With legalization finally here, and the stigma of using cannabis diminishing, I’m not incriminating myself to confess I’ve been growing my own for decades. Even though this ancient herbal medicine has been around in most cultures for millennia, the evolution of what is now viewed as a huge agribusiness is very recent. This is a brief history as I perceive it. I’ve had the privilege to witness this progression from early on.
I grew my first plant as a teenager in our backyard. My parents were liberal-minded and my mother had a green thumb and offered advice. It was my first experiment in growing anything. Keeping the plant alive was straightforward with a little direction from my mom. The end result on the other hand was poor at best. Acquiring seeds was easy, there were literally hundreds of them in every bag. Unfortunately it was impossible to duplicate the conditions of the countries the seed came from. It was a lose-lose and everyone who attempted grew what was known simply then as homegrown – Yuk.
It’s hard to believe now, but pre-mid 80’s there was very little documented information for anyone that had any experience in cultivating this non-native plant in Canada. The only thing available was imported brown crap. Any pothead over 45 will confirm it was weak, full of twigs and seeds, and tasted like mouldy hay.
Was it really that bad? In retrospect yes, but no one knew the difference. Technically the plant wasn’t as bad as the growers and handlers were. You see, those farmers in those undeveloped countries knew about as much as a Canadian teenager in the suburbs when it came to the horticultural techniques of breeding, growing, manicuring and curing pot. The only advantage was they usually had a longer growing season. It was still just a hardy cash crop, growing in a field by a peasant farmer, baled like hay and shipped on a boat. It tasted mouldy because it usually was.
It was the Dutch who revolutionized cannabis cultivation. Being, in my opinion, the best botanists, horticulturalists, gardeners and innovators in the world, they researched, experimented and took it to the next level. They gave it the respect it deserved. They literally domesticated a wild plant that grew in many temperate and sub-tropical parts of the world. The first thing they did is realize that the female plant flowers have the most active ingredients and flavour. They also found if it was unfertilized and therefore seedless it was even better. Except for breeding purposes, they got rid of, or isolated the useless males. Secondly they figured out that light duration played a significant role. They noticed that with 18 hours of light the plants grew vigorously – under 12 they slowed down and went into flower. 2 short months later the fruiting buds were ripe. They also quickly figured out that if they grow indoors under lights they could force a plant into doing what they wanted it to do, in a controlled environment.
The Netherlands’ climate, similar to western Canada’s was not really suited for the available strains of this plant outdoors. They also discovered that different strains reacted differently to these cycles depending on their origins. It is believed that Cannabis originated from Central Asia – Indica, adapted to cooler northern climate and seasonal light cycles of northern India; Sativa on the other hand, from the drier middle east had less fluctuating cycles being closer to the equator. A common misconception is that Cannabis likes the tropics. Wrong. The light cycles there are too constant, the humidity too high and the pests unmanageable.
There is a third unrecognized strain – ruderalis, that has adapted and hardy in areas not suitable for either of the former ones. It is day neutral and is unaffected by light cycles. This is what is better known as hemp and had already naturalized North America as a bonafide weed. Farmers were encouraged to grow it to supply material such as canvas and rope for the war efforts. After prohibition it became invasive and wild.
With this new found botanical knowledge, the Dutch travelled the world collecting seeds from places that had been growing this herb for centuries. These pioneer growers could now modify their indoor growing conditions and cross breed all 3 species and dozens of varieties into hundreds (and now maybe thousands) of hybrids. They bred mostly for potency (THC) and quickly doubled and even tripled the strength. Flavours and taste that come through as turpines were modified to create spicy , fruity or ammonia undertones. Clones were made of the best ones and given catchy names such as Skunk #1 for its smell, Juicy Fruit for its taste, Northern Lights for its hardiness or Durban Poison reflecting its origins. Coffee shops openly marketed these new potent strains to the world’s tourists. The open-minded and business-savvy Dutch, proud of their horticultural talents turned a blind eye to the use of this still illegal, recreational drug. Seed companies began distributing, a few how-to books were published and hydroponic equipment became available. The domestic cannabis industry was born.
It didn’t take long for these seeds and these new techniques to make their way to North America in the luggage of hippies and stoners. The hip areas of Northern California and Oregon were also suitable for some of these strains to perform well outdoors. With a little extra breeding and mixing in a little ruderalis these varieties acclimatized to more northern areas. The Cannabis wave reached BC in no time. There they also combined the horticultural knowledge of the Dutch with cheap hydro, and infused some California strains to perfect the legendary BC bud both indoors and out. Vangroovy became Vansterdam.
The medical marijuana movement, and the research debunking harmful effects and supporting its usefulness in treating many diseases, was what truly paved the way for legalization.
Once the Supreme Court granted legal access to this medicine, the floodgates burst wide open. Anyone with almost any ailment could now get a doctors prescription. In city centres, dispensaries became more abundant than coffee shops. Legalization became inevitable. The government wanted in on that tax revenue. Conservative white collars, generally opposed to the subculture, quickly became the big investors. The Mom and Pop operations are being eliminated. Sound familiar?
You might ask what this hidden activity has to do with local farm culture?
Pemberton with its favourable growing conditions has long been a hot spot for outdoor growing. Many legal medical licences and even more illegal grow ops have existed for years. The infusion into our local economy has been immeasurable yet substantial. With warehouse factory producers in Squamish, Whistler and two huge ones coming on line in Pemberton, Cannabis is set to become sea to sky’s largest agricultural product. A recent start up , Whistler Medical Marijuana just sold for $175 million!
While in theory, legalization, in my opinion, is a step in the right direction, I question the corporate factory farming business model. The very people that established this economy are being replaced by shareholders, and workers in lab coats. It’s over-priced, resource-intensive, often heavy in chemicals, unsustainable and treated as a commodity. If you want to support this business model, that’s your choice. I’m surprised that Whistler /Pemberton has not embraced retail recreational Marijuana yet. I won’t be a customer just like I avoid fast food, but it needs to be readily available for any adult just like alcohol. There also needs to be a local, organic, homegrown paradigm shift to counteract this generic approach. Why support an inferior product when most of the profits leave the community? This is exactly what happened to the food industry. The shift to local and organic took time and I’ve seen that progression as well. There is hope.
In a way I will miss the adventure of guerrilla-growing my secret patch of personal in the bush. Luckily each household will now be able to legally grow 4 plants. Hopefully a new homegrown renaissance will occur. We now have the knowledge and the strains to be self sufficient. If you can grow tomatoes on your deck, you should be able to grow marijuana. After all it’s just a weed. If you would like any info on starting your own legal plants email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I know a thing or two and can set you up with the right strains.