A miniature version of Eden grows in Chris Duback's deep-Southeast Portland basement. But there is trouble in paradise.
Visitors wouldn't notice the danger. Everything in this small, white-walled room looks fantastic. The 1,000-watt metal-halide lights and two-headed sets of 100-watt fluorescent bulbs shower 18 marijuana plants with a downpour of artificial light. The blaze makes every shade of green glow with radioactive intensity.
The plants seem happy. This is pampered, boutique dope, rooted in calcium-rich dirt imported from Australia. Their tidy green plastic buckets bear the trademark of Monrovia, a national yuppie-chic garden-supply company. Today, though, this verdant, Zen-tidy cannabis colony faces potentially mortal threats—threats that have nothing to do with cops or prosecutors eager to stamp out Demon Weed. No, Duback's problems are botanical.
"I've got myself a little fungus outbreak there," Duback says over the soothing whir of an electric dehumidifier. "And—ooh." He stoops over one plant and gently turns over one serrated leaf. "There's a little spider mite outbreak here."
The underside of the leaf is speckled with tiny white spots.
"It's an ongoing battle," Duback says. "If I neglected this for 72 hours, I might as well cut my plants down."
Invaders. Parasites. Bloom cycles. Feeding and watering schedules. Electrical wiring. Security. Airflow. Genetics and crossbreeding. Flavor. Aroma. Potency....
These are the concerns Duback tangles with during the 90-day artificial growing cycle he imposes on his cannabis plants. "It is a wizardry thing," he says. "That aspect of it is a great motivator. It really does inspire."
One thing he doesn't need to worry about is the law, because—at least as far as the state of Oregon is concerned—his little THC factory is as legal as Sunday school. Duback is a registered medical-marijuana grower; he supplies three patients, who help cover his expenses with small donations. Duback is just one of 6,190 growers (sometimes called "caregivers") who provide Oregon's more than 12,800 medical-marijuana cardholders with their state-approved medicine.
Oregon voters just said yes to medical marijuana by a landslide in 1998. Today, the otherwise-verboten plant is used to treat a variety of ailments, including AIDS, cancer, spasms, glaucoma and chronic pain. Of course, no pharmacy will sell you an ounce. So the task of growing Oregon's medical crop falls to independent gardeners like Chris Duback.
Duback happens to be among the best: His marijuana wins prizes at the annual Oregon Medical Cannabis Awards. He is part of a whole new class of Oregon farmer: a sub-subculture of gardening nerds, freelance pharmacologists, pro-legalization activists and good Samaritans. They are openly allowed to grow, study and attempt to perfect the nation's most illicit crop.
And like other forms of agriculture, medical marijuana cultivation is becoming of interest to Oregon's political leaders. A bill just introduced in the Legislature would pave the way for a state-run experimental garden, to help the medical-marijuana community solve the drug's mysteries.
"I'm told there are something like 250 varieties of cannabis, and they all have their special efficacies," says Sen. Bill Morrisette, the Springfield Democrat sponsoring the as-yet-unnumbered bill. "It would be great for someone to study them."
Besides the OMC Awards and the legislative attention, a whole array of resources is springing up to serve Oregon's green thumbs. Growers can enroll in classes ("Making Medical Grade Hashish"), trade tips in online forums and kibbitz at packed monthly meetings in Portland. Gardeners have access to a genetic treasure trove of cannabis strains—distinct varieties, ready for creative crossbreeding—mostly for free.
Meanwhile, firsthand reports suggest that some of the marijuana grown by people like Duback is very, very good indeed. Crops are small and handcrafted; the law's restrictions keep the profit motive largely out of the picture.
"It's like the difference between microbrew and Anheuser-Busch," says one national marijuana-rights activist. "In Oregon, you have individuals or little groups caring for small gardens. The attention to detail creates a better product by far."
So—are you ready for artisanal weed?
The craft of medical marijuana cultivation is a far-flung subject, but the airy, 5,000-square-foot offices of The Hemp & Cannabis Foundation are a good place to start. The national nonprofit is based just off East Burnside Street in inner Southeast Portland. It provides would-be patients a chance to talk to sympathetic doctors. And it is here that registered growers can take classes like "Advanced Gardening" and "Administering Medical Marijuana Safely."
Paul Stanford, a soft-spoken 46-year-old, is THCF's executive director, and one of the George Washingtons of Oregon's medical-marijuana system. He also helps grow some prize-winning bud.
In 1985, Stanford—an Army vet who went to Olympia's structure-light Evergreen State College after the service—rented a Portland house, ripped out the floor, broke open the foundation and dug deep trenches for his first indoor crop. He learned his techniques from some legendary local masters. John Sajo, for example, had his signature growing style published in High Times as "the Jaso Method." An author named Jorge Cervantes lived in Portland while working on the soon-to-be-legendary Indoor Marijuana Horticulture.
"That was my bible," Stanford says now.
Throughout the '70s and '80s, the Northwest was a hotbed of cannabis research and development. "All that work was done by underground pioneers," Stanford says. "A lot of them found themselves persecuted."
Stanford himself nearly landed in federal prison for cultivation and possession in the late '80s. His close-shave trial prompted him to give up gardening, if not pro-hemp activism. Two years after he helped lead the charge for 1998's historic Measure 68 (see sidebar, page 20), he founded THCF, and it now operates in five states. (According to public records, the nonprofit took in over $350,000 in 2004, mostly by charging fees to patients who see doctors at the foundation's offices.) The foundation also grows marijuana for about two dozen patients.
The foundation employs a couple of gardeners to tend its crops. One of them, writing under the name The Medicine Man, published a how-to article called "The Pot Whisperer" in the latest issue of High Times. Some of their methods are striking even to a non-gardener.
"A friend of ours has a tortoise," Stanford says. "A big tortoise. And the manure from that tortoise—it was very productive for these plants."
Even though humans have grown cannabis since the dawn of agriculture, scientists are only now coming to grips with the dynamic between talking primates and the ugly herb. Not to get all intelligent-design or anything, but we are ideally wired for marijuana use. Our brains are laced with a network of chemical receptors that bond specifically with cannabinoids, the plant's various psychoactive compounds. (THC is marijuana's best-known active chemical, but there are others.)
That "special relationship" helps explain why therapeutic uses of marijuana date back thousands of years—and why major pharmaceutical companies are currently racing to invent and market cannabis-based prescription drugs.
Because cannabis plants are either male or female, it's very easy to create new hybrid strains. In the '70s, illegal growers crossbred two subspecies, Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa, which diverged thousands of years before. The result was an explosion of more potent, more exotic and more complex new hybrids.
"All of our plants originally come from the black market," Stanford says. "When the program first started, there was no other source. We wanted to get the best, so we sought out those Afghan strains—the skunky ones. Now, though, the breeding process can take place openly. Caregivers can get together and exchange cuttings. The quality and variety have increased over time."
It may not be exactly wh at a young Paul Stanford had in mind when he was organizing Reefer Madness screenings at college campuses. But, he says, it's all pretty remarkable. "This is the first time since cannabis was outlawed in the '30s that any of this has become possible."
It is both somewhat disappointing and very telling that during the month I spent reporting this story, nobody offered to get me high.
Oh, my face came within inches of the—what do the kids say?—dankest marijuana I've seen or smelled. At December's Oregon Medical Cannabis Awards, I sat next to a vacuum-seal canister packed with tiny, sample-size Ziploc bags. At one point, I was surrounded by hundreds of people partaking.
But no one—not Chris Duback, not "The Medicine Man," not "Sister Sativa," another pot whisperer I met at the awards—tried to "broaden my mind," so to speak. That highlights a paradox of Oregon's medical-use laws: They created the most law-abiding marijuana-based subculture ever.
Illegal weed is, of course, mammoth. A December report in the pro-legalization Bulletin of Cannabis Reform estimated U.S.-grown cannabis's value at $35 billion, which would make it the nation's largest cash crop. The same report estimated Oregon's contribution to that total at about $2.6 billion, or more than 7 percent.
The medical growing community, in comparison, is tiny. Growers are allowed to cultivate up to 24 plants for every patient they serve, but only six plants can be mature enough to harvest at a time. Patients technically own the marijuana throughout the growing process. While growers can collect money to cover their expenses and time, the weed itself can't be bought or sold. In practice, that means medical gardens tend to be frugal, semi-pro operations.
Oregon's growers want to draw a bright line between themselves and illegal dope farmers. And that's a challenge—in part because of public perceptions.
"People always want to treat us like we're a joke, but this isn't a game," says Madeline Martinez, executive director of the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "People are in pain. If they can't work through a legitimate system to get what they need, what do they do?"
Martinez herself is both a cardholder and a gardener. At NORML-sponsored events, she maintains a presence that combines den mother, civil-rights firebrand and drill sergeant. She helped steer 2005's legislative reforms allowing bigger gardens—through Oregon's Republican-run state House, no less. Now, she and other activists want to push for the proposed state-run experimental garden. (Other legislators and a spokesman for Gov. Ted Kulongoski declined to comment, saying they haven't yet read Morrisette's bill, which would direct the state's Department of Human Services to study the possibility of a garden. Martinez, for one, sees money for such a project coming straight out of the Oregon medical marijuana program itself. Patients must pay fees when they register, and the program runs a six-figure surplus.)
Such ambitions make legitimacy key.
"We make sure everyone follows the rules at our events," Martinez says. "If someone makes trouble, we call the police. And the police come, walk right through the event, past all this medical marijuana, and throw the people out. We're above board, and we want to keep it that way."
The fifth annual Oregon Medical Cannabis Awards were held in December in a drab building next to Portland's Convention Center. The event was as notable for its banality as its oddity.
Yes, the Awards are the only major non-clandestine cannabis competition in the United States. And yes, 28 different strains were evaluated for flavor, aroma, potency and other qualities, with prizes in every category. The judges—all cardholding patients—filled out elaborate score sheets, complete with Wine Spectator-style comments ("A very pine-like smell...").
And yes, you could see a Buddhist monk line up behind a NASCAR-dad type in a camo ball cap to buy tickets to a raffle for a glass bong autographed by Tommy Chong.
Mostly, though, the Awards comprised a businesslike tradeshow and buffet banquet. The biggest prizes were reserved for the strains determined to pack the most potent medicinal punch.
The idea is to figure out which strains work best for particular illnesses. Prizewinners are quickly disseminated through the growers' network.
The festivities also give people whose pride and joy grows in basements and behind high fences a moment of quasi-celebrity. During the tradeshow, I met a man named Bobby B., a towering, gray-haired Vietnam vet. Bobby B. grows Sellwood Thunder, a venerable Portland strain featured in High Times twice. He handed me a business card. A photo on the card's reverse side showed Bobby posing by a luxurious green bush. The front of the card read: "Look for Bobby B.'s new hybrid, Thunder Jack."
"I started growing Sellwood Thunder because it was known for being rich, full-bodied herb," Bobby B. told me. "But most importantly, it had low smell, so it was hard for cops to detect. There would be times that you couldn't even get a crop in because of law enforcement.
"Now, everything's changed. I would say we have some of the best growers in the world here in Oregon, doing it legitimately. I still grow the same way I grew 20 years ago. But now I can show people what I do."
On a cold January afternoon, the Mount Tabor Theater is a DEA agent's vision of hell.
The dim, cavernous old nightclub on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard is packed with more than 200 medical-marijuana cardholders and growers. (The monthly meeting always draws a capacity crowd.) As soon as the place is full, the front doors are locked. An inferno of joints and pipes erupts. Within minutes, a dense fog of aromatic smoke fills the club's high, arched ceilings.
The meeting is primarily a networking opportunity. Would-be gardeners hook up with patients in search of suppliers. Old men hobble behind walkers; electric wheelchairs slowly navigate the crowd. Pale, drawn faces suck avidly at pipes. A chair-bound woman rolls past, her hands shaking so badly she can barely slide a tiny baby cannabis plant into a brown paper bag.
A long table holds a veritable bazaar of midget starter plants, free for the taking. Blueberry God sits next to a "Hawaiian/KGB cross." The strain called Medicine Woman, which won the overall championship at this year's Awards, is going fast. (Medicine Woman's developer, a near-legendary Eastern Oregon grower named Dave Verstoppen, gets a huge ovation later.) G13, Mango, Cush, Shibah, Juicy Fruit—the genetic variation on display puts the Westminster Kennel Club in the shade.
A young guy who introduces himself as "Reverend Rob Remedy of the Church of Cognitive Therapy" is passing out a strain called Alien Trainwreck.
"Trainwreck is from Texas," Reverend Rob explains. "It's a 50-50 cross between a sativa and an indica. It's used for pain relief and sleeplessness, Crohn's disease and other digestive problems. The indica gives a narcotic, drowsy-making effect, so Trainwreck is really good for cancer patients and people with low appetites.
"Now, Cali Mist—that's the polar opposite. It's a pure sativa, so it's really good for anxiety and depression. Sativas in general give a more cerebral, up, happy high." (Word to the wise: Marijuana is not approved for insomnia, anxiety or depression in Oregon.)
Other states, of course, have approved medical marijuana in various guises. But Oregon's particular laws encourage this kind of open exchange of information (and plant DNA) in a way other states do not.
"In Washington state, you probably would never see an event like this," says Dominic Holden, a member of NORML's national board of directors in town for the meeting. "Under the law there, medical use is just an affirmative defense, so you can still be arrested and have your life ruined, even if you're acquitted. People would be extremely reluctant to assemble like this. In California, the medical gardens are huge. You don't see this hands-on feel."
As the meeting approaches its smoke-choked conclusion, I run into The Medicine Man, full-time gardener for The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation and author of the growing treatise just published by High Times. He's an intense, focused guy in his 50s.
"I can't say we're better or worse than anyone else," he says of Oregon's legalized pot whisperers. "But I can say that techniques we've developed here have come a long way, and so have the strains. And we're continually trying to improve."
Chris Duback keeps his emerald-green Medical Cannabis Awards trophy (he took second overall in 2003) on an end table in his immaculate living room. The ribbon he won this year hangs from the frame of the door between his dining room and kitchen.
Duback supports himself through a jack-of-all-trades career: construction and (yes) gardening jobs, property management, hauling firewood, whatever. To see him in his basement garden, though, is to know that his true calling is encoded in the beguiling chemistry and life cycle of the cannabis plant.
Like other Oregon medical marijuana growers, Duback is proud of helping his patients. He's happy the law is on his side. Most of all, though, he seems hungry for the horticultural "wizardry" he practices downstairs to be recognized as a contribution to the greater good.
"We're legitimate in the eyes of the law, but there's a lack of legitimacy at the dinner table," he says. "I've had people in my life who are like, 'Oh, there's this terrible thing about Christopher, and it involves marijuana.' It really should be, 'Oh, there's this great thing about Christopher. And it involves marijuana.'"
"A lot of people are involved in some pretty major criminal activity, and they're using state law to traffic in drugs." So said a federal Drug Enforcement Agency spokeswoman in the Los Angeles Times last week, after agents raided 11 medical-marijuana "dispensaries" in Los Angeles.
The raids enraged local officials and underscored the political tensions surrounding medical marijuana and the significant differences among states that embrace it.
Twelve states have approved some form of medicinal marijuana use. California was the first in 1996. In Oregon, after two decades of unsuccessful legalization proposals (one would have allowed pot sales at state liquor stores) and fights about just how decriminalized marijuana should be, voters approved medical use by a 55-45 margin in 1998.
The feds don't recognize any legitimate medical use of marijuana, leading to a cold war of sorts between the DEA, the Food and Drug Administration and the states. The dispute sees occasional hot flashes: In addition to the L.A. raids, a cannabis-advocacy group in Everett, Wash., was busted last week.
Meanwhile, states have very distinct laws. Since voters approved medical marijuana, Oregon has amended its rules to be more specific on how patients and growers must register and how much marijuana can be cultivated and possessed. Other states aren't as clear, or provide less oversight and protection. Washington, for example, does not maintain a state registry of qualified patients—its law only exempts doctor-certified patients from state prosecution (provided their possession is under a certain limit) if they're arrested.
In California, large, quasi-commercial dispensaries (or "collectives") dominate cultivation. Some provide marijuana to hundreds of patients and grow thousands of plants. According to Madeline Martinez of Oregon NORML, California dispensaries often charge high prices (and skirt laws against selling medical marijuana). That's one reason, she says, for Oregon to create a state-run garden: In addition to testing different strains, a publicly owned garden could guarantee a permanent source of low-cost "medicine."
Oregon requires patients to state the address where their marijuana will be "manufactured or produced." The names and addresses of patients and growers are confidential under medical privacy laws.
The Hemp & Cannabis Foundation maintains an extensive website at thc-foundation.com. Footage from the popular public-access TV show Cannabis Common Sense is available at the site.
Jorge Cervantes' website is marijuanagrowing.com. His latest book, Marijuana Horticulture: The Indoor/Outdoor Medical Grower's Bible, currently enjoys a five-star rating on Amazon.com.
This story's brief account of cannabis's pharmacology and its recent horticultural history relies heavily on journalist Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire.
Commercial cannabis-based drugs include Marinol, a synthesized THC capsule prescribed to counter weight loss and nausea caused by chemotherapy and AIDS, and Sativex, a cannabis extract designed to treat multiple sclerosis and severe pain. Sativex is available in Canada, the U.K. and Spain and awaits FDA approval in the United States.
Medical-marijuana activists consider drugs like Marinol unsatisfactory because of their cost and because they do not contain all of pot's natural chemical compounds.