How Pot Has Grown
By Michael Pollan
The New York Times Magazine, February 19, 1995
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 skill.
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 merits 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 cultivars would be smuggled home with the gardeners, to be planted as part of next 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 he 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. And 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 convicted 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 plants 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 of the 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—no larger than a patio tomato plant and yet fully mature, their stems bending under the weight of buds thick as fists.
While I was examining these specimens, wondering how the feat of miniaturization had been achieved, Brian drifted over to chat. He explained that plants such as these were in all likelihood clones of a modern hybrid strain that had been grown indoors in a completely artificial environment. By manipulating the amount, intensity and even the wavelength 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 densely planted indoor table-top 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 dangerous 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 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 sport-jacketed 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 a new 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 ignited 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 up 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 strain 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 sativa, it was possible to produce hybrids that combined the most desirable traits of both plants while playing down their worst. The smoother taste and what I often heard described as the “clear, bell-like high” of a sativa, for example, could be combined with the hardiness, small stature and higher potency of an 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 indica—was born.
Beginning in 1982, the D.E.A. launched 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 home-grown actually doubled from 12 percent in 1984 to 25 percent in 1989, according to the 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 develop a more potent product. “Law enforcement makes large-scale production difficult,” explains Mark A. R. Kleiman, a drug policy analyst who worked in the Reagan Justice Department. “So growers had to figure out a way to make a living with a smaller but better-quality crop.” In time, the marijuana industry came to resemble a reverse image of the automobile industry: domestic growers captured 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 the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Before programs like CAMP”—the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, which targeted outdoor growers in California from 1982 to 1985—”you almost never heard about indoor grass.”
The move indoors sparked an intensive period of research and development, including selective breeding for potency, size and early harvest, and a raft of technological advances aimed at speeding photosynthesis by manipulating the growing environment. Gardeners also learned how to clone their best female plants, thereby removing the unpredictability 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 artificial conditions. Near 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 independently in the States and in the Netherlands and then sharing what they’d learned, 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 increases 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 little 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 joint. 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 an hour 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-middle-class 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 experiment.” 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, B-Skunk x NL5.
Brian’s first crop of seedlings died after his little brother, worried the police would put his parents in jail, poured a bottle of Brut after-shave 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 gardens. In October, they harvested their first crop, manicuring the buds according to the instructions in the book and hanging them 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 heavy-duty pot and it caused some serious problems—at least one accident that I knew about. But I 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 sauna in one of their homes. 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 his notes on a Macintosh computer equipped with an encryption program) and noted that the purple-haired plant was also one of the earliest to flower and heaviest yielding. It also turned out to be the most potent.
Brian brought his “Potomac Indica” with him to college, where the response of his classmates convinced him that “what I had was very special.” Now working independently, he rented a house off campus and equipped 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 delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is the principal psychoactive compound in marijuana. According to the D.E.A., the THC content of marijuana during the 70’s was between 0.5 and 2 percent; the average for indoor-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 also now 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 marijuana-growing franchise in towns up and down 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 B-Skunk x ST4 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 of the convention, growers gathered in the main hall for a panel discussion covering some of the finer points of the Sea of Green. Picture a university lecture hall in a dream by Cheech and Chong. Although the panelists—Wernard and two other growers—started out as somber and technical as botany professors, over the course of their presentations 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 audio-visual 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 ask 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 bio-grown marijuana; he claimed that hydroponic marijuana had a harsher, more chemical taste. Arjan, the owner of a popular coffee shop, pointed out that hydro yields 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 need 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 much exactitude. 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 marijuana 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 undertook 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 set up 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 plot of 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 all other 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 a necessary response to “a rapidly escalating problem.” The report claimed that marijuana 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 estimate. 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 E. 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 come 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 located in 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, four-color 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 a variety 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 man-made, reclaimed from the North Sea (the recent flood notwithstanding) by dint of effort and technology. Cursed with little sunlight and even less space, the Dutch have also had to master 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 that—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 set up 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 E-mail 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 a walk-in 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 six-foot table was invisible beneath a jungle of dark, serrated leaves oscillating 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 in perfect 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 was out. 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.