- Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers and the Race for the Cannabis Cup by Mark Haskell Smith published by Broadway Books (256 pages).
WHILE Mark Haskell Smith was doing research for his novel Baked the Los Angeles Times made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
Learning that he was going to be attending the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam they asked him if he would consider covering the world championship of weed for them as well and they would put his findings in their Calendar section.
Accredited as a Times reporter Haskell Smith found his life was immediately that much easier. People who previously wouldn't give him the time of day all of a sudden welcomed him with open arms. His latest book - part gonzo journalism, part anthropological study - takes us deep into cannabis culture and the Heart of Dankness.
North Shore News: How hard was it to get access to the world you write about?
Mark Haskell Smith: A lot of people in that world really liked that article. It was like my golden ticket into that world. The more time I spent with them the more they liked me and so they would open up even more and show me more stuff. That was the one lucky thing, I think, if I had just been some guy saying, 'Hey, I'm writing a book.' 'Yeah books. We don't read books. We only talk to the High Times guys.'
North Shore News: There's a lot of grey areas involved in the various cannabis cultures. Different levels of government all have their own ideas about how to handle things.
Mark Haskell Smith: Everywhere you look there's some grey area. It's so interesting - like in Oakland, California - it's zoned where there are certain areas where marijuana use is the lowest priority for law enforcement and then the Feds swoop in and say, 'Hey, it's our highest priority. Everyone's under arrest.' We'd go to these places in Oakland and people would be pretty much openly smoking. They're medical patients - that's what makes it legal there - but not legal for the Feds. You get all these problems you know where someone is legally growing something in California or Colorado and under federal law it's got mandatory minimums of like 10 years in prison.
North Shore News: Things seem to change all the time. Governments come in and change the rules.
Mark Haskell Smith: They change almost weekly. You can have state law say one thing and then the city changes it and then the local neighbourhood council will rezone.
North Shore News: The similarities between wine and cannabis cultivation are striking. Growing cannabis has become a real art form in some parts of the world.
Mark Haskell Smith: Absolutely. That's one of the things I wanted to show in the book. I talked to those growers in the Sierras and they're actually talking about the soils. The rock has got some minerals that just add a flavour and we're at altitude so the plants have more CO2 coming to them so they grow a little more robustly and because of the high altitude the sun is more intense so they grow more resin around the flowers and leaves because that's a protective thing that the plant does. I could have the same conversation with a vintner in France or the Napa Valley about how the shale and the sea breeze make the Chardonnay superior.
North Shore News: Indica is from cooler climates and sativa is from warmer regions. What level of cultivation is done indoors in greenhouses?
Mark Haskell Smith: I think the majority of the high-end cultivation is all indoors. It's one of the funny things about prohibition. Critics are always saying, 'Oh well, the pot's not what you had when you were in college, it's so much stronger.' Yeah, you know why it's stronger is because you forced everybody to grow indoors where they can really control the environment and the nutrients and the plants can express themselves fully.
North Shore News: Is California mainly outdoors? Does it differ from B.C. in that way?
Mark Haskell Smith: California is a mix. Even the guys I talked to, they do a big outdoor crop every summer but they'll have two or three indoor rooms going all year long.
North Shore News: Mexican cartels control California, local gangs dominate B.C. Has Amsterdam and Holland escaped much of the criminality because of its softer laws?
Mark Haskell Smith: I think so. You know there's some talk among the Dutch government about banning tourists from buying cannabis in the coffeeshops and a lot of people particularly the mayor of Amsterdam, are saying, 'You know we actually got the drug dealers off the streets here and if you ban tourists they're just going to go buy from guys in the shadows along the canals.'
North Shore News: Why are they thinking of changing the laws? Are Amsterdam's laws different from the rest of the country because they're talking about starting with coffee shops as private clubs outside Amsterdam.
Mark Haskell Smith: The genesis of this whole thing is that every Friday and Saturday night, in some of the small border towns, French and German tourists come over the border to stock up for the weekend and they cause huge traffic jams, and finally the people in those towns were like you know, 'I can't even go the local pub because the traffic is so bad.
It's gridlock.' So they decided they had to do something, and the outlying areas are more conservative traditionally, so they actually got this thing to go through but it's just for a couple of little towns. But you know typical conservative overreach they decided let's do this everywhere. Rotterdam and Amsterdam are like, 'You know it's a 400 million euro a year tax base for us so no we are not going do it.' I've heard from some people who are very pessimistic who say it will and other people say it will but it won't last long and other people are saying no it won't ever go through. Or if it goes through it won't be enforced.
North Shore News: Heart of Dankness really brings to life the different personalities involved in cannabis culture. There is a marked difference between the Amsterdam and California people.
Mark Haskell Smith: Mainly because the Amsterdam people are totally legit. They're businessmen, they pay taxes, they have employees, they have human resource people on their staff. They're really able to explore what the plant can do and what combinations of genetics can do with impunity. In the States, and I'm sure it's the same in Canada, you have to lay low and everything is secret. You don't want to get arrested. It just creates different kinds of personalities, I guess.
North Shore News: The Amsterdam guys seem scientific and urban while the California group are primarily rural.
Mark Haskell Smith: The guys in California are mountain men. It is more urban and science based in Holland. Because the government is involved they have a growing facility. They have pharmaceutical grade cannabis that doctors prescribe for people in addition to the coffeeshops. There's people in California who are doing work that's science-based or at least they're trying to. There's a place called Steep Hill Lab in Oakland that's at the cutting edge of that stuff. Just to make sure that if you go into a dispensary with your medical recommendation you won't get something that's got pesticides or some sort of bad chemicals in it. What they do is they have new technology that analyzes cannabis really quickly. Like you will walk in with some bud and they will tell you how much THC it's got, what some of the other cannabinoids are and if it's got any pathogens, molds, mildews or chemical residues. They're saying, 'Look we're treating this as a serious pharmaceutical herb and we want to guarantee safety for everyone. I think they are changing California a little bit.
North Shore News: Are they using the Amsterdam model? Mark Haskell Smith: To a degree they are and the science is actually what a lot of people are doing in California and Colorado because it's all medical, so OK you've got inflamed tendons and a pain in your lower back this will help you more because it's got a high CBD which is an anti-inflammatory and this if you're depressed you want a sativa because it will actually improve your mood. It will give you some energy. They're really trying to dial in what different strains can do. There's one strain if you're starting to have an asthma attack you have a couple of puffs, it's a bronchodilator. It seems counterintuitive but it actually can help.
North Shore News: In contrast Canada's cannabis culture seems more fractured. Like Reeferman out in Moose Jaw.
Mark Haskell Smith: Well, Reeferman you know had a really bad experience with the Canadian government. They threw him in jail and then he had to go to Colombia and Mexico but now he's back. I don't know if it's because of the geography of the country but it seems like a lot of the top growers are in the B.C. area although there are some really good growers in Toronto too, and probably in Montreal as well, I just wasn't exposed to them.
North Shore News: I don't think you ever mention the name of the B.C. grower of Lavender in the book.
Mark Haskell Smith: I didn't know his name and it would
have been hard for me to get permission. I use all fake names for the guys in California even though they didn't want me to. 'You're not going to get arrested because of my book. You can do something stupid on your own.' I suppose I could have found out the guy's name, or woman's name, but then I would have to get permission and then I would have changed it anyway. They'll know who they are.
North Shore News: Franco and the rest of the group in Amsterdam operate out in the open. When they came to Toronto they were very conscious of what they could and couldn't do.
Mark Haskell Smith: And for good reason. They don't want to be flying in and get stopped at the border because they're on a list. They're smart about that first and foremost. Those guys are businessmen.
North Shore News: Closing it down let's consider the big question - what about the legalization of cannabis?
Mark Haskell Smith: For me the bottom line is this: there is just no justifiable reason why an adult can't smoke a nontoxic flower in the privacy of their own home. It's just absurd. The way the laws are now the only winners are the private prison companies and the drug cartels, organized crime.
North Shore News: You'd think if cannabis use was legalized it would have a dramatic effect in some areas of the world - such as Mexico where gang violence is out of control.
Mark Haskell Smith: Even Central American states are getting together. The presidents of Honduras and Guatemala are pro-legalization because now they're getting a huge problem. In Mexico, if you legalize it there are still going to be people growing and selling it, but if it's legal then the police aren't corrupt because you don't have to pay anyone to look the other way. That just changes the whole dynamic of that society and it would be good karma for us to do it.