September 28, 2007
The Sea of Green
From this 1995 article by Michael Pollan on marijuana cultivation, a fine illustration of the whack-a-mole absurdity of drug prohibition:
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."