Boutique buds: Growing and selling marijuana

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.
Adrian Higgins and Whitney Shefte
Washington Post gardening columnist and video journalist
Monday, November 1, 2010; 12:00 PM

Growing pot in Northern California is a serious science. What will that mean for Washington, D.C., as it enters the world of legalized medical marijuana?

Adrian Higgins wrote in The Washington Post Magazine about skilled mom-and-pop breeders who have developed hundreds of high-performing cultivated varieties of cannabis, and home hobbyists who have grown them to perfection using new techniques and technologies.

Video journalist Whitney Shefte explored how Washingtonians may adapt lessons learned in California as the first wave of marijuana dispenseries attempt to set up shop in the District.

Higgins and Shefte took questions and comments about their stories. The transcript is below.


Adrian Higgins: Hello everyone, thanks for joining us. We hope you saw the article in the Magazine over the weekend and looked at Whitney's video report. We both went to Northern California separately to look at the quasi-legal marijuana scene on the eve of California's Prop. 19, which would legalize recreational use of the drug. The state already allows medical marijuana. A patient has to get a recommendation from a physician and can go to a dispensary to buy their weed. As the garden writer here, I was particularly interested in the growing techniques and how breeding has changed the qualities of the herb over the years. Basically, it's much stronger than in the old days. Anyway, please give us your thoughts on marijuana, pros and cons, and join in the discussion.


mendelsonmustgo: I lived in DC for 18 years and was behind enemy lines in the drug war. Drug crews dominated the areas I could afford to live in, and their livelihood was enabled by the federal prohibition. In all the legal talk about weed we often fail to realize the extremely destructive impact this drug war has had on our streets and cities. Any federals reading this should simply be ashamed at the aid and abetment they have delivered to criminal elements over the years. Enough already, please, our streets are too violent and too many men, women, and children are dying for this prohibition. Who is benefitting? Please, tell me, who?

Adrian Higgins: This is an interesting viewpoint. Pro-legalization folks say by decriminalizing the drug, you take away the violent criminals in the same way that the racketeers went away after Repeal of Prohibition. Others argue that drug trafficking organizations will still find a way to peddle in the drug, with all the attendant negatives.


regis09: Here in Oregon, the Medical Marijuana program is a joke-- licensed growers are allowed to provide weed to "patients" with a doctor's scrip, but they're not allowed to sell. Of course, all the growers sell anyway--- there's virtually no enforcement.

I'm not a dope smoker (the last thing I need is another expensive hobby), but I wish they'd just legalize it, regulate it, and tax it. It would eliminate the hypocrisy, take the burden off law enforcement, and solve our state's budget crisis.

Adrian Higgins: This is a big selling point for the Prop 19 people, that the government could start taxing the drug as states do tobacco. I sense, though, that the measure won't pass, there are too many negatives still surrounding marijuana.


steveswimmer1: Great article; however your information concerning yesteryears quality is not quite correct.

As a regular smoker, over the last 45 years or so I have smoked many good issues of marijuana.

And, while the American growers of today do a real good job, compared to real Acapulco Gold, Panama Red, Guadalajara Green, or the finest of all "Ecuadorian Sticky Black," nothing produced in our country today (sorry Mendocino Co.) matches the quality of days gone by.

Adrian Higgins: Interesting view. The growers and users I spoke to definitely think the trajectory of breeding is toward better herb, to the point that the character of the high can be selected. Another argument is that you could find high THC cannabis in the old days, but it was much rarer and certainly not the norm.


Raleigh NC: Do you think we will ever see marijuana as an ornamental plant in America's home gardens? i.e. ornamental peppers, cabbages and kale

Adrian Higgins: I don't really. Gardeners grow the opium poppy because it is a beautiful plant. The leaves are silver gray and the flowers are gorgeous. Marijuana is just too dull in my view to have ornamental quality, unless there is a lot of breeding done to develop purple leaves, say, or some variegation.


Thanks to you and the Post: Just wanted to say, what a great article! I applaud the Post's boldness in having you write about the topic from a horticultural viewpoint. At times your descriptions read like a Sietsema review!

Adrian Higgins: Thanks, I must say, I was surprised how difficult it was for me to get my head around this plant (so to speak). For example, growing in a tent, the yield is much more aligned with canopy area than the number of actual plants.


Tahlequah, oklahoma: What is the most effective method of cultivation if one were using a 5x5 foot closet, soil or hyproponic?

Adrian Higgins: I grow lettuce and pac choi, I'm probably not the guy to ask. I'd check out some of the books of two of our story subjects, Ed Rosenthal and Jorge Cervantes. They've taken this to a real science.


Reston VA: Hey Whitney - Great video. I would like to comment that if legalization can provide tax revenue for schools, and potentially reduce the violent crime associated with illegal distribution, then I'm all for it. However, as someone who used to smoke a great deal of marijuana, and eventually decided to stop, i don't think legalization would have an effect on my "abstinence." Individuals should decide if using the drug has a negative or positive impact on their life, and make decisions accordingly.

Whitney Shefte: Thanks for your comment! Many of the proponents of both medical marijuana and recreational use would agree with you. Others argue that making marijuana legal will increase use and create new public safety concerns. I spoke with a sheriff in Alameda County, Ca., who claims his officers have seen an increase in drug-related crimes there since Proposition 215 (their medical marijuana law) passed in 1996. While use and crime do not necessarily go hand in hand, these are the arguments we're seeing. Another man I met said while he sees the passage of a recreational marijuana law a good thing for business, he is afraid the law will make it easier for children to get their hands on the drug. Time will tell.


Yonkes, NY: What health conditions can benefit from marijuana use?

Adrian Higgins: I am told it can relieve the symptoms of MS, and restore appetite to those on chemo and with AIDS, for example. The DEA has a different view, and discounts its medical efficacy.


Moon Pa: "Medical Marijuana program is a joke-- licensed growers are allowed to provide weed to "patients" with a doctor's scrip, but they're not allowed to sell. Of course, all the growers sell anyway--- there's virtually no enforcement." "Medical" is just a corporate angle to jack up price. They want to sell you a box or jar full. Get some moonshine in the jar and let's get on with it.

Adrian Higgins: "There's Whiskey in the Jar"


question for future growing here i the DC area: You are such an authority on the difficult gardening climate of the mid-Atlantic howgeneral and the DC area in particular; what would you recommend, hypothetically, cultivating Cannabis sativa or indica here?

Adrian Higgins: It certainly could be grown here outdoors in season, and you could grow it year round indoors. West Virginia, which has a similar climate, is one of the seven leading producers of cannabis.


elmhurst,il: If legalizing it will reduce crime, then I am all for it. It scares me when I hear a news report from Wisconsin warning hunters this season to be cautious of running into drug dealers who are growing pot in the Northwoods.

Adrian Higgins: Yes. Curiously, Wisconsin has become a state where the cartels are supposedly cultivating it.


Harrisburg, Pa.: The legislation in Pennsylvania would have the State Police supervise the growing of medical marijuana to prevent the product from being transferred into the underground market. Does the D.C. legislation have a similar component to see that the pot that is grown is used only for medicial purposes?

Adrian Higgins: Well in DC they are only permitting no more than eight growing centers, each with 95 plants. The argument is that the supply won't come anywhere near meeting the legitimate medical demand.


Arlington, VA: I smoke marijuana every day. Have for many years. When I first started smoking a lot about 8 years ago, it led me to try other drugs like cocaine. I would have never tried cocaine if I wasn't looking for a new high after marijuana. I never believed that Marijuana was a gateway drug until it happened to me. I got sick of cocaine after a few years, but still smoke daily.

I vote for decriminalization......not legalizing. More smoking means more hard drug use means more dangerous drivers, etc. This isn't a culture like Europe...people here drive everywhere. It would be a nightmare.

Whitney Shefte: Thanks for your comment. Gov. Schwarzenegger just signed a decriminalization bill in California a few weeks ago, which means folks who are caught with a small amount of weed will essentially get a traffic ticket. Some of the people I talked to in California agree with you, that this is the way to go and that true legalization will only create problems. Depending on whether Proposition 19 passes tomorrow, we may have time to see whether decriminalization is an effective practice satisfies most residents.


revtkatt: This is typical prison-industrial bluff.

The US-grown material is quality because its grown by consumers --its called eating your own dog food in the tech industry. As with ANY domesticated species (corn to cows) it will be improved for human use (at a detriment to its ability to survive in the wild), its called artificial selection, and it was recognized before natural selection was.

I grow in my back yard. I'm a master's degreed engineer, my kid is the best speller in his grade. I'm not yet up to pro quality but its just a plant and I like to learn.

Adrian Higgins: This is interesting, because one of the themes of the story is that we in America love to perfect the growing of plants. I think it started with industrial agriculture 100 years ago, we like to see how big and productive we can grow things. Marijuana, it turns out, is no different.


Falls Church, VA: I asked this in the other chat, so apologies if it was already answered, but if medical marijuana becomes legal in the District, what do you think will happen to all the Government employees who are randomly drug tested. A surprisingly large number of paper pusher jobs are subject to random drug testing.


Adrian Higgins: This is one of the unintended offshoots of legalization. It's an issue legislatures and courts are grappling with.


Alexandria, VA: I've always thought that the female flowers of marijuana plants are very strangely beautiful. Are there any other plants that come close to looking like that?

Adrian Higgins: The flower clusters are called buds and the whole bud stalk is called a cola. Is that where Coca Cola came from, I don't know? I think the resin glands, the trichomes, along with the dried pistils look interesting. I have struggled to find beauty in them and confess I can't. I can't think of another plant quite like this, except perhaps the clustered flower buds of broccoli.


san diego, ca.: Imagine hiring men and women to arrest 800,000 people each year. All helps make for the great society.

Whitney Shefte: Many of the proponents of Proposition 19 I talked to argue that the primary reason pot is still illegal is because so many law enforcement jobs depend on those arrests. However, proponents also argue that legalization will free up officers to fight more serious crimes that jobs in that field should be minimally affected, if at all. It is interesting to note that law enforcement is one of the most vocal groups in opposition to legalization.


mjazz: I think they ruined it. People who haven't used it in a while wind up freaking out. Back in the 80s people were going to the emergency room from paranoia. Who wants to trip their brains out? It's like wanting to have a couple of beers and all they have to offer you is everclear.

Adrian Higgins: This is the argument of those opposed to where marijuana is going, that it is now so potent that it is no longer the drug it was. They say that the high THC content is inducing a psychotic paranoia that doesn't seem to be much fun for anyone involved. I don't know, frankly. I saw people smoking in Northern California and they certainly didn't become pyschotic.


lightonliz: Great article! Well-written and informative. I felt like I was right along with you. It's nice that you share the seriousness, hard work, and professionalism that cultivators bring to the industry. (Fantastic to see Jorge Cervantes profiled, too; absolutely stellar).

Adrian Higgins: I must say, Jorge, is an appealing character. He seems such a gentle soul to me, and quite unlike the image I had of him going in of being some stoned out hippie.


gradelat: Anyone who is willing to admit the truth will acknowledge that any drug that impairs our preceptions is potentially harmful in some way, especially in circumstances where one's mental faculties are needed, like learning. I am willing to acknowledge that the drug has its pain-reducing hunger-inducing benefits to those suffering from serious diseases, just like regular minimal alcohol intake has its benefits to the heart. Don't call it a healthy habit, however. It most certainly is not! Lungs are meant to draw in air, not smoke. And marijuana is not for anyone in school trying to optimize the use of his or her memory.

Having said that, however, if Marijuana were controlled the way alcohol is, legalization could bring could be many benefits to society, first and foremost to hurt the murderous drug cartels in Northern Mexico, then to reduce our prison population, and finally to help American agriculture. Medical marijuana, however, still comes with the mixed bag of side effects described above. Let's not be hypocritical. Folks like to get high, and want the abilty to do so without being called criminals. Let them, and let's profit from it. But in the process don't call marijuana harmless.

Whitney Shefte: Some folks in the medical marijuana industry are quite open about the fact that, like alcohol, marijuana can be abused and have harmful effects. Places like Harborside Health Center, a dispensary in Oakland, Calif., now offer services for substance abuse to help curb issues medical marijuana users face. Some dispensaries in San Francisco only allow their customers to vaporize their weed in the building, which is an alternative way to consume marijuana. It will be interesting to see if such services are created in D.C. and if a whole secondary industry will spawn from medical marijuana legalization here.


It is interesting to note that law enforcement is one of the most vocal groups in opposition to legalization. : Law enforcement personnel are conservative by nature. How many libertarians go into law enforcement, I wonder?

Adrian Higgins: True. But I wonder how officers cope with seeing so much lawless behavior. Do you become inured to it?


Alexandria, VA: I imagine marijuana is like tobacco. True? Then why aren't people growing their own tobacco?

Adrian Higgins: Great question. It's a lot of effort and farmers do it more efficiently and with more land. Raising a crop from seed is work and there are lots of ways to have a crop failure. If it were legalized, few people would grow their own. Those who did would be the same kind of folks who like to grow their own heirloom tomatoes. They love the process.


A surprisingly large number of paper pusher jobs are subject to random drug testing.: If it's a legal drug, what's the problem?

Whitney Shefte: Well, right now it's not a legal drug, except in medical use situations in certain states and soon in the District. Regardless, employers can demand that their employees are not intoxicated in the workplace. However, unlike alcohol, marijuana stays in the blood stream for quite some time. This means employers may have to grapple with how to handle their drug testing policies as the laws change.


Washington, DC: Is it legal to use marijuana in Virginia if it was prescribed by a licensed doctor and the prescription was filled in California?

Adrian Higgins: I don't think so. Each state has its own rules. In California, you have to be a resident and you have to have a doctor's recommendation (not prescription). Some residents get county ID cards to protect themselves further in case they are busted.


Rockville, Md.: Adrian, I was very interested in how you describe the cultivation of marijuana, but the pictures themsevlves tell their own story: small businessmen (or women) with, shall I say, a certain culture of the enthusiast that is not quite mainstream. If marijuana becomes legalized, will that culture be lost? Will it become just another huge agri-business? Photo gallery: Growing marijuana

Adrian Higgins: I asked that question of Steve DeAngelo, and to paraphrase, he said that yes part of that culture is lost with legalization but the benefits outweigh that.


don't call marijuana harmless. : Please don't oversimplify. What advocates are saying is that the medical cost-benefit ratio for marijuana is much better than that of many pharmaceuticals. The industry produces THC capsules that break down too quickly to be effective and cost an absolute fortune. Just for one instance.

Adrian Higgins: This is an interesting point. If you accepted that medical marijuana works and if you grew it yourself, you would take the drug companies out of the loop. This would provide longterm economic security to those who needed it, without having to pay enormous pharmaceutical costs.


Arlington, VA: I don't think they ruined it - if it were legalized there is money to be made and companies would come up with strains that would run the whole rainbow of potency. Similar to prohibition, instead of being forced to drink moonshine as your only option, you could choose to have beer, wine, or liquor.

Adrian Higgins: That's certainly an argument I heard in the course of my research.


California is so far from our nation's capital: But is the DEA really doing to let this go on IN their hometown? I'm skeptical.

Whitney Shefte: This is a good question since medical marijuana is not legal under federal law. However, the city council amended the text of the 1998 initiative to be much more restrictive with the hope of minimizing federal intervention. For example, initiative 98 originally allowed patients to grow a small amount of their own weed. That is no longer going to be allowed.


Medical marijuana, however, still comes with the mixed bag of side effects described above.: And we all know that pharmaceuticals NEVER have side effects.

Adrian Higgins: One argument is that more people die from aspirin than marijuana. I'm not sure I agree with that (I'm thinking of impaired drivers, for example) but that's certainly a point that's made.


except in medical use situations in certain states : And it's still not legal per Federal law in those states. If California calls it legal, it just means a California cop won't bust you. It's still illegal IN California if a Federal cop busts you.

Adrian Higgins: That's correct, though going after small users with a claimed medical need is not a priority of the federal government.


the biggest lobbyist for continued illegality: Is the alcohol industry.

Adrian Higgins: I don't know. One interesting theory is that the wine growers of Northern California would get into the act.


Not as well-versed in this debate as everyone else but ...: can you explain the difference in legalization versus decriminalization? I'm a little lost.

Whitney Shefte: This is a good question. Decriminalization means that if an officer catches you with a small amount of pot, you get the equivalent of a speeding ticket. You have to pay the ticket the court costs and it goes on your record for a certain amount of time. If it were legal, this wouldn't be the case. Also, in the case of California's Proposition 19, residents would be allowed to grow their own pot in a 5x5 space or they could buy it from a regulated seller. Right now, they have to buy it from the black market, which may not always be safe or at a reasonable price.


Arlington, VA: Adrian, I have two questions for you. First, obviously marijuana and its culture has changed a LOT since the 1970s; what did you find the most surprising during your research in California? Second, any predictions on how the voters will go tomorrow on Proposition 19?

Adrian Higgins: I was surprised at how open and respectable it was, for the most part. One of the reasons the Dutch relaxed their laws is that they felt if you de-mystified it, it would lose its glamor. That may be the case. I think Prop 19 will probably fail, a lot of people in California feel that it would be sending the wrong message to kids. Also, there are wild and overblown perceptions about the potency of dope. Ironically, a lot of hobby growers don't want it legalized.


Los Angeles, CA: I think the comments from the drug warriors about the "alarming" potency of today's breeds are really ignorant. Better pot just means that you do less damage to your lungs because you don't need to smoke as much for the same effect. Spirits are also much more "potent" than wine and beer, but that doesn't mean that people don't get more intoxicated from downing a twelve-pack as compared to a couple of martinis. It's a silly red herring.

Adrian Higgins: That may be so.


Maryland: While I have no distinct moral issue with marijuana and am fascinated by its botanical relative, hemp, there is no doubt in my mind that it is an addictive substance. And that the more one smokes, the more one seems to need. I have a family member who is never not high and he has a young child. This person also grows marijuana and I see firsthand the negative impact of all these behaviors on his family. So while intellectually I favor legalization, practically speaking I think decriminalization is the best first step. Occasional recreational users are not the ones that cause problems.

Adrian Higgins: Yes. There is room to abuse yourself and others with this drug, no question.


Arlington, VA: The flavor (and caffeine) of cola was derived from the kola nut, and in the early days it used to contain a little bit of cocaine, thus the name "Coca-Cola".

Adrian Higgins: Thanks for explaining that.


Moon Pa: "The legislation in Pennsylvania would have the State Police supervise the growing of medical marijuana to prevent the product from being transferred into the underground market."

As if the Troopers have nothing better to do than supervise the pot growers. Give me a break!

Adrian Higgins: posting this one:


When I first started smoking a lot about 8 years ago, it led me to try other drugs like cocaine. : So, because some people are alcoholics who can't control their drinking, we should return to Prohibition? Sigh.

Adrian Higgins: An anti-drug argument is that marijuana is a gateway drug. There is a new medical study from England today that puts alcohol in a much more destructive context than marijuana.


Washington, DC: I think your article alluded to the fact that indoor growers have to have fans to vent off the considerable odors from the marijuana plants. What causes those odors? And even if it were legalized, could it not be considered something of a nuisance for neighbors who don't particularly want to smell all that?

Adrian Higgins: The odors become more intense when the female plant flowers. It can't be to attract pollinators, because it is wind pollinated. I suspect it telegraphs to would be predators that this isn't nice to eat.


in DC they are only permitting no more than eight growing centers, each with 95 plants: How odd. Why 95 instead of a nice round number like 100? I suppose it's all arbitrary anyway.

Whitney Shefte: Under federal law, if an individual is growing more than 100 plants, they can face about five years in prison. The 95 rule is an attempt to keep the federal government uninvolved and licensed growers out of jail.


Fairfax County Virginia: Does smoking marijuana cause cancer, emphysema or other tobacco related illnesses?

Adrian Higgins: I think there are studies that suggest that. I heard people with smoker's coughs in Oakland, to be sure. However, people just don't smoke the same number of joints as smokers do cigarettes. I'm not a scientist, but I'm sure cigarettes are much more of a problem here. You can also vaporize cannabis in a way that doesn't affect the lungs in the same way.


Marijuana is just too dull in my view to have ornamental quality: A nice Japanese maple or sweet-gum would give the right effect; the leaves are very similar.

Adrian Higgins: Yes. The cutleaf versions, along with hibiscus.


Durham, NC (former tobacco town): Is it too late to get a bullet point summary of just how "medical marijuana" seem to have suddenly upended Federal laws against pot?

What started this trend, and how far can it "really" go with Federal laws currently on the books?

I feel like I missed an important chapter in all this?

Thank you.

Adrian Higgins: California was the first, in 1996. Now there are 14 states and DC. This is the dichotomy of our system of government. It's whether the federal government has the will and resources to go after every federal infraction.


Lorton: Adrian: I was curious why you said that a lot of hobby growers don't want it legalized. Is that because it would cause competition and lower prices, or because it would take away the mystique? Still there could be the equivalent of "microbreweries" in the marijuana world, right?

Adrian Higgins: Yes, I think it would lower prices and take away the mystique, precisely. And yes, there would be microbrewery type growers, in fact, there are growing cooperatives in California now that are akin to that.


Suburban Washington, D.C.: What is the impact on tax payers of legalizing marijuana? Elimination of government costs for enforcement efforts, prosecution & incarceration, and adding a voluntary tax revenue.

Adrian Higgins: I don't have the figures in my head, but those factors are believed to come into force. Opponents will say that there will be increased law enforcement and medical costs associated with full legalization.


Reston, VA: How do you expect big business will get into the grab a dollar from legalization of marijuana? Develop and sell high-THC varieties? Smooth smoking varieties? Flavored blends? DNA modified varieties which are licensed to growers like corn crops?

Adrian Higgins: Like everything else, they will mass produce it, and then market it to death.


Winchester: Okay, hypothetically, if one were to grow marijuana in this region, say, out in the country, would we have to worry about deer destroying the plants (since they seem to love everything else under the sun)?

Whitney Shefte: Outdoor growers have to worry about pests just like they would if they were growing anything else. When I visited some pot grows in Humboldt County, Ca., the growers showed me massive plants that had been almost completely destroyed by rats.


Then why aren't people growing their own tobacco?: Because you can go to a store and buy it ready to smoke. Sheesh.

Adrian Higgins: Yes. Convenience. We've built a whole service economy based on others doing all that stuff.


there is no doubt in my mind that it is an addictive substance: As opposed to caffeine, alcohol, etc. No one ever gets addicted to those.

Adrian Higgins: Time for me to get some tea, I don't about Whitney. Thanks for joining us this hour and making it a lively debate.


Whitney Shefte: Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful questions. It will be interesting to see what happens with Proposition 19 in California tomorrow, as well as how things play out in D.C. as medical marijuana is implemented.


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