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The State Of The Art In Horticulture.
A Crime Punishable By Life Behind Bars.
By Michael Pollan
In a rented hall on the outskirts of central Amsterdam, a couple of
hundred American gardeners gathered over a holiday weekend not long ago
to compare horticultural notes, swap seeds, debate the merits of various
new hybrids and gadgets and, true to their kind, indulge in a bit of
boasting about their gardens back home.
Gardeners talking the back-fence talk of gardeners everywhere, except
that these gardeners happened to be criminals. Sunday afternoon's panel
discussion had just adjourned, and gardeners were milling in small knots
among the potted marijuana plants that dotted the room like ficus trees
in a hotel lobby. Brian R, a grower in his 20's who is originally from
Washington and now lives in the Netherlands, was showing off a bud from
his garden, pointing out its exceptional "calyx to leaf ratio." With his
oversize glasses, basement complexion and a taste for the kind of button-
down short-sleeve shirt that usually keeps company with a plastic pocket
protector, Brian looked more like a computer programmer than a gardener.
But then, the most sophisticated marijuana gardening today takes place
indoors, where technological prowess counts for as much as horticultural
Brian noted proudly that his bud had been produced under a 600 watt
sodium light in 60 days, a fact that clearly impressed a beefy older
gardener from Florida. "Would you just look at that bud structure," the
fellow said, drawing me closer. The bud looked like a lump of hairy,
desiccated animal scat. "See how tight it is? All those crystals?
That's one very pretty little bud."
The gardener from Florida passed it under his nostrils, appraising it
like a cork. "I'd say this man clearly knows what he's doing." Brian
smiled broadly and offered his new friend a taste. Now trading
impressions gleaned from a joint the size of a small cigar, the two
gardeners fell headlong into an arcane discussion of light levels and
cellular cloning, proper curing technique and the relative merit of
Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.
I think of myself as fairly knowledgeable gardener, but I was lost. The
occasion was the Cannabis Cup, a convention, harvest festival and
industry trade show sponsored by High Times magazine and held each year
over Thanksgiving weekend in Amsterdam, where the cultivation and
possession of small amounts of marijuana, while technically illegal are
tolerated. On the first floor of the Pax Party House, a catering hall and
meeting center in a residential section of the city, panels convened each
afternoon to discuss the latest trends in marijuana horticulture and
review developments in the hemp fiber industry. Upstairs in the
exposition hall, hundreds of convention goers strolled past booths
displaying high-tech gardening equipment, marijuana seed catalogues and
wholesale lines of hemp clothing & hemp foods and hemp cosmetics.
Multiply the number of booths, pump in large quantities of marijuana
smoke and the scene might have been the Jacob Javits Center, thronged
with pushy exhibitors rehearsing their pitches, handing out samples,
writing up orders.
Things got very mellow in the evenings, however, when the delegates
assembled in the main hall for comparison tastings of new hybrid strains,
ultimately casting their votes for the world's best marijuana. Seeds of
the winning cultivators would be smuggled home with the gardeners, to be
planted as part of n ext season's crop. I had come to Amsterdam to meet
some of these gardeners and learn how, in little more than a decade,
marijuana growing in America had evolved from a hobby of aging hippies
into a burgeoning high-tech industry with earnings that are estimated at
$32 billion a year.
That makes it easily the nation's biggest cash crop. Unlike corn ($14
billion) or soybeans ($11 billion), however, modern marijuana farming
depends less on soil and sunlight than technology, allowing it to thrive
not only in the fields of the farm belt but in downtown apartments and
lofts, in suburban basements and attics, even in closets.
Fewer than 20 years ago, virtually all the marijuana consumed in America
was imported. "Home grown" was a term of opprobrium, "something you only
smoked in an emergency," as one grower old enough to remember put it.
Today, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the people assembled in
this hall, as well as to the Federal war on drugs, which gave the
domestic industry a leg up by protecting it from foreign imports and
providing a spur to innovation, American marijuana cultivation has
developed to the point where the potency, quality and consistency of the
domestic product are considered as good as, if not better than, any in
the world. In an era of global competition, the rise of a made-in-America
marijuana industry is one of the more striking, if perhaps least welcome,
economic success stories of the 1980's and 90's.
Domestic growers now dominate the high end of a market consisting of at
least 12 million occasional users; on Wall Street, in Hollywood, on
colleges campuses, consumers pay $300 to $500 an ounce for the re-
engineered home-grown product, and even more for the "connoisseur"'
varieties grown by the kind of small sophisticated growers on hand for
the Cannabis Cup. Peering through the haze at the conventioneers milling
in the Pax Party House, Brian R declared in a tone of deep reverence,
"There are a lot of true pioneers in this room."
HOME GROWN GROWS UP
A bit of historical perspective, by way of a confession: Not only did
your correspondent once inhale but, like a great many other gardeners
(and nongardeners) of my generation, I also once grew.
It was more than a decade ago, and in a very different time. Only a few
years before, in 1977, President Carter had endorsed decriminalization of
marijuana and even the Drug Enforcement Administration was entertaining
the idea; 10 states, including New York, had already taken that step,
though mine, Connecticut, was not one of them.
My own experience growing pot was a fiasco. In my backyard, I'd planted a
couple of seedlings sprouted from some "Maui Zowie" given to me by my
sister's boyfriend. Within months, my avid weeds had ballooned to the
size of small trees, rendering them uncomfortably conspicuous. The plants
continued to grow at an alarming rate right into fall, though for some
reason they refused to flower. This didn't greatly trouble me, however,
since in those days people still smoked marijuana leaves. (When I
mentioned this quaint practice to Brian, he roared with laughter.
Nowadays, only sinsemilla, the seedless bud of a female plant, is
considered worth smoking; all the rest, called "shake," is usually thrown
out.) My days as a marijuana farmer ended abruptly one October morning,
when a fellow delivering a cord of firewood happened to let drop that he
was the police chief of a neighboring town, this while standing in my
driveway, a single well-aimed glance away from my 12-foot marijuana
plants. I managed just barely to steer him off the property before the
spotted them. Immediately thereafter, I harvested my first and last crop:
a couple of pounds of leaves that I literally could not give away.
What had been a mildly humorous close call in 1980 (for all my paranoia,
I risked little more than a fine and some embarrassment) would be
distinctly unamusing in 1995. Today, the penalty for the cultivation of a
kilo, 2.2 pounds, or more of marijuana in the state of Connecticut is a
five year mandatory minimum sentence. Like most states Connecticut
rewrote its drug laws during the late 1980's to impose heavy new
penalties for marijuana crimes, but Connecticut's are by no means the
harshest: in Oklahoma, cultivating any amount of marijuana can result in
a life sentence.
A jail time is not the only penalty I would face were the police chief to
find a couple of pot plants on my property today. Regardless of whether
or not I was ultimately convic ted of any crime, his department could
seize my house and land and use the proceeds in any way it saw fit: a new
cruiser, a pay raise whatever.
This is America in the time of the drug war. A relatively little-known
aspect of that war is that many Federal and state laws have been
rewritten to erase the distinction between marijuana and hard drugs like
heroin and cocaine, on the Reagan-era theory that the best approach to
the drug problem is "zero tolerance." Today, the Federal penalties for
possession of a hundred marijuana plant and a hundred grams of heroin are
identical: a mandatory 5 to 40-year sentence, without chance of parole.
An American convicted of murder can expect to spend, on average, less
than nine years behind bars.
Many Americans, perhaps recalling the legal and cultural climate of the
70's, wrongly assume that marijuana has not been an important front in
the drug war. Yet under the crime bill passed last summer, the
cultivation of 60,000 marijuana plants is an offense punishable by death.
Nowadays, marijuana is seldom grown on that scale; pot farming is by and
large a cottage industry in which a thousand plants would be considered a
big grow Even so, there are more than 30 people in the country serving
life sentences for the crime of growing marijuana.
With so much more at stake, the techniques of growing marijuana, as well
as the genetics marijuana plant itself, have been revolutionized in the
last 10 to 15 years, as one glance at the potted marijuana plants on
display in the convention hall made plain. Apart from the familiar leaf
pattern these plants looked nothing like the plants I had grown. They
looked more like marijuana bonsai larger than a patio tomato plant and
yet fully mature, their stems bending under the weight of buds thick as
While I was examining these specimens, wonder how the feat of
miniaturization had been achieved, Brian drifted over to chat. He
explained that plants such as these were in all likelihood of a modern
hybrid strain that had been grown indoors in a completely artificial
By manipulating the amount and intensity of the light the plant received,
the carbon dioxide content of the air it breathed and the nutrients
supplied to its roots, a skillful gardener can foreshorten the life cycle
of a marijuana plant to the point where it will produce a heavy crop of
flowers in less than two months on a plant no bigger than a table lamp.
Several dozen such plants can be grown in a square yard Brian told me.
His own current garden in Holland contained 100 plants in an area
slightly more than six feet square, smaller than a pool table. This sort
of dens ely planted indoor tabletop garden is known among growers as the
"Sea of Green" and it represents more or less the state of the art in
marijuana horticulture. I asked Brian if I could pay a visit to his
garden. He put me off, growing commercially is danger ous even here. But
I could see he was tempted; most gardeners are showoffs at heart. "Let me
talk to my roommate."
TO THE SEA OF GREEN
Without a doubt, one of the pioneers in Brian's The secret garden: A
densely planted "Sea of Green" flourishes in an anonymous apartment
industry is Wernard, the proprietor of a leading marijuana garden center
in Amsterdam. Now a professorial looking fellow in his 40's, Wernard was
present at the creation of the Sea of Green, working with expatriate
American growers (and their seeds) to perfect the indoor cultivation of
marijuana. On Saturday afternoon, he offered a packed hall of gardeners ,
a surprisingly eclectic group that included, besides the expected array
of aging and aspiring hippies, several middle-aged farmers, grad students
and even a few sportjacketed retirees, an informative slide lecture on
its history and development. What is perhaps most striking about the
recent history of marijuana horticulture is that almost every one of the
advances Wernard covered is a direct result of the opening of anew front
in the United States drug war. Indeed, there probably would not be a
significant domestic marijuana industry today if not for a large-scale
program of unintentional Federal support.
Until the mid 70's, most of the marijuana consumed in this country was
imported from Mexico. In 1975, United States authorities began working
with the Mexican Government to spray Mexican marijuana fields with the
herbicide paraquat, a widely publicized eradication program that igni ted
concerns about the safety of imported marijuana. At about the same time,
the Coast Guard and the United States Border Patrol stepped up drug
interdiction efforts along the nation's southern rim. Many observers
believe that this crackdown encouraged smugglers to turn their attention
from cannabis to cocaine, which is both more lucrative and easier to
conceal. Meanwhile, with foreign supplies contracting and the Mexican
product under a cloud, a large market for domestically grown marijuana
soon opened u p and a new industry, based principally in California and
Hawaii, quickly emerged to supply it. At the beginning, American growers
were familiar with only one kind of marijuana: Cannabis sativa, an
equatorial stain that can't withstand frost and won't reliably flower
north of the 30th parallel.
Eager to expand the range of domestic production, growers began searching
for a variety that might flourish and flower farther north, and by the
second half of the decade, it had been found: Cannabis indica, a stout,
frost tolerant species that had been cultivated for centuries in
Afghanistan by hashish producers. Cannabis indica looks quite unlike the
familiar marijuana plant: it rarely grows taller than 4 or 5 feet (as
compared to 15 feet for some sativas) and its deep bluish green leaves
are rounded, rather than pointed. But the great advantage of Cannabis
indica was that it allowed growers in all 50 states to cultivate
sinsemilla for the first time. Initially, indicas were grown as
purebreds. But enterprising growers soon discovered that by crossing the
new variety with Cannabis was possible to produce hybrids that combine
the most desirable traits of both plants while toning down their worst.
The smoother taste of a sativa, for example, could be combined with the
hardiness, small stature and higher potency indica.
In a flurry of breeding work performed around 1980, most of it by
amateurs working on the West Coast, the modern American marijuana plant,
Cannabis sativa x indi ca, was born.Beginning in 1982, the D.E.A.
Iaunched an ambitious campaign to eradicate American marijuana farms. Yet
despite vigorous enforcement throughout the 1980's, the share of the
United States market that was homegrown actually doubled percent in 1984
to 25 percent in 1989, according D.E.A.'s own estimates. (The figure may
be as high as 50 percent today.) At the same time, D.E.A. policies
unintentionally encouraged growers to delvelop a more potent product.
"Law enforcment makes large-scale production difficult," says Mark A. R.
Kleiman, a drug policy analyst in the Reagan Justice Department. So
growers had to figure out a way to make with a smaller but better
In time the marijuana industry came to resemble a reverse of the
automobile industry: domestic growers the upscale segment of the market
with their steadily improving boutique product while the street trade was
left to cheap foreign imports.The Reagan Administration's war on drugs
had another unintended effect on the marijuana industry: "The Government
pushed growers indoors says Allen St. Pierre, assistant national Director
of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Before
programs like CA, Campaign Against Marijuana Planting targeted outdoor
growers in California from '82 to '85,"you almost never heard about
The move indoors sparked intensive research and development, including
breeding for potency, size and early harvest and a raft of technological
advances aimed at speeding photosynthesis by manip ulating the growing
environment. Gardeners also learned how to clone female plants, thereby
removing the unpredictablity inherent in growing from seed. All these
developments coalesced around 1987 in the growing regimen known as the
Sea of Green, in which dozens of tightly packed and genetically identical
female plants are grown in tight quarters under carefully regulated
At the end of his lecture, Wernard flashed slides of several such gardens
he'd tended: green seas of happy looking dwarf plants holding aloft
enormous buds that elicited actual oohs and ahs from the gardeners in the
audience. As Wernard was quick to acknowledge, authorship for the Sea of
Green belongs to no one horticulturist but rather to hundreds of
gardeners working in dependently in the States and Netherlands and then
sharing what they'd often in the columns of High Times and Sinsemilla
Tips, a defunct quarterly that many growers refer to as "the bible." By
1989, their collective efforts had yielded exponential increas es in the
potency of American marijuana and earned the grudging respect of at least
one D.E.A.agent, W. Michael Aldridge, who told a reporter on the eve of
yet another crackdown (this time on indoor growers): "I hate to sound
laudatory, but the work they've done on this plant is incredible.
A BRILLIANT CAREER
Located in the red-light district directly across the street from a
police station, the Greenhouse Effect is one of the 400 coffee shops in
the Netherlands that serve marijuana. The place is littl e more than a
dimly lighted corridor decorated in the Santa Fe style, with a cozy bar
in the back. In addition to fruit drinks and snacks and an alarming
looking psychoactive pastry called "space cake," its menu offers a dozen
different kinds of marijuana and hashish, sold either by the gram or the
The Greenhouse Effect is one of a handful of Amsterdam coffee shops that
carry Brian's product, and one afternoon he agreed to meet me here to
talk about his career. Brian showed up for our appointment a half anhour
late (few of the people interviewed for this article were ever on time),
carrying the plastic shopping bag that serves as his briefcase. While we
sat at a cafe table sipping soft drinks, a selection of his buds laid out
between us in Tupperware containers, Brian retraced the path that had
brought him to Amsterdam from an upper middleclass childhood in a suburb
of Washington. The oldest son of two doctors, Brian was a member of his
high school's math and computer club when he began growing marijuana in
1986, though it was a friend in the drama club who got him started.
The friend had been complaining about the price of marijuana, something
Brian had never seen before, much less smoked. "I said: 'Wait. This is
a plant, right?' He says: 'Yeah, but it won't grow here. I've tried.'"
Brian was already a gardener, he raised tomatoes in his parents' backyard,
and growing marijuana seemed like an interesting challenge. "It was
something to get me out of the computer club, put me on a slightly
different level." He tracked down a growing manual at an adult bookstore
in D.C. and soon figured out that his friend had probably been trying to
grow an equatorial sativa, when only an indica could be expected to flower
in Maryland. "Now I was on a mission. I wanted to get the right seeds."
His mission took him to a performance by the Grateful Dead, whose
concerts served in the 1980's as informal trading posts for the new
indica hybrids being developed on the West Coast. Brian located the seeds
he wanted, but he found the sight of so many Dead Heads strung out on
drugs deeply unpleasant. "It left me with a bad taste about the whole
Disgusted at the scene, he made a point of changing the names of the
seeds he bought ("hippie dippy names like 'Purple Flower Power'") to the
more scientific system of letters and numbers he uses today: ST3, PB#3,
BSkunk x NL5. Brian's first crop of seed died after his little brother,
worried the police would put his parents in jail, poured a bottle of Brut
aftershave over them.
Deciding he'd better move the operation out of his house, Brian recruited
a couple of kids from his Hebrew school class ("I thought I could trust
them a little more than the kids in my high school") and together they
planted a string of backyard garde ns. In October, they harvested their
first crop, manicuring the buds according to the instructions in the book
and hanging therm to dry in one of the partner's attics. Many indicas
exude a powerful, skunky smell and the parents quickly discovered the
marijuana. "They told us to get it out of the house," Brian said. "So we
moved the grass out to the shed with the lawn mower, which was good
enough for them.
It was like saying you were kosher even though you had Chinese food in a
refrigerator out in the garage." Since Brian still had no interest in
smoking marijuana ("I was the farthest thing from drugs ever"), he sold
his share of the harvest, clearing several thousand dollars. "More money
than I'd ever seen in my life. I felt very elated and slightly guilty at
the same time."
Elated because his product was so popular it soon made a local name for
itself and guilty because he knew some of it was finding its ways into
the hands of young kids. "This was heavyduty pot and it caused some
serious problems, at least one accident that I knew about. ButI didn't
know how responsible I was, because at the time I still hadn't smoked the
stuff. "As we talked, a modest parade of customers made its way to the bar
to purchase marijuana,some for takeout, others to smoke in. Even now,
years after becoming a smoker, Brian is careful not to romanticize the
drug. "Smoking anything isn't good for you," he says, "and smoking
marijuana makes you stupid." Certainly the convention floor at the
Cannabis Cup provided several cases in point, including one badly wasted
fellow who introduced himself to me on five separate occasions, always
with the same line: "I'm a smoker 32 years, living proof this weed
doesn't damage you." But Brian's disdain for drugs yielded before his
fascination with the intricacies of growing and then breeding marijuana,
something he soon discovered he had a talent for. Investing $1,000 of the
proceeds from their first crop in a mail order hydroponic growing system,
Brian and his partners set out 100 plants in an unused sa una in one of
Brian soon noticed that one of the plants was very unusual: it had dark
purple stamens and a smell that overpowered the garden. He kept
scrupulous records on each plant (storing in his notes on a Maciintosh
computer equipped wit h encryption program)and noted that the purple one
was also one of the flower and heaviest also turned out to the most
potent. Brian brought his "Potomac Indica" with him to college, where the
reponse of his classmates convinced him that what "I had was very
Now working indepently, he rented a house off campus and equiped it with
a sophisticated growing system. Through a process of trial and error,
Brian learned how to clone his Potomac Indica and more or less stumbled
on the Sea of Green method for growing it. Through selective breeding,
Brian developed several new strains, including one that he claims tested
at 14 percent THC; THC, or delta9 cannabinol, is the principal
psychoactive compound in marijuana.
According to the DEA the THC content of marijuana during the 70's was
between 0.5 and 2 percent; the average indoord grown sinsemilla today is
between 8 and 10 percent. Brian's new strain was as potent as anything on
the market. By his junior year, Brian had a thriving business but his
grades were suffering. He was now also a smoker. "I said, 'O.K., you can
do well in school or you can do well with the growing. 'I made the wrong
decision, I think."
Brian dropped out of college in 1989 and turned professional. He opted
for a highly decentralized operation, setting up a series of gardens in
rented houses and apartments throughout the Washington area. Potomac
Indica soon acquired a reputation. Brian reinvested his profits in the
business eventually building what amounted to a growing franchise in
towns up and the Eastern Seaboard. In each region, Brian would select a
local partner, set him up with equipment and clones, instruct him in the
intricacies of the Sea of Green and then make regular on site
consultations in return for a percentage of the profits.
Brian says he put 250,000 miles on a new car visiting grow rooms, exactly
how many, he wouldn't say, spread out over a 1,200 mile stretch of
interstate 95."I did well with the growing," Brian offered, as he
delicately minced a bud of his BSk with a pair of nail scissors and rolled
a filtered joint. "The quality of my life has been one of extreme
paranoia, however." On the third afternoon the conventioners gathered in
the main hall for a panel covering some of the finer points of the Sea of
Picture a university lecture hall by Cheech and Chong. Although the
panelists, Wernard and two other growers, started out as somber and
technical as botany professors over their presentions they rolled and lit
up a succession of huge joints and these eventually took their toll. By
the end of the session, a cloud of marijuana smoke had spread out over
the room, forcing me at one point to slide down off my chair in search of
a vein of cool, non psychoactive air. For audiovisual aids, there were
slides and potted cannabis plants on-stage that the lecturers occasionally
referred to with a pointer.
It was all a little surreal, never more so than when Wernard mentioned
his company's policy of requiring all employees to be marijuana smokers.
It fell to an American in the back of the room to asked the inevitable
question: "Do you make them take urine tests?"
The topic before the group was "Bio Versus Hydro." According to Steven
Hager, the editor of High Times, "a great schism" has opened between the
increasing number of indoor gardeners who grow in soil, often
organically, and those who stand by chemical based hydroponic methods.
Wernard made a strong case for the superior quality of biogrown
marijuana; he claimed that hydroponic marijuana had a harsher, more
chemical taste. Arjan, the owner of a popular coffeeshop, pointed out
that hydroyields were far greater. Even so, he acknowledged that in a
taste test he had conducted among his patrons, bio had enjoyed a slight
edge: of 810 smokers, 83.14 percent expressed a preference for bio,
compared to 81.4 percent for hydro. No one seemed to notice that the
percentages added up to a lot more than 100;evidently the respondents
felt very positively about both samples in the test.
I was surprised that, in the course of a two-hour panel discussion on
marijuana growing, the subject of potency received relatively little
attention. "People may not see much stronger grass at this point," Brian
later suggested. "So growers are concentrating on other qualities, taste,
variety, esthetics. "Many of the conventioneers I talked to could discuss
the distinctive qualities of various marijuanas with the passion and
inventiveness of wine connoisseurs. Even the unsmoked buds were closely
examined and intently sniffed, this one admired for its rust colored
stamens, that one for the "notes" of citrus or nutmeg in its bouquet.
During the convention, I met a burly Manhattan dealer and law student who
was eloquent on the subject of marijuana taste. When I asked his
impressions of a new variety that had won a Cannabis Cup award, he praised
its pronounced "Afghani" taste.
"Afghani is a big heavy smoky taste, really rich," he elaborated. "But it
has what I think of as a 'pinpoint effect.' Swirling around inside that
big taste is something else, something sharper and thinner. The best way
I can describe it is by analogy. You're familiar with Ben & Jerry's
chocolate swirl? Well, it's got this great big overpowering chocolate
taste, but then within that taste you get the counterpoint of those
fine swirls of fudge. That's the pinpoint effect."
He described the mental effects of the winning variety with almost as
It produced a "rapid, enveloping high," he said, yet it had all the
clarity of a fine sativa. Connoisseurs will often characterize a
particular variety by situating it on a spectrum of marijuana highs
ranging from the distinctly physical, narcotic effects of the archetypal
indica to the comparatively stimulating, cerebral effects of a sativa.
By manipulating the proportion of sativa genes to indica genes, breeders
can design strains with precisely the effects they seek. Brian
distinguishes between "blue collar" and "white collar" marijuanas.
Customers who do physical work for a living "want to put their feet up at
the end of the day and smoke a big, heavy indica," he told me an urban
professional might prefer something more "uppy."
Connoisseurship of this order tends to complicate one's view of marijuana
as a drug, especially when you think about the sort of bootleg product
Prohibition is remembered for, just about anything with alcohol in
it, some of it poisonous enough to blind or kill. Interestingly, most of
the pot smokers I met expressed distaste for pills and white powder
drugs and disdain for their users.
Marijuana connoisseurship suggests that, at least in this particular
corner of the "drug culture," the accent is as much on the culture as it
is on the drug.
THE INDOOR DRUG WAR
Few recent trends in the marijuana industry can be fully understood
without reference to an event known among growers as "Black Thursday":
Oct. 26, 1989.
That was the day the Bush Administration officially began Green Merchant,
the first organized offensive in the drug war to take direct aim at
indoor maniuana growers, and not only growers but also the legitimate
companies that supplied their equipment and the publications that
supplied much of their know how.
Along with a new Federal law that for the first time imposed mandatory
sentences based on the number, rather than weight, of plants seized (5
years for 100 plants, 10 years for 1,000), Green Merchant radically
altered the rules by which indoor growers operate. Six years later, the
industry is still adapting to the new environment.
A D.E.A. agent named Jim Seward conceived Green Merchant in 1987 while
thumbing through a copy of High Times. As he told a reporter in 1989, the
magazine "just seemed to be a middleman in a dope deal." By that time,
the indoor marijuana industry was so large and well established, and so
easy to enter thanks to the mail order equipment stores and seed
companies advertising in High Times and Sinsemilla Tips, that the
Administration felt compelled to act.
In the last week of October 1989, the D.E.A. raided hundreds of indoor
growers and dozens of retail garden supply stores in 46 states, seizing
equipment and customer lists. Virtually all the stores targeted by Green
Merchant had advertised in High Times or Sinsemilla Tips, and the raids
scared off enough advertisers to push Sinsemilla Tips out of business.
Using customer records seized from the grow stores, as well as 21,000
additional leads that the D.E.A. says it obtained from the United Parcel
Service, law enforcement agencies under took investigations of thousands
of indoor growers, who soon discovered they weren't as safe in their
homes as they'd assumed. Now merely ordering garden supplies from the
wrong company could bring drug agents to your door, as scores of African
violet and orchid fanciers have been astonished to discover.
With the names and addresses of tens of thousands of suspects now in
hand, law enforcement agencies developed a large appetite for indoor
marijuana busts. "Marijuana growers are easy targets," Allen St. Pierre
of Norml says. As criminals,many of them are docile and amateurish,
leaving behind a trail of U.P.S. records and credit card receipts as they
setup their gardens; once established, a marijuana garden is much easier
to find than any white powder drug operation and arresting officers are
far less likely to encounter resistance.
Another powerful incentive is the asset forfeiture rules, which were
liberalized during the drug war to allow agencies to keep the proceeds of
whatever they seize. Since the crime of growing marijuana is by its very
nature tied to a particular place, a house and a plotof land, seizing the
assets of pot growers is particularly easy. All these factors help
explain why, according to NORML, there were more arrests in 1994 for
crimes involving marijuana than for allother illicit drugs combined.
I was curious to know how the D.E.A. explained its priorities, but the
agency did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. However, in
a recent internal report, entitled "California Cannabis Cultivation:
Marijuana in the 90's," the agency defended Green Merchant, and its war
on marijuana generally, as anecessary response to "a rapidly escalating
The report claimed that mari1uana was a "gateway drug" leading to the use
of more serious drugs; that THC posed "potential health hazards," which
the increasing "quality and quantity" of domestic marijuana were making
even worse, and that chemical runoffs from marijuana farms posed a
threat to the environment. "There is good scientific reason," the report
concluded, for "grouping marijuana with other very serious and harmful
drugs." Whatever the rationale, the war against marijuana is expensive, as
much as $1.7 billion in criminal justice costs each year, by one
And that fact, sooner than any shift in the ideological climate, is what
could prove its undoing. In an era of shrinking government budgets,
locking up nonviolent drug offenders becomes harder to rationalize.
Last month, Gov. George P Pataki of New York, looking to slash
government spending,proposed relaxing the state's mandatory minimum
sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, some of whom may even be
released If they aren't already, marijuana growers should probably be
voting Republican, since Republicans alone have the financial incentive,
and the political cover, to reassess the costs and benefits of the drug
war they started.
Like D.E.A. campaigns before it, Green Merchant failed to close down the
marijuana industry, but it has altered the way it operates. One response
to the post-Green Merchant environment was Brian's: to decentralize
operations, keeping each grow room as small as possible, ideally, fewer
than 100 plants. As Brian reasoned, even if one garden were raided,
others would continue to generate cash for a defense. In the wake of
Green Merchant, growers also began paying attention to such mundane
things as "effluents", especially odors and heat, and kilowatt hours,
since judges will now issue warrants to search houses emitting unusual
amounts of heat or consuming large amounts of electricity.
By 1991, Brian felt he "was sitting on top of a very large time bomb."
Friends had also begun to tell him he was wasting his life. But what
Brian most wanted was to be legitimate, not to give up growing and
breeding marijuana. So he sold his gardens, told his parents about his
secret life ("I was excommunicated") and moved to Amsterdam. Here, he
joined a community of emigre Americans that revolves around the culture
of marijuana in much the same way earlier communities of emigres in
Europe sprang up around avant garde literature or painting while awaiting
acceptance at home.
At least that's how some of them choose to see it. Marijuana growers are
almost touching in their faith that America will soon com e to its senses
and legalize their trade. Prohibition, so quickly recognized as folly, is
their great sustaining myth.
INTO THE CYBERGARDEN
On my last day in Amsterdam, Brian took me on a tour of his expatriate
world. The community's epicenter, its La Coupole, is the C.I.A.:
Cannabis in Amsterdam, a combination shop, gathering place and hemp store
locatedin a large second story loft a short walk from Central Station.
The afternoon Brian and I dropped by was the last day of the Cannabis Cup
and Americans were lining up to buy seeds to take home.
Tiny and odorless, marijuana seeds are not difficult to smuggle. With
their glossy, fourcolor photographs and extravagant promises, the
catalogues they consulted might have been published by Burpee. I asked
Adam Dunn, one of the two Americans who run the C.I.A., what had been his
big sellers that week.
Hindu Kush had sold out, he said, and AK 47 was moving briskly, even at
$30 a seed.
(The 47 refers to the number of days till harvest.) Everybody was also
asking for avariety called Bubble Gum, which smells more like Bazooka
than marijuana, making it one of the safest, that is, least detectable,
indoor varieties to grow. Next, Brian suggested we stop by Positronics,
Wernard's garden center, where Brian occasionally shops.
Positronics is a sleek, sprawling showroom and factory, offering the
indoor grower everything from specially blended and aged organic soil
mixes to state of the art carbon dioxide systems and a selection of
clones, robust four-inch tall marijuana plants sold in peat pots for
$3 to $6 apiece.
Wernard escorted us through a warren of white tiled rooms where employees
working in a small assembly line cut, trimmed and rooted clones,
producing several thousand each week. Watching the gardeners at work in
their windowless cubicles, deftly transforming one plant into a dozen
over and over again, I understood why the Netherlands had become such an
important model for indoor marijuana growers. Horticulture in Holland has
always been a matter of artifice, of forcing nature in every sense.
Almost all of Holland's farmland is manmade, reclaimed from the North Sea
(the recent flood not withstanding) by dint of effort and technology.
Cursed with little sunlight and even less space, the Dutch have also had
to mast er the art of indoor growing, of, essentially, combining large
quantities of electricity and chemical fertilizer with the best plant
genetics available to create gorgeous flowers, picture perfect tomatoes
and now, some of the world's most refined marijuana plants.
Sipping tea in Positronics' gleaming showroom, Wernard and Brian fell to
talking about the future of their industry. Both agreed that the Sea of
Green was here to stay, though there was still room for improvement,
particularly in the areas of safety (with more sophisticated effluent
controls) and yield. Wernard claimed that yields of 800 grams per square
meter, already attainable by top growers using carbon dioxide,will soon
be routine and that advances in genetics could add another 150 grams to t
hat, almost a kilo of sinsemilla every two months in a space no bigger
than a phone booth.
Perhaps the most important advances in marijuana cultivation involve
computerization, which promises to revolutionize growing and vastly
complicate the work of law enforcement agencies. Over dinner, Brian
limned his vision of the ultimate post Green Merchant grow room: the
cybergarden. Sensors will monitor the five important environmental
factors (light, water, humidity, carbon dioxide levels and temperature)
and feed the information to a personal computer. Using solenoid switches,
a so-called "smart interface" and a bit of customized programming, the
computer can track and automatically adjust all these variables, either
according to a preset program or to instructions typed in by the
gardener. Add a modem and a remote access program,and the grower can tend
his garden from anywhere in the world.
I was skeptical; it sounded a lot like the kind of rococo fantasies that
pot smokers have always liked to spin, in this one, the 60's drug culture
joins forces with the 90's hacker culture to outwit a common enemy. But
Brian referred me to a recent series of articles on computer gardening in
High Times and The Growing Edge, a magazine for legal high-tech growers
(published by the former publisher of Sinsemilla Tips), that described
similar setups. He also told me about a company in New Hampshire where, I
later confirmed, one could purchase both the hardware and software needed
to setup exactly the kind of cybergarden Brian had outlined. Brian also
talked about incorporating security features in his garden: a motion
detector and a "Mayday" program that would dial his beeper number in the
event of a security breach, bringing the news never to return.
But wouldn't the police be able to trace the gardener through information
on the computer? Not if the data stream were sent through a remailer
first, Brian explained. Remailers are anonymous mail drops that computer
hackers have set up on the Internet, untraceable Email addresses where
one can send or receive encrypted data. An article in the October High
Times offered plans for a similar security system, adding one diabolical
twist. By incorporating a computer virus like Viper or Deicide in the
system, the computer could be programmed essentially to self destruct as
soon as it detected a security breach and alerted the gardener,rendering
it worthless as evidence.
High Times describes cybergardening as "an exciting technology that has
raced far ahead of ethics, law enforcement and government and corporate
control." Indeed. The technology will make it possible for a grower like
Brian to tend his franchise gardens from the safety of a computer in
Amsterdam; theoretically at least, he would need to visit the grow room
only to plant and to harvest. In the future, the D.E.A. may find the
gardens but not the gardeners.
A GARDEN TOUR
On my last night in Amsterdam, Brian finally consented to let me visit
his garden. Evidently the gardener's reflexive exhibitionism had
triumphed over the outlaw's professional discretion. I remembered
something Allen St. Pierre of Norml had told me: that the most common way
for a grower to get caught is by boasting about his garden. He had shown
me snapshots of prize plants that gardeners had mailed to Norml, sometimes
in envelopes marked with return addresses.The garden was in a working
class village half an hour north of Amsterdam. On the train, seated next
to his plastic shopping bag, Brian explained that one of the reasons he
chose to grow in this particular town is that it is home to a candy
factory, a bakery and a chemical plant; together, they produce a
cacophony of odors that overwhelms the smell emanating from his garden,
important since the Dutch police sometimes raid marijuana gardens.
Brian also talked excitedly about his plans for the future, which include
a legitimate seed company that will specialize in strains of medical
marijuana geared toward specific ailments. "The same strain that helps
glaucoma patients might not be the best one for polar disorders,and vice
versa," he said. The week before, Brian had told his parents of his
business plans, and their reaction had been positive. "After five years,
I'm finally getting recognition from my family," he had told me earlier.
Evidently, the two doctors and their son the marijuana grower had
reconciled. "I'm going to be helping people."From the station, we walked
through a tightly packed development of tiny cookie cutter houses pressed
up against the street. The Dutch shun curtains,and each gleaming picture
window presented a diorama of Dutch life, illuminated by the glow of a
television screen. We came to a modest, gambrel roofed house and Brian
showed me upstairs. At the end of a dark, narrow and hopelessly cluttered
corridor, he opened a tightly sealed door. I was hit full in the face by
a blast of searing white light and an overpowering stench: sweaty,
vegetal, sulfurous, sickening.After my eyes adjusted to the light,
I stepped into a windowless room not much bigger than d a closet, crammed
with electrical equipment, snaked with cables and plastic tubing and
completely sealed off from the outside world.
More than half the room was taken up by Brian's Sea of Green. The sixfoot
table was invisible beneath a jungle of dark, serrated leaves oscilla
ting gently in an artificial breeze. There were a hundred clones, each
scarcely a foot tall but already sending forth a thick finger of hairy
calyxes. A network of plastic pipes supplied the plants with water, a
tank of carbon dioxide sweetened their air, a ceramic heater warmed
their roots at night and four 600 watt sodium lamps bathed them in a
blaze of light for 12 hours of every day. During the other 12, they were
sealed inperfect darkness. The briefest lapse of light, Brian noted
gravely, could ruin the whole crop. There was nothing of beauty here in
this cramped chamber, and yet to a gardener there was much to admire.
I don't think I've ever seen plants that looked more pleased, this
despite the fact they were being forced to grow under the most unnatural
of circumstances, overbred, overfed, overstimulated, sped up and pygmied
all at once. "More!" the marijuana plants seemed to say, sucking up the
carbon dioxide, gorging on the fertilizer, throwing themselves at bulbs
so hot and bright I finally had to look away. In return for a regimen of
encouragement few plants have ever known these 100 eager dwarfs would
oblige their gardener with three pounds of sinsemilla before the month
Thousands of dollars worth of flowers.It was all a little bit mad, and
yet a gardener couldn't help but be impressed, even as I counted the
minutes before I could politely make my exit and draw an ordinary breath.
Only later, on the train back to Amsterdam, did I fix on what may be the
maddest part of all: that the credit for this most dubious of
achievements belonged not only to the gifted, obsessed gardener and his
willing plants but to the obsessions of a Government as well.
From New York Times Magazine - February 19, 1995
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