Connoisseurs of Cannabis
April 21, 2007
Katherine Seligman, San Francisco Chronicle
Stephen DeAngelo bent and sniffed deeply over a clump of frizzy purple nuggets in a petri dish, one of eight sitting in the middle of a long refectory table. They were not labeled or arranged in any particular order, although to the experts assembled in DeAngelo's Oakland loft -- "cannabis is my calling," he says -- their identity was no mystery.
"I would describe this as grapey, candy-like, sweet, with a slight undertone of spice," said DeAngelo, a longtime activist and hemp promoter who is now chief executive officer of Harborside Health Center, a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland. He was holding the tasting at home where he could properly and legally -- at least in the eyes of California, if not the federal government -- evaluate some samples. To prepare, he'd taken off his green tweed coat, loosened his tie and settled in a chair near his vaporizer, an apparatus that allows him to breathe vapor instead of smoke, because it's less harsh.
"It is grapey, but I get flowers," said Rick Pfrommer, the dispensary's purchasing agent, as he inhaled a strain called the Purps. "I would use the word pungent. It has a pungent funk undertone."
"It is grapey, with a hearty musty bottom," added Elan, the center's manager, who preferred not to use his last name despite the fact that he, like Pfrommer and DeAngelo, is a card-carrying medicinal user and dispensary member.
DeAngelo arranged the tasting to show how far marijuana has come since the 1970s when, as a common joke goes, there were two kinds of pot, good and bad. These days, especially in the years since California approved medical use, there are too many to count. Harborside offers about 40, each recommended for various ailments and conditions. Sophisticated growers, who can manipulate color and cannabinoids -- pot's active ingredients -- bestow their seeds and strains with exotic names. Some have taken "landrace" or indigenous breeds from Burma, India, Mexico or California and crossed them to create, said Elan, "these crazy strains." Center clients can swap reviews or seek information on the Internet at sites like weedtracker.com (for medicinal users) or newsstands about the burgeoning array of options.
There are glossy magazines and cannabis cups, including High Times magazine's long-standing annual event in Amsterdam where pot smoking is legal. Marijuana guru Jorge Cervantes, author of a "Medical Growers Bible" and probably the closest thing the weed world has to the wine world's Robert Parker, appears in an online High Times video where he talks about his contest judging "system." Seated at a table covered with a white cloth and a few dozen samples spread in a semi-circle, he demonstrates how to squeeze the buds and rate olfactory nuance.
"Some of the fragrances you should look for are sweet, spicy and musty," he says, dressed in a black jacket, a black beret covering his long black hair. "If it's sweet, what's it like? Is it like bubblegum? Is it like honey? ... Is it minty? What does that mean? Is it like a rose? Or a cherry?"
As the quality and variety of marijuana products in pot clubs have grown, so too has an emerging marijuana connoisseurship or, as some call it, "cannasseurship." "I guess," said DeAngelo, when asked about the term after trying several samples, "I'm a cannasaurus." In medical marijuana circles, the treatment potential of a certain strain, whether it produces a "body high" or a "head high" that dulls pain or stimulates appetite, treats pain, nausea, sleeplessness or other ailments, is paramount. But to a distinct and discerning subculture, there is another dimension.
And if there is a center in the United States for this breed of maven, it is California, particularly the Bay Area. In a region of wine and food buffs, where there is a constant quest for the best bread, cheese or olive oil, it's no wonder that marijuana, in its semi-legal status, has become a new frontier for expertise. There are medicinal consumers who covet designer strains and varietals -- such as the one grown and harvested only by women in a remote northern county -- or who want organic products and say they can taste what soil or fertilizer was used and want to know the lineage of what they consume, as well as the expected effects.
"In the Bay Area if you hand a joint to someone, they'll say, 'What kind is that?' "said DeAngelo. "In Wisconsin, they'll just say, 'Oh, thanks ...' It is a great time to be in the cannabis business."
As in any industry, say some insiders, some of this is hype and bluster. Dale Gieringer, California coordinator of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says smoking various strains and being able to tell the difference is "a mystery to me."
"I've been to cannabis cups and I can look at them and smell them and judge on appearance, but when it comes to smoking it's impossible to differentiate [between types]," he said.
Cervantes, who now lives in Spain, says part of the publicity about new strains can come down to "money, money, money" in America. Consumers in Northern California, for example, are crazy about purple strains, he said. In general, they're not as high quality as green varieties, but someone has figured out that "purple sells."
"People try and be bigger and better than someone else and they make a lot of it up," he said in a phone interview. "Since it's not a controlled industry people can use a good story to make money."
And none of this makes any difference to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which doesn't recognize the state's medical marijuana law. Whether it's called White Widow, Sour Diesel or Bubble Berry, grown organically, hydroponically or on Aunt Martha's porch, it's illegal as long at it contains tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana. THC levels have soared since the 1970s as growers moved indoors and learned more botany, going from an average of 2 to 3 percent to as high as 20 percent, according to Greg Sullivan, special agent in charge of the San Francisco field division.
"It's a marketing thing, truly just marketing," he said of dope diversification. "We know they are different strains, like with wines, but we don't analyze that. ... Marijuana is marijuana. They've gotten very good at growing marijuana. It's become an art."
In the introduction of his book "The Big Book of Buds," longtime Bay Area medicinal marijuana activist and writer Ed Rosenthal describes the history of cannabis, from its origination in the foothills of the Himalayas to making its way on caravan routes in Asia and the Middle East and then to Europe and America. There, he says, laws prohibiting marijuana cultivation are what pushed growers to become more skilled as they moved underground. The laws actually "inadvertently promoted a breeding program exceeded by no commercial plant," he says. California's medical marijuana law further pushed the pioneers, turning underground botanists into boutique producers who can market to licensed clubs.
"Marijuana in the last 20 years has undergone an incredible change, more than at any time in history," says Andrew, a landscaper, who only wanted to be known by his first name because he has a "side job" as a gardener for medicinal marijuana patients. "It is in its golden era now ... Marijuana does not look like it did when I was young."
K, another grower, who wants to be identified by his first initial because of security concerns, also has watched the transformation of the marijuana industry. In many ways, he embodies it. At 42, he is the co-owner of Trichome Technologies, a 10-year-old company that produces plants for medicinal clubs, and an award-winning grower who's been voted the best producer in the history of High Times. "I'm not boasting, just stating my credentials," he said when we first spoke.
When we met a few weeks later, he asked if I was surprised to see him, not in hippie or Rasta raiment, but in an ordinary pair of jeans, white tennis shoes and baseball cap. We talked at the Sea Breeze Market & Deli near the Berkeley Marina because he said he couldn't "at this time" show his growing operation, although he has not been shy about his business. A recent High Times spread showcases his high tech warehouse and research facility, with its custom light, exhaust, temperature and irrigation systems.
K traces his fascination with marijuana to his childhood in Napa Valley. "I'm familiar with the wine world and that's why the genetic makeup of things has always piqued my curiosity," he said. "I've always admired George Washington Carver and Luther Burbank."
He started cultivating on his own at 13, he said, when he ordered his first hydroponic kit, the Hydropot. It was not exactly a smashing success, but an endeavor which kept him out of the "perils and pitfalls that befall an average teenager." While his cohorts in middle school were out discovering drugs and alcohol and sex, he was hunkered down at home studying horticulture and botany on his own. Saying he had a green thumb would be an understatement. K couldn't even discard house plants. He still has a philodendron -- named Herman -- that someone scavenged from a funeral 20 years ago and gave him to take home.
He admits he "smoked my crop" in the early years, but only after school and homework. His parents, although not thrilled with his personal science project, respected the fact that he didn't let it interfere with school. He graduated, he said, at the top of his class.
After high school, he continued studying botany on his own, forgoing college to focus on home study of marijuana. "I got my education the hard way," he said. "No mentors, no professors."
He eventually started experimenting with aeroponics, suspending the plants in air instead of in soil. "It was magnificent," he said. "I loved the process. It requires someone who really likes playing with it." Ultimately, however, the system was too complicated.
In the mid-'80s, he continued growing quietly, never becoming a big distributor or seller, but producing "for information." Around him he watched as government surveillance pushed more growers underground and indoors. He was experimenting with variables -- soil, water, light and temperature -- to grow "better, simpler, more efficient." He went from using conventional soil to rocks ("the rock revolution") to rockwool, a substance that looks like cotton candy pressed into tubes and is less time consuming than rock to decontaminate. And he started collecting varieties only available by clone and not by seeds, until he had a dozen different plant clones and 250 seeds varieties. Today he grows all boutique varietals, he said, known for their nuances of color, potency, flavor, aroma and density of flower.
It is the aroma that most intrigues Rosenthal these days. He wants to isolate the odor molecules that produce fragrances in cannabis. These molecules, he said, can have "profound effects on whether it's an up high or a couch lock" and what the marijuana can be used to treat. Different odors in the herb can increase acuity or relaxation, much like aromatherapy, he said. He'd like to develop marijuana stripped of these odor components, then be able to add them back to create products targeted for specific uses.
K's company produces about 10 strains at any one time, but he said he is proudest of something called G13, a type "unique to us," and purple kryptonite ("kryptonite is proprietary too"). What spurs him on is not commercial success, he explained, but the excitement of learning. If he didn't have a crop to check on each morning, there would "be a hole in my soul," he said. As one of the first 300 people to get a medical marijuana card himself, he uses the herb for pain related to sports injuries in his shoulders and knees.
But he has too much to do to use marijuana all the time, he said, returning to how he contradicts the stereotype of the hippie pothead grower. He would rather work, pursue his interest in race cars or play with his English bulldog.
"I dream about being able to map the genomes of each and every variety of marijuana to find out why one is purple or has high THC," Rosenthal added. "To me, it's never been about wanting to make money."
The taste gurus
The viewing ("you have to look at it carefully and lovingly," said DeAngelo) and smelling over, the tasters were ready to begin the penultimate test, tasting. The buzz, of course, is the final quality to register.
"What do we try first?'' asked DeAngelo, surveying the petri dishes.
The group settled on something called Satori. DeAngelo put a pinch in a special grinder with tiny spikes and then loaded the grounds into a small chamber in his Stinel vaporizer, which he calls "the Cadillac of heat guns because of its digital temperature gauge." When he fires up the heat gun, the THC in the marijuana vaporizes, ending up in something that looks like a plastic vacuum cleaner bag. Users inhale the vapor by sucking on a mouthpiece attached to the bag.
"The first thing I look for is how the vapor feels in my lungs," said DeAngelo. "If it's really good, it will expand."
He inhaled and let out the air slowly. "Is it spicy or flat?" he said. "You're looking for something a little spicy. Then I gauge the amount of aftertaste. I think this is spicy, neither sweet nor pungent."
The others inhaled after him and concurred. Next they tried Sour Diesel.
"This is good," Pfrommer said. "Oh my. What a difference." Then he started to cough. "The flavor, it numbs your tongue and lips."
"It's not numbing, it's tingling," said DeAngelo. "I get more citrus notes out of this. With this particular Diesel I can taste the lineage from the citrusy parentage."
Next they sampled some hashish called Mr. Nice, which they inhaled off a hot coal, avoiding the use of a butane lighter.
"Top shelf," DeAngelo and Pfrommer said together.
"It has an incredible exotic taste that evokes oriental carpets and brass chandeliers," continued DeAngelo. Then, turning to his visitors, he added, "This is what we do. We sit around and smoke weed and talk about work."
Elan said he tries to help each patient -- the Harborside Health Center has 3,000 members and about 175 visits a day -- find the right product, either to inhale or eat. Pfrommer chooses the center's pot, arranged in three glass cases and marked to sell for about $35 to $60 for an eighth of an ounce, from a select group of small "vendors." As many as 40 a day, all center members with medicinal pot cards, come to show him their buds or cloned plants, but he buys from perhaps 10 percent of them, he said. He examines each specimen with a scope to look for resin, an indicator of strength and quality -- which under close inspection should look like a dusting of snow. He smells and palpates them to find the best. "The rest leave with advice on how to make their medicine better," he said. "The new generation of younger growers has a lot of energy. The older ones who used to make a living can't do it anymore. I explain how the market has changed, that they need a niche or a strain that people want or they should get another job."
DeAngelo said he sees Harborside, which already resembles a spa, with its high ceilings, turquoise walls, stainless steel cabinets and soft jazz, as a holistic health center. It offers yoga, hypnotherapy and medical qigong and he wants to add acupuncture. A marijuana activist since his teens when he participated in "smoke-ins" in Washington, D.C., DeAngelo said he dreamed of having a state-of-the-art dispensary. And now he has one.
The group eventually worked its way through five samples, then quit because everyone had to go back to work. They were not used to getting "medicated" during work hours, they said. Besides, they admitted, it was getting hard to evaluate the buzz. They were noticeably quieter as the tasting drew to a close. DeAngelo suggested a trip to a nearby Starbucks, hoping the caffeine would help them focus for the rest of the afternoon.
"I have another thought about the development of cannabis connoisseurship," he said as we were about to leave. "It's a classic story of American innovation. Marijuana has been around for thousands of years until it crossed our shores and we examined it and made it better and invented new ways of ingesting it. That's in the mainstream of American values."
E-mail Katherine Seligman at magazine@ sfchronicle.com.