Withering Green Rush: California Cannabis Breeding at a Crossroads
By Ali BektaşAugust 5, 2023
ON A WINDY road off Route 101 in Santa Barbara County, just past the vineyards and bed-and-breakfasts, are some of the largest legal cannabis farms in the world. Nearly 100 acres of hoop houses as far as the eye can see. There is heavy traffic entering the fortified gates of these farms, close to 100 migrant farmworkers are shuttled in and out daily, and almost as many refrigerated trucks hauling off the harvest for processing. One such farm might be guarded by white Rhodesian security contractors who claimed to be working in Iraq until recently, the workers might be overseen by a Dutch manager who up until recently ran a massive cut-flower farm, and the farm might be owned by a kid in his early twenties whose rich father bought it for him. The product is of pitiful quality—one of the many signs that these new farms are a far cry from the sometimes idealized, but rapidly collapsing, family cannabis farms nestled in the hills of Northern California, where for decades alternative lifestyles were carved out while producing that dank weed. The consensus among farmers who have grown cannabis well before legalization is clear: legalized cannabis in California has been an epic failure.
There are similar stories across the patchwork states that have legalized across the United States, but California is a unique tragedy because modern cannabis is unquestionably a product of California. Yes, it is the most valuable cash crop (combining legal and illegal sales) that the state produces, fetching more than $11 billion annually, while the next runner up, almonds, is less than half that, with around $5 billion. But even further than its cash value, cannabis has been stewarded in the state for decades, and those who have committed themselves to the plant here have shaped what it has become on the global stage.
As a scientist working at the intersection of molecular biology and cannabis for the past eight years, I have had the opportunity to interact with all varieties of cannabis farmers around the world—from Chilean hobbyists to Canadian licensed producers (LPs), from the Italian hash makers in Morocco to US multistate operators (MSOs), from suppliers of cuttings in Austria to pharma-grade manufacturers in Portugal and Spain. What I have learned is that the world overwhelmingly wants California cannabis. This is because California has influenced the trajectory of breeding efforts and cultivar development of the plant in agriculture.
Let’s rewind about 50 years to the 1960s and ’70s. Some readers will have firsthand experience of the hippie counterculture that gripped the United States and how California and the San Francisco Bay Area were epicenters of “the movement.” Mind-altering psychedelics and cannabis were as much a part of this youth movement as were the protests against the Vietnam War and in support of the Black Panther Party. Breeding cannabis was still in its infant stages, however, and most of the flower smoked in California was either smuggled from across the border or grown from seeds found in the smuggled weed. The most common varieties were Mexican and Colombian, with occasional Jamaican, Thai, and Indian introductions.
At its core, breeding plants is ultimately a process of selection and reproduction. And to be able to select, you need diversity to select from. The desire to travel and connect with Eastern cultures brought a trail of young people to the centers of domestication of cannabis—namely, to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and also Nepal and Thailand. As these travelers returned home, they brought cannabis seeds they had collected and perhaps even actively selected at the source. Some even organized expeditions for this specific purpose. This period was the initial introduction of global germplasm into California, which would jumpstart the breeding of modern cannabis varieties that would eventually spread across the world.
The ’70s were also when sinsemilla, or seedless production, got going. Farmers diligently removed male plants to increase resin production. This technique also meant that breeding and the creation of new varieties became more and more a specialized activity since common farmers could no longer save seeds from the unpollinated and therefore seedless crop and replant them year after year.
The global germplasm collections led to the first serious breeding efforts, among the most well documented being the line breeding for the creation of “Skunk #1” in Santa Cruz, where Mexican, Afghan, and Columbian varieties were hybridized. This type of work was only able to be done within the relative permissiveness of the 1970s. All of that changed when Ronald Reagan took Richard Nixon’s drug war to a whole new level.
As the drug war went into full swing in the 1980s, the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s also started to lose steam and political focus. Its remnants fled the cities for isolated communes. For those in the San Francisco Bay Area, the destination was clear: the forests of Northern California. Eventually, the environmental movement contributed to the decline of the logging industry and property became even more affordable. Cannabis made sense as a way of supporting this new population. Hidden among the majestic redwoods, cannabis cultivation was back-to-the-land, it was lucrative, and it was rebellious. The NorCal cannabis tradition that would continue into the next millennium started to take shape.
In response, the state of California launched programs such as the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), a multiagency law enforcement task force, starting in 1983, that terrorized communities with sweeps and raids by helicopters.
The mountains of Northern California weren’t the only place where cannabis farmers were hiding from the authorities. In the 1980s, indoor cultivation was really taking off. High-pressure sodium lamps had been commercially available since the mid-1960s from General Electric for the purpose of street lighting. In fact, some of the early indoor pioneers have told me stories of stealing these bulbs from street lamps for their grow rooms. These broad-spectrum lights were the first of a number of technical advancements to indoor cannabis farming, followed by hydroponic nutrient delivery, supplemental CO2, precision climate control to increase desirable traits while reducing pest pressures, and odor control. Within these indoor environments, the direction of plant breeders took a distinctive turn.
Afghan varieties in particular took off with the advent of clandestine indoor production. Their shorter stature and broader leaves, as opposed to the tall, narrow-leaf landraces, were perfect for the limited indoor space. Vegetative propagation via cuttings became more common, which ensured consistent uniformity. The plants were selected to mature faster, which benefited cultivators under pressure to pack up and move their operations frequently to avoid raids.
During the drug war, as some growers were retreating to the mountains of Northern California, others set up in basement grow rooms, while others left California, took their seeds, and moved to the Netherlands. Amsterdam was becoming a safe haven for those from around the world looking for the freedom to work with the plant on a deeper level. A growing expat community helped create some of the first mail-order seed banks, sometimes in collaboration and sometimes in conflict with their Dutch counterparts. The movement of cannabis germplasm crisscrossed the Atlantic many times, parking itself in the Netherlands for a good decade or more in the ’80s and early ’90s, until ultimately redistributing itself back to the US West Coast and other centers of cannabis germplasm development such as Spain, where considerable breeding work was being done.
California was the first state to enact a medical regime for cannabis: Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act, passed with 55.6 percent of the votes in 1996. This was the culmination of years of dedicated activism by the many heroes in California who risked a lot, including jail time, for the cause of legalization. The passing of Prop 215 opened the way for dispensaries to operate in California.
But the spirit of early dispensaries carried the ethos of the radical movements that gave birth to them. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the first versions of these dispensaries were true hubs of caregiving to patients, often victims of the AIDS epidemic, and not the profit-driven enterprises they would ultimately become. Cannabis was sold to some and gifted to others, a version of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Plants were traded, but the marketplace for cuttings had not fully developed. Unique plants were closely guarded within small groups of friends, and those who broke this code were scorned and ostracized. Some of the famous, high-value, clone-only varieties such as OG Kush were among the most coveted cuttings.
In the hills of Northern California, in what is known as the Emerald Triangle (Mendocino, Trinity, and the infamous Humboldt County), farmers became more and more fearless. Plants stashed away, hidden in the forest canopy, became actual trees themselves, and these gigantic plants became the pride of Northern California.
The properly tended outdoor fields allowed for more successful selections to be conducted on populations, whether for developing cutting-only varieties or to select parents from which to make seeds. Those with the gift of recognizing such plants started to make a name for themselves. Many rural communities had local seed makers and producers of cuttings from whom farms would procure their germplasm.
Of course, there was still repression, but to a much lesser degree. The relative safety from persecution also meant that a space was created for the many amateur breeders. It would probably be more accurate to call them selectors, since rather than making crosses involving multiple generations, the main method involved selecting a few individuals from the progeny of a single cross and making cuttings.
The criteria for selection of these varieties were mainly aroma, taste, and appearance. Anthocyanin-rich purple cannabis provided market differentiation. And unlike today, people at dispensaries were still able to smell the flower before purchasing it. Yield wasn’t as important a factor for selection as one would imagine in that lower-risk, higher-margin situation. A pound of high-quality indoor cannabis could easily fetch $4,500, especially as the gray medical market in California and the national black market were very much intertwined at the turn of the millennium. With five to 10 indoor lights, many growers were able to make small fortunes within the medical system.
Selecting for visually attractive cannabis (“bag appeal”) also meant selecting for the maximum number and size of trichomes (“frosty buds”), where secondary metabolites such as cannabinoids and terpenes are produced. These high-potency cannabis varieties were becoming necessary for hardcore stoners who were quickly building a THC tolerance. This sparked the journey of increasing THC percentages, reaching the notoriously dubious but still mind-boggling 35 percent THC lab results that are the market preference today.
The 2000s saw the explosion of the commercial clone market and the distinctive fruity, desert varieties that have since come to dominate. Selections such as Gelato—a San Francisco creation from the Girl Scout Cookies lineage—became some of the foundational parents of modern crosses. Gelato was one of many varieties that was vegetatively propagated and joined the roster of distinct, descriptive, and playful names such as Purple Urkle, Trainwreck, Kandy Kush, Romulan, and the like, often combining those of the parents and leaving aside any mention of the geographic area the germplasm originated from—for example, Grape Ape crossed with Super Silver Haze became Silverback Gorilla.
The 2013 policy decision known as the “Cole Memorandum” was a decisive moment that followed legalization in Colorado and Washington states. The Cole Memo effectively made federal enforcement of cannabis crimes the lowest priority. There was an explosion of brand-name varieties (with associated trademarks), the marketing of which is still a dominating force in California cannabis and modern cannabis culture in general. Despite all this activity, vegetative production of cuttings meant limiting genetic diversity, which is fundamentally increased through sexual reproduction where distinct genetic backgrounds are recombined to produce new combinations via the pollination of ovules.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Most people struggling through cannabis prohibition wanted legalization or at least decriminalization, and to empty the prisons. But the way legalization was implemented in California, it remained unclear if the crop was a drug or an agricultural product; stuck in limbo with the worst of both options proved in time to be the worst way to go. Overregulating certain aspects, treating cannabis as a drug, and under-regulating other aspects led to an economy-of-scale agricultural consolidation, as evidenced by the type of farm described in the opening paragraph. We are left in a situation where the rich history of California cannabis is being eliminated one farm at a time.
The price per pound was expected to plummet as legalization progressed. The writing was on the wall in late 2019 as the $1,200 per pound price for outdoor flower dropped by a third almost overnight. The pandemic came to the rescue at the right moment. Cannabis, deemed an essential agricultural business, was perfect for the locked-down population with some extra money to spend. But last year, the free fall resumed, and up until a few months ago, I would hear wholesale outdoor cannabis going for around $200 per pound. Through all of it, the state of California has not done nearly enough to protect those who created California cannabis and are trying to survive such a predictable yet sudden crash. From where we stand today, it is clear that those who risked so much to make California’s most famous agricultural commodity take off are not going to reap the benefits.
At the onset of legalization in 2015, California cannabis started to experience what is known as the “green rush,” taking its name from the Gold Rush that was the defining moment in California’s history of capitalism: the influx of gold prospectors in the middle of the 19th century. The green rush brought a subset of Silicon Valley-anchored venture capital looking for the next best thing for quick returns. What they didn’t realize was that agriculture has different guiding forces than smartphone apps, web 2.0, and the so-called sharing economy, and is not necessarily a short-term windfall. Beyond the intrinsic unpredictability that agriculture has—climate, pests, downstream industries for processing—this was also cannabis: a still illegal commodity.
The green rush capital fled. Investors moved on to blockchain, crypto, and now chatbots, as their diminishing attention span looks for the next best fad. Some even attempted to combine tech and weed into a cryptocurrency sharecropping scheme under a company called JuicyFields, which in classic crypto fashion vanished after juicing people’s savings.
But for a few years following California’s legalization, it seemed as if the future of cannabis breeding was clear-cut and the startups well-funded for the undertaking. In my journey within cannabis agricultural science, I’ve had the opportunity to work at a few of these companies and have endured their pitch firsthand. The founder of one cannabis biotech startup where I was a staff scientist for two years would open every presentation by showing a conjured graph with a nearly vertical line representing increasing yields and pest resistance for corn in the second half of the 20th century, towering above a skimpy flatline for cannabis, claiming that the steep slope of the corn line was a mere product of “genetic gain.” This was the consensus narrative that emerged amidst numerous companies: cannabis, having been left behind in prohibition, was to be molded in the shape of corn, sugar beet, canola, and all the other species that went through the processes of modern breeding. The goals would be hybrids of inbred lines and genetic modification, today rebranded as gene editing.
What was left unsaid was that the true intervention and real defining characteristic of the “green revolution” that led to such a change were high inputs of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides coupled with mechanized monoculture production. Almost all such inputs are universally out of fashion today for anyone who imagines a future on this planet.
Inbred lines (IBLs) are truly useful in trying to suss out the genetic contribution to certain phenotypes, and hybridization between enough IBLs can sometimes lead to increased vigor. But it’s important to recognize that there are other strategies, such as mass selection, for achieving high-performing populations. In the context of the dawn of the agricultural and chemical industry, the main innovation of hybridizing inbred lines was to eliminate the germplasm autonomy of farmers who saved their seed.
The company I worked for was not only stuck in a bankrupt agricultural paradigm but also a biological one. This biological paradigm imagines nucleic acid as genetic code and organisms as machines running said code. Following this, making a high-resolution, high-throughput platform to identify differences in the DNA sequence is assumed to be sufficient to launch a successful breeding program. The company ultimately did this by pulling a fast one on the hundreds of legacy cannabis farmers and breeders who had submitted samples for analysis. I wasn’t involved in their genotyping project, but the controversy led me to resign and led them to become the most despised company in cannabis.
Within the heat of this controversy, a more interesting question about the assumed predictive power of DNA analysis was mostly overlooked. Plants—and living things in general—are not their mere DNA sequences. While some simple traits can be tracked by genetic analysis and have Mendelian inheritance patterns, many other important ones, such as pest resistance and drought tolerance, require a more holistic approach. Even if there are claims of multiple sequence variations that contribute to a specific trait, which are called quantitative trait loci (QTL), the wholes in biology are greater than the sums of their parts. And Biology is not Physics.
Another hyped trend in modernizing cannabis is in-vitro propagation. What was done to fruit species and ornamentals is being done to cannabis. But with the numerous new varieties that are released each year to satisfy the demand for novelty, in-vitro multiplication rates will never be able to compete with producing cuttings in a greenhouse. On the one hand, in-vitro culturing of plants is a powerful technique on the path to developing new germplasm, but it is not a nimble production platform and requires long processes of optimization. More crucially the phenotypes of in-vitro plants will stray from the original cutting after each round of subculture, for reasons of somaclonal variation, epigenetic changes, and an altered microbiome. To service this trend, sterility and cleanliness are prioritized at the expense of forgetting that plants are not sterile isolates, and in fact are nothing without their relationship with microbes and fungi. They are a multitude of cells, tissues, organs, and indeed organisms with shifting dynamic boundaries. Today, we are starting to hear this rude awakening whispered among the workers between the growth chambers of some of the first tissue culture cannabis companies based in the US and Canada.
I started this essay at the scaled-up Santa Barbara farm and ended with this new approach towards germplasm development to show that the industry is at odds with the rebel cannabis culture that persisted for decades. The anti-authoritarian streak must be brought back in the face of these incursions.
During my early years of training as a plant molecular biologist, I conducted my fieldwork in Mexico. There I was part of a community of scientists providing technical support to inspirational Indigenous farmers, who were defending their local corn landraces—varieties selected for generations in isolated regions, and which had therefore acquired distinct characteristics—from encroaching transgenic contamination by genetically modified crops. I participated in many workshops with my colleagues, but one that left a lasting impression was the Feria de la Milpa, or Festival of the Cornfield (although a milpa is much more than just a cornfield), during the winter of 2010, up in the Sierra Juarez mountains of Oaxaca. For three days, Indigenous members of the autonomous community of Santa Gertrudis came together to showcase both their material and their metaphysical link to the maize plant. Dozens of corn-based dishes were prepared from their recent harvest, and as we ate, our Zapotec hosts recounted the founding myths of their culture, such as that of Pitao Cozobi, the corn deity who influenced agricultural cycles and required an urn of blood to be sprinkled over the milpa at the beginning and end of each season for a bountiful harvest. The festival, and many others like it around Mesoamerica, were not just relegated to the realm of culture, and the biological diversity of the local landraces held center stage as cobs with kernels of distinct shades of purples, blues, reds, and yellows were displayed throughout the event space.
I’m not recounting all this just to paint a romantic picture of native peoples’ connections to a plant species. The central themes of the Festival of the Cornfield were political in nature. The main purpose was to discuss the global state of corn germplasm, the neoliberal monopoly over seeds and the herbicides that were bundled together with it. Genetic modification and the threat it posed to their corn were discussed in sessions lasting into the night. In classic autonomous Indigenous organizing fashion, after days of deliberation, decisions would be reached for concrete actions and communication with allies across Mexico. As one of their community leaders explained to me and my friend at the time: “To be a campesino or campesina allows us to respect and understand the profound worth of our madre tierra [mother earth]. Corn is the basis for our expression of autonomy and central to our usos y costumbres [practices and customs], which represent our Zapotec culture and Indigenous way of life.
It would be a stretch to draw too many parallels between those who domesticated corn 9,000 years ago, and who see themselves as “the people of corn,” and the relatively recent stewards of cannabis in California (although epic harvest parties have also existed in Northern California). Yet there are certainly lessons that we can learn from the persistent struggle and conviction of Indigenous campesinos in Mesoamerica.
Cannabis breeders and nurseries in California are caught between their passion and the market. Modern-day dealers (i.e., distributors/buyers) force the demand for trendy cultivars at the expense of longer-term breeding projects that require time and discipline. There is what the consumer wants versus what the farmer needs. If we were to name these often diverging wants and needs today, we would look no further than Runtz and Blue Dream. Runtz is the influencer of cannabis strains—an Instagram-famous, candy-flavored variety that is notoriously finicky and difficult to grow but that can fetch top dollar. Blue Dream is a reliable mainstay that produces heavy yields and is strong and vigorous, which makes it still one of the bestselling varieties in California.
The balancing of conflicting breeding imperatives is a constant. For example, extraction-optimized high-THC plants are necessary for both the luxury hash producers and for the production of cannabis products such as edibles and vapes. On the flip side, “the weed is too damn strong” has become a common refrain because many people desire chill weed. And ultimately, despite the dozens of branded cultivars and the talk of genetic diversity, the menus at dispensaries are mostly variations on the same theme. Some of the lost flavors and their accompanying effects need to be brought back into the fold.
For those undertaking this breeding work, there needs to be some kind of protection, but this should not be locked into the rigid IP landscape pervasive in agriculture, which would limit the creativity that has been so characteristic of California cannabis up until now. And more importantly, we should not overlook the places where the plant was first domesticated, where the real diversity was created and gathered. When we talk of Afghan indica, we need to also talk of Afghanistan.
Diversity of germplasm is especially crucial because, as cannabis becomes more and more folded into industrial agriculture, more and more pests will jump over from other cultivated or wild species and find susceptible populations. One of these pathogens was first identified by me and my colleagues in 2019: Hop Latent Viroid, a devastating circular RNA molecule that is rampant in the United States and that brings down the farms where it takes hold. The scale of the problem is a clear consequence of the explosion of the West Coast cuttings trade. It is also a growing problem around the world within emerging markets and should be taken seriously before it is too late. But there are varieties that are resistant to the worst effects of this viroid, and these are invaluable for breeding resistance. Undoubtedly, there are sure to be more novel pathogens coming down the line as the scale of cultivation continues to increase. And without access to diverse germplasm to work with, we will be left helpless.
Although some microbes can wreak havoc, others should be incorporated into breeding programs. To do this, we need to have a better sense of the microbial community in and around the plant—not just the rhizome and root communities but also the endophytes, microbes that live inside of plants. These are sure to have a massive impact on phenotypic expression since the evolutionary journey of trichome development involved the emergence of plant defenses.
As broadacre, field-grown cannabis increases, the industry needs to adopt agroecology practices. Pest resistance, drought tolerance, and plant nutritional needs should be approached from an ecological angle, with the interplay between different plant species complementing each other. This is another lesson we can learn from Indigenous farmers and their milpas in Mexico who developed the “three sisters” approach. Not just a cornfield, a milpa is where corn, beans and squash are cultivated together, fixing nitrogen, providing structural support, preventing pests and soil moisture evaporation.
We have a unique opportunity, not only in cannabis but in agriculture in general. This is a singular time when a species with industrial characteristics, ironically sheltered because of prohibition, is being subsumed into industrial agriculture after nearly 70 years of hindsight. Instead of making cannabis into industrial corn, we can learn from the failures of the modern agricultural system, apply those lessons to cannabis, and help forge a new way forward for agriculture.
Ali Bektaş ([email protected]) is a molecular biologist working on plants, microbes, and agriculture, and is developing distributed, affordable, and easy-to-use systems of detecting informative nucleic acids in agricultural environments. He is from Istanbul and lives in Oakland, California.
Featured image courtesy of the author.
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