(NEW YORK TIMES) On the Road to the Cannabis Cup

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Get well soon, Thom.

The author Mark Haskell Smith also has an excellent little marijuana travelogue, called Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup. (Never new this much about the infamous Neville, who created Neville's Haze.)

Currents | Q&A
On the Road to the Cannabis Cup

By STEVEN KURUTZ
Published: April 18, 2012

It may not be celebrated like roses or orchids, but marijuana is a flowering plant all the same, with a community of growers dedicated to its propagation (and boosting THC content). Each November, the best of them gather in Amsterdam for the High Times Cannabis Cup, a kind of taste-off for the stoner set. The author Mark Haskell Smith holds a bud of Jack Herer marijuana.

“It’s a couple of hundred strains of the world’s best marijuana,” said Mark Haskell Smith, whose new book, “Heart of Dankness,” published by Broadway Books, delves into the subculture of high-end pot cultivation.

Mr. Smith visited hippie growers in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, large-scale greenhouses in the Netherlands and medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles. As someone who writes that he grew up smoking “Kansas dirt weed,” Mr. Smith finds today’s lab-refined strains, with names like Habañero Haze and Kosher Kush, to be a mind-bending botanical advancement. A Californian, Mr. Smith obtained a doctor’s recommendation to smoke pot legally under the state’s medical marijuana law, even testing out his green thumb. “I actually grew two plants in my driveway in these microfiber pots,” he said. “One got attacked by caterpillars, but the other turned out pretty good.”

He recently discussed more accomplished pot growers and parsed the difference between sativas and indicas.

Could an amateur backyard grower win the Cannabis Cup?

It would be hard to be competitive. People are going to the hills of northern India to find land-raised pure-genetic strains they can take back to Holland. They do it professionally and at a very high level. But we are talking about flowers, so every now and then you could find some rare strain that’s really amazing.

Do top growers generally have degrees in botany or biology, or are they self-taught?

It’s almost all self-taught and from experience. But then you’ll be in some guy’s pickup and see a botany textbook from the University of California, Davis. They’re always looking for an edge.

What unites the best growers is they are all botanical connoisseurs. The attention to detail is amazing. They can walk into a roomful of plants, find one, smell its bloom and know that it’s special.

Does that botanical connoisseurship extend to, say, a rose garden or a vegetable patch?

The guys I met in the Sierras also grow vegetables. When they find something they like, they go all-in. One of the growers I write about, Crockett, is as fanatical about smoked BBQ ribs as he is about pot.

You probably encountered some offbeat methods among growers.

There’s a guy in Holland named Soma who believes that if you’re growing to make money, you’ll send money vibes into the plant and the plant won’t thrive.

My favorite was vegan cannabis. Just like vineyards, the best growers go for biodynamic organic soil. They use a lot of earthworm castings. Now there are people who won’t use anything that came from an animal. They’re using only other plant materials like kelp to fertilize.

Could you tell the difference?

No. Of course not.

Could you give a quick 101 on the cannabis plant?

It’s an annual. It’s super hearty: it can grow in equatorial jungles and in the mountains. I wouldn’t plant it for an ornamental garden — they get very big. But they are kind of pretty, and the thing that’s amazing about fresh blooming cannabis is they smell great. There are citrus notes and mint notes, and they kind of smell like a ripe pineapple sometimes.

Is today’s pot stronger than the stuff smoked at Woodstock?

It’s not considerably stronger. When you talk to old-timers, they’ll tell you they were smoking sativas from Mexico, which is the pot that makes you energetic and loquacious. But a lot of growers switched to indicas, which are easier to grow. That’s the kind that makes you sit on the couch and eat a bunch of chips. It’s the difference in being high and being stoned.

What was it like to tour an industrial growing operation in Holland?

My impression was that it would be some secret lair, but it’s just a giant greenhouse. It’s like visiting a winery: “Oh, that’s how they make it.” It’s nice to see it out in the open. Even more fun was to go to a coffee shop in Amsterdam and get a menu and talk to a waiter. It made me wish things were like that in America.

Aren’t the dispensaries here creating a pot renaissance?

Absolutely. Because the dispensaries are looking for varieties of flavors and effects, there’s a market for growers to experiment. On the other hand, you could have a federal agent show up at your door and put you in jail for 10 years for gardening.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 19, 2012, on page D2 of the New York edition with the headline: On the Road to the Cannabis Cup.

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Real Tea, Real Party.

Smugglers and criminals, the kind that made America great, once.

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