Correction to This Article
This article on boutique marijuana incorrectly said that Virginia has no medical marijuana law. A law on the books allows the use of marijuana in the treatment of cancer and glaucoma, but because of conflicting laws the state is not considered to be among those that have approved medical use of the drug.
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Boutique buds: What underground mom-and-pop growers did while we debated legalization

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Now that medical marijuana is legal in the nation's capital, we look to California's 14-year-old programs to determine what we can expect to see in Washington once dispensaries and cultivation centers open.

Apart from the gathering odor, which can be strong and pungent, the maturing inflorescence is marked by a number of striking elements. It contains small, underdeveloped leaves that are trimmed at harvest. The pistils often change from their blond color to become threads of amber. The buds and leaves appear to be frosted with sugar crystals, and in some varieties, such as Purple Kush, the buds have a purple-blue cast.

After harvest the buds are cured and dried to permit storage, to preserve and intensify the psychoactive compounds and to prevent crop-destroying mold. Cervantes hopes to harvest 4 to 6 ounces from each plant, enough for about 300 cigarettes. He adds a little tobacco to his joints, a habit he picked up after six years in Spain as a self-imposed exile of the George W. Bush years.

In his office, he takes out some stored buds, and I look at them under a microscope: The surfaces are covered in minute crystalline structures, like the stalked eyeballs of snails, but glasslike. These fragile trichomes, which give modern varieties their frostiness, are full of a compound called THC, one of about 100 cannabinoids but the principal one for producing the high. The trichomes grow most abundant and THC-rich just as the plant matures. The gardener must be watchful.

As I am pondering this, the air is suddenly full of the acrid aroma of an ignited joint. Cervantes has a doctor's recommendation to take marijuana for insomnia and backache. He says he smokes from one to four joints a day. Everyone I meet on this journey seems to have some sort of chronic medical complaint, ranging from anxiety to insomnia, from attention deficit disorder to a condition called cyclic vomiting syndrome.

For those in their 30s, like Ramsay, the state legitimization of growing and using marijuana, for medical purposes at least, is a world they have grown up with. But for an earlier generation that came of age in the hippie era, then saw it all move underground, the present period of conditional legalization comes after years of living outside the law and within a dark realm of fear, stigma and seedy transactions. "I cried the first time I bought it" legally, said Cervantes, who is 56. "It's a whole different feeling. You can grow it and not be afraid."

His hydroponics store was closed in a nationwide DEA raid in the late 198os. Fearing prosecution, he went underground and spent increasingly long periods in the safe haven of the Netherlands. In Holland, he met other pot refugees from the United States and other countries, and this place of exile became a center of a nascent interest in breeding new varieties.

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Hobby growers and breeders today collectively make this plant the subject of "the biggest seed-breeding program in the world," says Ed Rosenthal, a horticultural instructor at Oaksterdam University.

There are two basic breeding lines in cannabis hybridization: the wild species, Cannabis sativa, and a subspecies named indica. The sativa is a lanky, slow-growing but potent weed hailing from tropical and subtropical climes. Indica is native to Afghanistan and east along the foothills of the Himalayas, and is distinguished by its short, bushy habit and broader leaves. Other strains naturally developed with distinctive regional traits from Mexico to equatorial Africa to Thailand.

It's a simple proposition to create what might be an alluring hybrid between a male and female plant. What is more difficult and painstaking is to develop a seed strain that will replicate itself consistently. This requires raising several generations of plants, and can take from 18 months to five years or more.

In Holland in the 1980s, landmark strains such as Skunk No. 1 and Haze launched a breeding frenzy that spawned other classic varieties, including White Widow, Northern Lights and Big Bud. The hybridizers were tapping the myriad genes of sativas, indicas and naturally occurring varieties to increase the yield, shorten the flowering cycle and make the plants bushier for indoor cultivation.

Oaksterdam University's Rosenthal, writing in "The Big Book of Buds, Volume 3," says the cannabis world is now seeing a fourth breeding wave whose intent is to produce plants that are "tweaked to produce connoisseur highs."


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