a greenhouse construction consultant.

Some highlights from workshop #1

Zev Ilovitz, founder of Evirotech Greenhouses, said greenhouses can be 30-50% more efficient than growing indoors.

 1) Legally growing pot for money is not as easy as it sounds

"Compliance  should inform every single decision you make," advised Charles Smith, an attorney from New York who has plenty of experience with grower-clients. "This is by no means a get-rich-quick scheme. The idea that there are marijuana millionaires popping up all the time is just a farce, and has been promoted, I think irresponsibly, by the media."

After a Google search turned up this, this, this, and this, it's pretty hard to argue with Smith's last point. The hype and media attention gleaned by a handful of successful cannabis entrepreneurs obscures the reality: the cannabis industry is hyper-competitive, hyper-regulated, and comes with a 40 percent chance of failure - about 10 percent higher than new businesses in other industries.

2) Greenhouses require an insane amount of startup money - but are worth it in the long run

If you want to build your own cannabis greenhouse, you're gonna need about $4 to $5 million. That's because unlike warehouse growing, where the grower rents or buys an existing structure on  previously developed land, a modern, large-scale greenhouse operation is literally built from the ground up: growers need to find an empty piece of land with the right water and electric hookups, and then either build their own greenhouse or have one built on top of it.

However, because it is more energy efficient, the greenhouse is guaranteed to be more financially sustainable than a warehouse grow, which is cheaper to start up but comes with electric bills that can soar to tens of thousands of dollars per month.

3) Greenhouses appear to be the solution to environmentally degrading cannabis growth

The efficiency of greenhouses is going to force cannabis out of basements and warehouses, possibly for good. "As people move to greenhouses, the industry will have to move to that to compete," said Zev Ilovitz, founder of Envirotech Greenhouse Solutions and a former cannabis farmer himself. "I don't see what the future is for indoor cultivation."

Greenhouses do require supplemental lighting to keep the plants on the 12-hour light cycle during the flowering phase. However, Kurt Parbst, Envirotech's thermal environment expert, said that the amount of necessary supplemental lighting depends on climate - dry, sunny climates such as Colorado's require far less lighting than say, Seattle's or Albany's. This suggests that if the industry does move to greenhouse grows, growers in some states may have a slight advantage over others. Indoor growers all have access to the same lighting technology, so this is currently not the case.

Energy isn't the only area where greenhouses are superbly efficient. Eric Labatte is a Canadian water systems guru based in Ontario, an area with the highest density of vegetable greenhouses in North America. He explained in mind-numbing detail the workings of a high-tech, closed-circuit irrigation system that amounted to damn near 0 percent runoff.

I thought of all the water wasted by growers who illegally divert streams in Northern California, and realized that not only is it important for growers to adopt these new systems, but it's also imperative that politicians create subsidies and other incentives to shunt the industry in that direction. If the industry keeps flourishing the way it is now, the future of the parched western American landscape may depend on it.

...and that was lunch. I'll have more from my day at the NCIA expo soon.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Greenhouses will solve Denver's pot-related energy woes

The Denver Post's Cannabist section reports that cannabis growing facilities, most of which are indoor, are responsible for 45 percent of an annual 1.2-percent increase in the city's electricity use since 2012:
Denver's indoor cannabis grows are using too much electricity.
"Colorado’s marijuana sector, in particular, is growing rapidly, relying on electricity to run lights that stimulate plant growth, as well as air-conditioning and dehumidifiers. The lights emit heat, raising demand for air conditioning, which requires more electricity."
 And how do Denver officials plan on solving this problem?
"Southwest Energy Efficiency Project director Howard Geller said new adjustable light-emitting diode (LED) lights have emerged that don’t put out heat. Companies installing these wouldn’t require so much air-cooling and could cut electricity use, Geller said."
Mr. Geller's proposed solution of unplugging inefficient lights just to plug in less inefficient lights may indeed help warehouse growers cut costs, but as the director of a regional energy efficiency program he should be pushing to have this crop grown under the sun. A simple Google search using the  words "cannabis greenhouses efficient" will turn up all the evidence any official needs to start guiding the industry in that direction.

Cannabis growing in a greenhouse with supplementary lighting.
And if recent trends continue, the industry won't need much of a push; just last week at the National Cannabis Industry Association's annual expo in downtown Denver, there were multiple workshops and talks pushing greenhouses and environmentally sustainable cultivation as the next big move for the industry.

It's not just about high energy bills. Plants that receive intense heat and direct light from inefficient lighting are more stressed out and are more vulnerable to insect infestations, which ups the need for pesticides, another costly input for cannabis farmers. This is what greenhouse engineer Eric Brandstad, of Forever Flowering Greenhouses, calls "growing against the grain," or growing methods that run counter to the plant's needs. Greenhouses, by contrast, diffuse the direct rays of the sun across an entire crop, encouraging healthy photosynthesis.

Many NCIA members support sustainable cannabis growth.
"When plants are grown healthy, not against the grain, they actually will resist pests," said Brandstad, speaking as part of a panel on environmentally sustainable cannabis cultivation at the NCIA expo on June 29.

So far, the only downside to greenhouse grows is the high startup cost, as purchasing and prepping land for a highly efficient greenhouse is more expensive than renting or buying an old warehouse.

Most greenhouse growers also use supplementary lighting to keep their plants on the 12-hour light cycle required to induce faster flowering; here is where Geller's suggestion of using more efficient lights would be most useful. In addition, according to greenhouse expert Zev Ilnocki of Envirotech Solutions, Colorado's sunny climate minimizes the need for supplementary lighting, so growers in the Centennial State stand to save more on those costs than growers in cloudier regions such as the Pacific Northwest.

Colorado already has several greenhouse grows in operation, and if the current pulse of the industry is any indication, there will be many more to follow. The reason is simple: greenhouses are better for the plants, better for the growers, and better for the environment.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Highlights from Oregon's Cannabis past

Today cannabis is officially legal in Oregon. Before today, the only Oregonians who could legally use cannabis were those registered with the state's medical cannabis system, which was approved in 1998; they could possess up to six plants and 24 ounces of dried cannabis. Now, possession and growth of the herb are legal, but there is not yet a legal way to buy it.

The full legalization initiative, Measure 91, was approved by 56 percent of Oregonians in the midterm elections on November 4, 2014; similar measures made cannabis legal in Alaska and Washington, D.C. The Oregon state legislature has spent months developing regulations for the new industry, and just yesterday sent a bill to Governor Kate Brown's desk that does the following:
  • Limits the size of existing medical cannabis grows beyond cities to 96 plants and grows in urban neighborhoods to 24 plants. New growers in both locations will only be allowed to grow half as many. Under the medical cannabis system, growers could only grow enough cannabis to supply four patients, which amounted to 24 plants, 72 seedlings, and six pounds of the dried product.

  • Allows city and county governments in eastern Oregon, where Measure 91 received the least support, to shut out the cannabis industry altogether. In the rest of the state, voters have to approve any attempts to ban the industry.

  • Bans edible packaging that is deemed attractive to children

  • Establishes mandatory standard testing procedures for pesticides, molds, and mildews

  • Restricts industry employment to residents who have lived in Oregon for at least two years, but allows out-of-state investors.

  • Tracks the product of retail growers from seed to sale and requires growers to file reports on their inventory
As Oregonians shake off the shackles of prohibition and take a toke or two in celebration, here's a look back at some interesting moments in Oregon's cannabis history:

1876 - The drug importer Craddock & Co. places an ad for "Cannabis indica" in Hillsboro, Oregon's Washington Independent. The Philadelphia-based firm calls the herb "the Great East India Remedy" and claims it is "warranted to cure Consumption, Bronchitis and Asthma." Price per bottle: $2.50.

1895 - In a public call for supplies, the board of trustees for the Oregon state insane asylum requests "1 pound granulated cannabis indica" under "Drug Supplies."

1915 - Hashish in Portland

Although it wasn't too popular, drug cannabis was imported from Great Britain (which imported it from India) and sold in drugstores throughout the United States in the late nineteenth century. On March 3, 1915, The Morning Oregonian ran a story about four drug stores in Portland's business district that were found to be selling "hashish" to youths between the ages of 11 and 18.

On May 22, the Oregonian ran a news brief that discussed an "ordinance prohibiting the sale of hashish, an opiate said to have found its way to the Portland market." Though the newspaper incorrectly identified cannabis as an opiate, it at least gave the proper official name, "cannabis indica."

1920 - A Mrs. Dolores "Fernands" - likely a misspelling of "Fernandes" or "Fernandez" - is arrested in Portland after plucking "a large fruit box"'s worth of cannabis from a plant that apparently sprung up near Union Station. She then sold a small quantity of it to a "Maxinieno Mendez" for $1.35. The police told The Morning Oregonian that the weed gives the smoker "a laughing jag."

1966 - This happened:

1973 - Oregon becomes the first state to decriminalize cannabis, reducing the penalty for possession of up to one ounce to a $100 fine.

1998 - 54 percent of Oregon voters approve medical cannabis via Ballot Measure 67.

Oregon readers may know of more events that should be included here; if you are one of those readers, please let me know in the comments what else I should add!

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Hempiricist Asks for Your Help

Projections for first month of Crowdfunding campaign.

And now comes the point where I humbly petition my one-time visitors (the majority of my readership here), as well as the few people who have nothing better to do than read this blog regularly, for a pittance to help fund my research activities this summer.

I'm asking for a few bucks here and there to pay for food, fuel, and (modest) lodging as I make my way from Denver to Oakland to Medford, OR, and back again.

As part of my ongoing investigation of modern Cannabis agriculture and its effects on the natural environment, I will be traveling to:
  • Oaksterdam University, the Cannabis-growing school in Oakland, CA, to observe a class on modern Cannabis horticulture,  and 
  • to the Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon to walk the hills of one of the nation's lesser-known weed-growing regions (Northern California, after all, gets all the press). There I will meet with an archaeologist with whom I will co-author an article on the history of Cannabis culture in Southern Oregon, as well as interview local growers and mine local libraries for historical documents.
My wife and I just purchased a new vehicle so that we could both remain functionally apart as she travels across Colorado on medical rotations for her Physician's Assistant program. The extra set of wheels makes this trip possible, but my part-time income from a local non-profit does little more than pay the bills (although I am extremely grateful for it). 

So please, if you have both the will and the spare change to help me make this book the best it can be, throw some coin at my GoFundMe campaign or my Paypal Account (by clicking on the "Donate" button to the right).

Thank you!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Bruce Barcott, Weed the People (2015)

I have spent more than two years on this blog lobbying for people to see cannabis as a plant instead of a drug. That’s why I was delirious with joy when I read the following realization that journalist Bruce Barcott had during a talk with a grower for his recent book Weed the People:
“I tuned him out because at that moment it occurred to me I had never been in the presence of a live marijuana plant. What an odd thing. I’d been living for nearly half a century in a nation obsessed with marijuana … and had never, ever come face to face with the actual living plant itself. That struck me as completely insane. Because you know what? It’s not a nuclear warhead. It’s not a deadly virus. It’s a plant.” (p. 106-7)
Thank you, sir! 

Anyone who doesn’t know how to feel about the rising tide of cannabis legalization in the United States should read Barcott’s book, because he is right there with you. Or rather, he was, before he finished Weed the People. As Barcott points out, weed in America is a lot like gay marriage in America; the younger generations consider the legalization of both common sense, but it has taken the older generations a few more years to recover from their indoctrinated stupor and let exposure and experience guide them into the light.

Through his well-balanced, thoroughly researched, and highly compelling book, Barcott offers just such a re-education. His success rests partly on the fact that while researching Weed the People, Barcott underwent the same re-education, the same dissolution of his preconceptions against cannabis and those who use it, that many of his readers are likely to experience. 

But make no mistake, Weed the People is no narcissistic trot through its author’s epiphany; rather, the brilliance of the book lies in Barcott’s ability to bring his own thoughts, reflections, and prejudices into honest dialogue with the reality he finds in the field. 

And—this is shocking for a pot book written by a journalist—there is plenty of reality in Weed the People. It is an outstanding work of journalism that covers nearly all the current issues in a refreshingly responsible and un-sensationalist way: The “weed is great” crowd will love the first 12 chapters, in which Barcott details the medical utility of the plant, his own experience getting a medical card and making his first sweaty, anxiety-ridden legal weed purchase, and all the unjust evils that have befallen the plant and its champions over the ages. But that same crowd will undoubtedly wince at chapters 13-16, in which he puts the “100-percent safe” myth directly to bed by examining the very real and very concerning evidence surrounding cannabis’s effects on young minds and the mentally ill. 

But Barcott is no prohibitionist. At one point he has dinner with Kevin Sabet, the leader of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (pp. 168-71). SAM is perhaps the nation’s largest anti-pot group, pushing for a complete rollback of legalization in states where it has occurred. Barcott hears Sabet out over some pork shoulder and tries to point out the flaws in Sabet’s claim that, since nobody is getting arrested for joints anymore, legalization doesn’t need to happen (the main flaw is that thousands of people—a disproportionate amount of them black—still do get arrested for possession, with real consequences for their loved ones and life chances). 

When he realizes that Sabet wants to hear none of this, Barcott does the right thing, if not the “objective” thing—he tosses Sabet and his ideas right into the dustbin of cannabis ideology. No more print space for you, Kevin. Barcott wastes little time with prohibitionists in his book. As he should—they are truly a dying breed, and it’s time more journalists stopped giving their arguments print space and airtime. 

The book clocks in a bit long at 317 pages, and there are too many chapters (30). But I found myself so engrossed in Barcott’s straightforward and oft-hilarious writing that I hardly noticed how many of those chapters I was blazing through. Barcott also does something that more journalists need to start doing—he balances concern for the negative effects of cannabis with facts and figures on alcohol and other drugs, arguing that “we need to consider marijuana within the context of other inebriating substances and their effects on society” (p. 241).

I mentioned that Barcott covered nearly all the current cannabis-related issues, and one that he left out is hugely important: the environment. There are some 30,000 cannabis grows in Northern California, most of them unregulated and environmentally destructive. In Colorado regulations make it nearly impossible to grow outdoors, using natural light instead of fossil fuel-burning electricity. It takes two-three pounds of CO2 emissions to produce a single joint. Barcott points out none of this in his book; the closest he comes to it is when he asks a large warehouse grower in Denver how much he spends on electricity each month (p. 141). This struck me as a bit surprising—isn’t Barcott from Seattle, one of the most environmentally conscious places on Earth?

Nevertheless, Weed the People is a journalistic triumph, one that will likely convince many people still on the fence about pot legalization that OK, yes, he’s right, we need to be more rational and regulate this stuff. In that, Bruce Barcott has done a favor for not only himself but also for the majority of level-headed Americans who are sick and tired of mainstream lies and failed drug policies. The legalization movement owes him a "thank you."

Friday, June 12, 2015

Mapping Cannabis Cultivation in California, 1900-1960

Thanks to a plethora of books, articles, documentaries, and TV and radio stories, many people across the country know Northern California as the hotbed of cannabis agriculture in the Golden State. Today, the region is home to an estimated 30,000 grow sites. But before the Back-to-the-Landers seeded a revolution in the redwood-covered hills during the 1960s and '70s, nearly all California-grown cannabis came from the farms, ranches, cities, and suburbs from Sacramento on south.

The following maps show a total of 142 instances of cannabis cultivation in California from 1900-1960; of those, 75 instances were reported between 1950 and 1960. The map on the left shows cultivation sites from c. 1900-1950 (the colors mark the decade but aren't relevant in this post), and the map on the right shows sites from 1950-1960. Note the relatively scarce amount of reports on Cannabis cultivation over the first half of the twentieth century (left), as well as the conspicuous absence of cultivation in Northern California throughout both periods:

These maps also demonstrate an important shift in the location of cannabis cultivation, from rural sites such as farms and ranches to urban and suburban sites such as backyards, gardens, and parks.

Zoomed-in versions of these maps more clearly demonstrate the shift. First, the map of cultivation sites from 1900-1950. Note the sporadic locations of sites in the rural Central Valley, as well as on the outskirts of cities such as Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles:

Now, the map of the 75 reports on Cannabis growth from 1950-1960. Note the lack of reports from the rural Central Valley, as cultivation sites (as well as instances of natural growth) clustered in the San Francisco and Los Angeles Metropolitan Areas. The high density of cultivation reports in both locales reflects an emerging cannabis culture amongst the rapid urbanization and population growth after World War II:

Cannabis cultivation was prevalent in many urban areas across the country during this period, from New York City to Chicago to Denver. But as opposed to other states, whose populations of cannabis users, dealers, and growers were dominated by the working class, California's sunny climate and rampant growth translated into people from all walks of life trying their hand at cannabis cultivation; growers included Hollywood actors, middle-class couples and beatniks, and suburban teenagers, as well as members of the working class.

During the late 1960s a number of factors, including increasing urban crime rates and the decline of urban counterculture enclaves such as San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood, many young counterculturals left the cities for the countryside. A great many of them headed north and ended up in the rugged hills and dense forests of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties; in these remote areas, some began to experiment with cannabis growing for personal use or to make a living. In time they and their descendants would build an entire cannabis-based economy, leading to the region's current nickname, the Emerald Triangle.

All maps copyright 2015 by Nick Johnson. Map data obtained via

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Modern Day Reefer Madness: After shootout, Louisiana sheriff claims legal pot will bring "insurmountable havoc," totally forgets about the gun thing

Just listen to Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand's epic anti-cannabis rant, given at a press conference two days after his deputies gunned down an armed pot dealer in a shootout on the streets of New Orleans:

For those of you too lazy to watch, Normand is incensed that the media is bothering to inquire about the role of his deputies in the shooting, as witnesses reported that the victim, 25-year-old Desmond Willis, fired at officers after he was pulled over:
"We are thinking about decriminalizing marijuana, and we think all of this s*** is going to go away when we do, so, hello?" Normand said. "The havoc it will wreak on our streets will be insurmountable."
Whew, that is some grade-A Reefer Madness lingo right there. Sheriff Normand's bout of eloquent hysteria would've made Harry Anslinger proud. Good thing the CBS news crew in New Orleans did its homework and squashed this uninformed claim where it stood:
"In fact, crime stats in Colorado shows both violent crimes and property crimes are down since pot became legal, and [Kevin] Caldwell [executive director of pro-legalization group Commonsense NOLA] said part of that is because of the jobs and economic boost the marijuana market has created for the state."
Indeed. I live by South Broadway in Denver, near at least a dozen legal Cannabis dispensaries, and the streets are noticeably free of havoc, insurmountable or otherwise. After nearly fifteen years of legal medical marijuana and nearly sixteen months of legal recreational pot, Colorado is decidedly not the crime-ridden, degenerate wasteland that prohibitionists hoped it would be. Regulation works, however imperfect it may be, and it can help prevent deadly black market-related shootouts like the one Normand's deputies were involved in.

It's not surprising that a good-ol'-boy sheriff like Normand blamed Cannabis for the shootout; like the DEA and many other police departments across the country, he views drug-related crime as a symptom of the drug itself rather than of the draconian laws against it. It's pretty simple: pistol-wielding street dealers have no place in a legal, regulated Cannabis market.

Unlike the sheriff - who wondered quite loudly at his press conference "[w]hy are we not talking about the drug dealing!?" - I don't wonder why Willis was dealing pot; the illegal drug racket is an alluring option to those who grow up in a world of poverty, limited or no education, and few other options for making a living.

Instead, I wonder why nobody is talking about the seemingly effortless acquisition of firearms by anyone and everyone who wants them. After all, it was the obvious and deadly threat presented by the firearm, not the pot, that threatened the lives of the deputies and the public, in this case and many others like it.

I wonder if Normand's office has done any investigations into how these drug dealers are acquiring their guns and how the flow might be stopped, or at the very least combated? If anything is causing "insurmountable havoc" on American streets, it is the deadly combination of arcane, simplistic anti-drug laws and an unchecked, and seemingly unscrutinized, underground firearms trade. These two phenomena are responsible for more "drug-related" violence than any amount of pot ever. Our inability to discuss and engage these two huge oversights in public policy is what ultimately provides the impetus for broad-daylight shootouts like the one in New Orleans, which could have very easily claimed the lives of law officers as well as innocent bystanders.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Mapping Cannabis Cultivation Across the American West, c. 1895-1950

Each pin on the following map represents an instance of drug cannabis (Cannabis indica) cultivation in the American West between 1895 and 1950, based on evidence collected from dozens of contemporary newspaper reports. The pins are color-coded according to decade, with instances before 1900 marked by brown pins, 1900-1910 by red, 1910s by yellow, 1920s by blue, 1930s by green, and 1940s by purple.* 

Copyright 2015 by Nick Johnson.

As the dearth of brown, red, and yellow markers indicates (in this view, these markers are mostly obscured by later instances), there are few instances of cannabis cultivation before 1920. This is largely in agreement with the existing scholarly literature on cannabis cultivation in the United States, and the explosion of later instances reflects the influx of Mexican and Mexican American immigrants to the agricultural fields of the West during the first half of the twentieth century. Many of these laborers grew, sold, and dealt in the plant as a recreational and medicinal substance, as well as a cash crop that helped offset meager incomes in the beet fields.

The map is far from finished; I will continually update it as I find new sources for this period, and I will eventually build it out to include the decades between 1950 and 1990 as well.

Though it took a good deal of time to research and put together, this map is still no more than a quick and dirty sketch of where cannabis was cultivated during this time period. The sources for most of these markers are newspaper articles from an online database,; I had to work with the sources available in the database - which, as is obvious on the map - yielded few or no articles from papers in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

As someone who lacks both the time and resources to go galavanting around the great public libraries of the West, this is the best I could come up with. Nonetheless, based on a close reading of the sources I do have access to, I believe the data shown on the map is sufficient to draw a few important conclusions about the spread and purpose of cannabis cultivation across the West.

Some highlights/analysis of the map in its current state:

-A total of 62 instances of cultivation across 5 decades are shown. Most of these were recorded only after a grower was arrested or a patch of plants was found, so the figure of 62 surely represents only a fraction of the cannabis cultivation that actually occurred during that time period.

-A few of these instances may be attributable to wild hemp that sprouted from birdseed, although  I was careful to map only instances where I was confident that the plants were being cultivated by someone. Wild specimens of Cannabis indica produce only small amounts of psychoactive cannabinoids, so a cultivator is needed to produce a marketable drug product.

-The earliest instance of cultivation mapped is a 1895 hemp field near Stockton, California, operated by Syrian immigrants. An article in the San Francisco Call from June 24 of that year describes the farm as a center of production for "large quantities of hashish."

-The earliest instance of cultivation by growers of Mexican descent on the map (it's not clear from the source whether they were immigrants or Mexican Americans) is in 1905 in Redlands, California. The plants were found growing in an "enclosure" at a property where authorities also found a cache of stolen articles. The instance was also reported in the San Francisco Call.

-Many of these instances involved laborers in the sugar beet fields. As such, even with the lack of newspaper reports from other states, it is not surprising that Colorado and California had the heaviest concentration of cultivation instances; those states were the no. 1 and no. 2 sugar beet producers in the nation between 1931 and 1935.

-Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common locations of cannabis cultivation include farms and ranches (20 instances) and gardens and backyards (14 instances). Growers on farms and ranches most commonly hid their crop among corn - a phenomenon that continues to this day - although there is one report of cannabis found amongst an alfalfa crop.

-Other reports of cultivation do not name specific locations, choosing to refer instead to "the Mexican quarter," the "Mexican district," or simply a "patch." Other grow locations include window boxes (1), vacant lots (2), and municipal parks (2).

To get an idea of how drug cannabis cultivation spread across the American West during this period, see the succession of maps below, which show the explosion of reported instances between 1920 and 1950 associated with the spread of Mexican and Mexican American labor across the region:




All maps copyright 2015 by Nick Johnson.

*The one light green marker documents an instance of use by worker in the 1930s, who likely obtained it from a grower in the area.

Sources for this post include articles from The San Francisco Call, Oakland Tribune, Corona Daily Independent, Bakersfield Californian, Daily Heyward (CA) Review Woodland (CA) Daily Democrat, San Mateo Times, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Las Animas (CO) Leader, Salt Lake Tribune, Las Vegas (NM) Daily Optic, Albuquerque Journal, San Antonio Light, Walla Walla Union Bulletin, Centralia Daily Chronicle, Montana Standard, Helena Independent, Billings Gazette, Bisbee Daily Review.

The article on the 1895 hashish farm near Stockton was found in Dale H. Gieringer, "The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California," Contemporary Drug Problems 26, no. 2 (Summer 1999), 7-8.

Friday, February 27, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Chris S. Duvall, "Cannabis" (2015)

Clearly written, comprehensive, and rigorously researched, Chris Duvall's Cannabis (London: Reaktion Books, 2015) is a superb, easily digestable crash course on the history of the remarkably diverse human-Cannabis relationship. As one of the few true scholarly histories of the cannabis plant produced in the last decade, Cannabis clarifies or refutes many of the widely accepted claims about the plant’s origins, dispersal, and history found in a wealth of semi-scholarly works.

But the book is much more than a corrective of existing cannabis literature. Perhaps Duvall’s most important contribution to current conversations about the plant, scholarly or otherwise, is his observation that people’s diverse experiences with the plant, as well as the profound symbolism they attach to it, have shaped, complicated, and confused our understanding of it. This is something that everyone writing or speaking about cannabis should be aware of, yet Duvall, a geographer at the University of New Mexico, is the first cannabis writer to dedicate two entire book chapters to it. Additionally, the book’s framing of the history of cannabis as a plant instead of a drug (perhaps unsurprising, given its inclusion in Reaktion’s Botanical series) helps to push cannabis scholarship in a more honest and valuable direction.

In fewer than 200 pages, Duvall marshals an assortment of sources in several languages to sweep the reader around the world not once but twice; he covers the global use and spread of both primary species of cannabis, sativa (hemp) and indica (drug). One of Duvall’s major contributions here is emphasizing the under-acknowledged African contribution to both the dispersal and naming of the plant, especially in the New World. Noting that “etymologists have barely considered possible African etymologies” for the plant, he explains the term “marijuana”—the most popular official word for the plant today—as being a Spanish mispronunciation of mariamba, a “plural of riamba, meaning ‘cannabis’ in several Central African Languages” (p. 15).

Cannabis is not only the history of a human-plant relationship, but also of how the multiple experiences within that relationship have confounded attempts to understand it. For example, Duvall notes that “what people mean by any Cannabis term is conditioned by their experience with the plant” (p. 25). “Marijuana aficionados,” he notes, routinely use sativa and indica to differentiate between drug plants that produce a stimulating or relaxing high, even though botanically speaking all drug cannabis is indica.  Duvall also emphasizes drug cannabis’s historical association with “labour underclasses,” (p. 155) people whose experiences are often absent from the historical record and thus only scarcely inform current understandings of the human-cannabis relationship.

Importantly, though, Duvall also stresses the role of the plant itself in producing such distorted and incomplete understandings of the plant: “[t]he unusual character of Cannabis—a cosmopolitan genus with two cryptic species and two symbolically charged uses—has strongly shaped how people have generated information about it” (p. 179). Overall, Duvall’s largely botanical treatment of cannabis offers a more complete view of the plant than other histories, scholarly or not, which mostly treat it as a drug.[1]  

Duvall’s Cannabis joins Jim Rendon’s Super Charged (2012) and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (2001) as plant-centric cannabis books written for a broader audience. Yet Duvall’s Cannabis is more comprehensive in its history and more robust in its documentation, and so helps immensely in the important task of re-framing the scholarly discussion about cannabis from drug to plant.

For all its contributions to that scholarly discussion, Cannabis is also brief and highly readable—a remarkable achievement, given the inherent complexity of the plant and the cultures surrounding it. Readers will find that Duvall’s book moves at a brisk and steady pace, riddled with vibrant illustrations and peppered with historical anecdotes integrated so seamlessly that they bely what was surely an excruciating research process.
On account of its accessibility, focus on cannabis as a plant, and upfront grappling with the confusion and myths surrounding the complex human-cannabis relationship, Duvall’s Cannabis is perhaps the most important scholarly work on the plant to date.

[1] See Peter Hecht, Weed Land: Inside America’s Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot went Legit (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); Isaac Campos, Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Martin A. Lee, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational, Scientific (New York: Scribner, 2012); Martin Booth, Cannabis: A History (New York: Picador, 2003); Larry Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1979).