My brother is a weed scientist. Every weekday morning, he drives to work in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, throws on a lab coat with “Northwest Botanical Analysis” stitched over the pocket, and starts putting tiny samples of ganja through a gas chromatography machine, among other gadgets.* He tells breeders and the “dispensaries” that that currently distribute pot under the local medical marijuana system the potency of their various colorfully named strains as well as the relative amounts of the many subtly different compounds, called cannabinoids and terpenes, that make each one a different experience to smoke. He checks for mites, pesticides, and mold (a common problem with bud grown in Seattle’s damp basements). These days, he’s talking to the state Liquor Control Board as it works on the rules and regulations for retail sales of dope starting later this year.
When I tell people about my brother’s job—that is, when I tell people who are roughly in my demographic of thirtysomething and fortysomething parents—I nearly always get the same response: “Really? Can he score me some weak weed?”
Clearly, there’s a market segment out there that isn’t being catered to by the dope industry. And these relatively affluent customers want something more like a glass of wine at the end of the day than the effect summarized by one recent review of the guava dawg strain in Northwest Leaf magazine: “lung expansion, flavor worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, and the ability to instantly make my face feel like it’s been shrink-wrapped.”
Marijuana is much stronger than it used to be. Lots of the strains for sale at medical marijuana dispensaries are approaching 25 percent THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the compound in the plant known for getting you wicked high. Sitting around a winter solstice bonfire in the Seattle area this December, I heard a woman in her 60s tell a story about her husband taking a tiny toke on a joint that was going around a dinner party, only to pass out in his chair. Another friend and her husband, in their 30s, decided to share a marijuana caramel after their daughter went to bed. They got way too stoned and entered a shared freak-out about how they would deal if she came out to ask for a glass of water.
An elder statesman of Generation X, comedian Louis C.K., has a bit in his Live at the Beacon Theater special about taking “big hits. Like big, 1970s, jean jacket, Bad Company hits” of modern, high potency dope, and then everything going terrifically terrible. “When I was a kid you could just smoke a joint for a while. Now you take two hits and you go insane,” he says. “It's not doable anymore.”
“Our potencies here are off the scale,” confirms longtime grower Todd Ellison, co-founder of Colorado Marijuana Marketing, a one-stop shop for weed-related entrepreneurs in search of marketing help. “I have a guy who taught me to grow, who has been growing since the ’60s. And this stuff blows him away.” And Ellison agrees. “I am almost 40. I’ve got three kids. You don’t want something that is going to lay you out and make you stupid all day.”
Why is dope so strong? Because plants with big, strong buds maximize the profit of the basement grower. Plus, the people who grow it and sell it also smoke it, and they’ve got high tolerances and a deep fondness for its effects. They like it strong.
When my brother, Andrew Marris, got into the weed-analysis business, he expected that growers would be poring over readouts detailing the concentrations of the various psychoactive components, trying to create perfect, complex masterpieces. Instead, though, he found that many of his customers were obsessively focused on just one statistic: the percentage of THC.
This THC obsession has created a bimodal weed supply. There’s the carefully bred marijuana, with excellent flavor and aroma and pleasing suite of effects—which are ridiculously, hallucinatory, time-stutteringly strong for a casual user. Then there’s ditch weed or Mexican brick weed. Sure, you can smoke it around the campfire until the stars go out, but it smells bad and tastes bad, and nobody is going to bother testing it or perfecting it. What’s missing is lower-potency, high-quality dope.
“Right now, higher potency is a signal of quality product,” says my brother, “because weed grown poorly loses potency.” Good genetics and plants grown by careful, competent growers will result in a “medium-to-high-strength” product, he says. “It has an agreeable smell, vibrant colors.”
I raise my eyebrows about all this color and aroma talk. I chalk it up to stoners who wish they had the same cultural approval as guys who sit around swilling wine all day and talking about oakiness and jam. Dope smells like skunky wet laundry, no? My brother pops into the lab’s back room and comes out with a few samples. Some of them smell like tropical fruit and have strain names to match, like tangerine dragon. A strain called blueberry cheesecake smells exactly like blueberry cheesecake. Super lemon haze actually smells good to me. The complex chemistry explains the bouquet. For example, a terpene called myrcene that they’ve identified in strains like white dawg is also found in mangoes.