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Because almost everyone interviewed for this story is, or has been, a criminal, almost everyone long ago adopted pseudonyms. Some are no longer criminals, so don’t mind their real names being used. Some are no longer criminals, but still prefer to use their pseudonyms.
On June 6, 1991, an 18-year old kid was hanging out in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead Show in Noblesville, Indiana. Since school let out, the boy had been following the band around with his best friend in a GMC Jimmy. This was maybe their 15th show. It had been a great summer so far, but dry for highs. So, when some dude called Joebrand walked by and said he had good bud, the boy bought a whole ounce for $500.
It was the best damn weed he'd ever smoked. "Where did you get it?" the kid asked. Joebrand told him it was from a bunch of older biker guys in Colorado, and that some people called it Chemweed, but others called it Dogbud. The boy took Joebrand's phone number, and after the summer tour, when he was back home in Western Massachusetts, he ordered another ounce in the mail.
If you are one of the more than 100 million Americans who have ever gotten high, chances are you've smoked a descendant of those lucky 13 seeds. The first one grew into Chemdog 91 (sometimes Chemdawg 91, named for the year of its vintage, and in honor of its ancestor), which is now sold in dispensaries around America.
Chemdog 91, in turn, is the mother of Sour Diesel, possibly the most popular marijuana strain in existence. Both Chemdog and Sour Diesel, in turn, have been cross-bred with pretty much every other high-quality strain, to produce an infinite variety of other beloved strains. Chemdog is the Genghis Khan of weed.
"Recommending Sour Diesel as a weed critic is like a music writer extolling the virtues of The Beatles," wrote Jake Browne, one of the Denver Post's pot reviewers, "or a historian making a case for George Washington as a great president."
The 18-year-old never had any intention of growing marijuana. He had no inclinations toward botany or a life of crime. But he just couldn't get over this stuff.
"It was the most skunkiest and most flavorful marijuana I'd ever tried in my life," he said. "It was crazy. If you had a little piece in a baggy and went to the grocery store, the whole frickin' grocery store would stink like skunk."
So, the kid got into gardening.
Today, that kid is 42, and has taken the nickname of his famous weed. Thousands of patients now use Chemdog's strains to melt away their PTSD or depression. They're bought and sold, prescribed and taxed, savored and sanctified. In a legal market worth $2.7 billion, and growing faster than any other industry in America, Chemdog's progeny have a formidable market share position. Chemdog's the guy who launched a 100 million highs – the Brian Epstein of psychotropics.
He's also broke.
Chapter II: Dirt weed
The U.S. Patent Office prohibits patents on a federally controlled substances. Even today, with medical marijuana sold legally in 23 states, and recreational marijuana in four, when I asked the U.S. Patent Office whether someone might someday be able to patent strains of the plant, I was politely directed to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
If Chemdog couldn't make real money off his outlaw horticulture, he would have to make it off his hustle: more volume, more equipment, more customers, and a whole lot more risk. And Chemdog had no interest in prison.
“I paid a few bills here and there,” said Chemdog. “Vacation once a year with the kids, something to supplement me.”
Chemdog worked construction by day and grew a medium-sized plot of plants on the side – always fewer than 100 of them, he said, because crossing that line by a single plant could have bumped up his prison sentence to 40 years, without a chance of parole. (Growing 60,000 could be punishable by death.)
Today, Chemdog has a fiancée and two kids. He's been blowing glass for two decades, and hand-makes playful, brightly-marbled pipes. And he's not at all annoyed that lots of people are now making money off his 13 seeds and he isn't.
“I was just in the right spot at the right time,” he said.
It wasn't the response I expected from the elusive pot pioneer. For weeks, I'd asked everyone I called for this article if they knew Chemdog and if he might speak to me, and I got a string of cagey answers.
“That's not going to happen.”
“Chemdog doesn't talk to the press.”
“He has… legal trouble.”
“Have you spoken to Chemdog before???”
He sounded like the kind of guy who might have enemies. But that was not the kind of guy who called me one morning, announced, “This is Chemdog,” and asked how he could help.
In recent history, there has never been such a furious period of innovation, with so few financial rewards for the innovators, and so much potential cost, as the weed revolution of the '70s, '80s and '90s. Today, marijuana rivals wine in its varieties, with thousands of strains of the plant on sale, selected for every delectable trait, and advertised with descriptors like “a pear caramel,” “Afghani dominant,” and “‘a medium stone,’” which many prefer to an “all-out' incapacitating stone.”
That would be the stuff of fantasy 50 years ago, when pot mostly came from Mexico and Colombia in 80-pound-plus mafia loads.
“We called it dirt weed,” said DJ Short, who's been breeding bud for 40 years. “The commercial Colombian, it was C-grade at best.”
His experimentations eventually led to such classic strains as Blueberry, Flo and Blue Moonshine. But dirt weed was DJ's first taste of the plant, as a high schooler in 1960s Detroit. He was in a drug education class, and suspecting the teacher was shoveling horseshit, DJ decided to have a little fun with his essay assignment.
“I really juiced it, piling on all the lies I could,” he said.
Thanks to the force of his convictions and the flair of his rhetoric, DJ Short was selected as the school's anti-drug ambassador. He traveled around to other Detroit schools, met kids who smoked weed for the first time, thought they were cool, and so he tried it.
DJ Short's first thought was of the dentist's office where his mother worked and the dazy feeling of nitrous oxide.
“The second thought was, ‘They lied to me,’” he said.
The 14-year-old found that ganja helped with his depression, insomnia and carpal tunnel syndrome – an affliction from his factory work. Soon, the boy who was to become DJ Short put a plant under a desk lamp and started to grow his own.
Chapter III: Reefer rising
For likely tens of thousands of years, humans have embraced marijuana wherever it has arrived and taken it wherever they've gone, to almost every corner of the planet. (Some scholars believe that the "kaneh-bosm" in the sacred oil recipe God gave Moses is cannabis, woefully mistranslated through the ages as "aromatic cane.")
In the last 40 years, collectors and cultivators have brought those long-lost cousins together and feverishly inter-sexed them, like a giant orgy at a family reunion. It's one of the great agricultural stories of our age.
Scott Blakey a.k.a Shantibaba was one of those collectors and cultivators. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, he estimates he covered close to 40,000 miles on his 1964 Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike through Central and South Asia in the 1980s, “finding little places where time forgot.” In India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma and Bhutan, he met families growing ancient marijuana strains who were happy to sell a few of their seeds to bedraggled backpackers on a pilgrimage for primo weed.
“They were always very welcoming. I wasn't a gangster, I was just horticulturally minded,” he said. “It was wonderful finding those extreme places. I still dream of them.”
But the real mother of the reefer revolution was necessity. Why else would America end up producing some of the finest weed in the world?
In the 1970s, the U.S. government got the Mexican government to douse their marijuana fields with herbicide. So, Americans started growing domestically. In the 1980s, the federal government and the state of California deployed U-2 spy planes and helicopters to spot marijuana plots from the air. So, Americans started growing indoors, turning their focus from quantity to quality. Congress and state legislatures then jacked up prison sentences for marijuana offenses. So, Americans cultivated more potent weed to get a bigger bang for their ounce.
By the end of the 1980s, gardeners were growing boutique super-potent flowers with hyper-speed life cycles in perfectly tuned nutrient chambers under a 24-hour halide blaze.
But for the cannabis pioneers, all that incredible work – rediscovering ancient genetics and inventing new tech, communing and toying with nature, nerding out and getting stoned – came at a heavy price. They were all criminals.
Chapter IV: The fear
“For me to have a million dollars stashed under my mattress, which they could come in and take away at any time, didn't interest me,” said longtime breeder Kyle Kushman. “I made a choice.”
For Kushman, 49, the creeping dread began in junior high, when he started selling pot. But it kicked into higher gear in 1989, when as a wayward 23-year-old, fresh from a stint in the Army, landscaping and dealing small-time, Kushman moved into a condo in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, that had a walk-in closet.
Kushman's pot dealer offered him a 50-50 split if he could use the closet to grow his supply. Kushman hadn't a clue about growing pot. (“Was it like a peanut or an avocado? Did it grow in the ground? I had no idea.”) But he also had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. The two of them decked the space out with some pots, powdered plant food and a couple lamps. The buds blossomed as big as soda cans.
Hooked, Kushman spent most of the next decade hopping between sleepy hamlets in upstate New York, setting up growhouses and refining his craft.
It was a scary way to live – 10 years in prison scary. He avoided the neighbors, gave a fake identity and said he moved 15 times in eight years. One winter day, he came home and discovered, in a rush of panic, that there was 18 inches of snow everywhere – except on his roof, because the high-voltage lamps had melted it. At one point, his girlfriend couldn't take it and left.
”You've got to be something in life,“ said Kushman. “And this is my something. I don't know how to classify myself, but here I am. I'm at the top of the marijuana cultivation industry.”
Kushman's creations have won him 13 awards at the Cannabis Cup, the Academy Awards of pot. His bud was so good, Kushman had a stint as the staff dealer for High Times magazine. One plant, which he selectively in-bred for a dutiful seven or eight years, ended up on the covers of both High Times and the The New York Times Magazine in the mid-90s for its bruise-purple leaves. A poster of Kyle's Special Blend – or Kyle's Purple Kush, as it's sometimes known – can still be found in many smoke shops, even though it was in-bred into extinction in 1996.
Kushman said he could have made millions off his plants. But even at his level, he could barely take the stress, and so moved to California 10 years ago “to not be a criminal for the first time in my adult life.” Kushman now consults for legal marijuana gardens in the San Fernando Valley and runs a plant-nutrient product line.
“I've had my shakedowns from police,“ he said. “I've had to keep my nose pretty clean so I can get to the point where I'm not a felon.”
Chapter V: Judgment day
Around 10 a.m. on Aug. 2, 2011, Chemdog's son answered the door, and told his dad that some guys were here in suits.
For months, the IRS, the DEA, the state police narcotics unit and the local police department had been watching Chemdog. They conducted simultaneous raids on his home and his parents’ farm house the next town over, where they found 97 plants and four pounds of packaged weed in the top floor apartment, where Chemdog's friend had been living. They found another four pounds in the trunk of his car. His parents didn't have a clue.
According to Chemdog, the police threatened to charge his parents with harboring a grow operation, so he copped a plea: possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and three counts of money laundering, for three occasions when he deposited pot profits in his regular business account. He was sentenced in federal court to three years probation, a $2,500 fine and ordered to forfeit $300,000.
Chemdog sold his dream house, which he'd built himself. He moved with his fiancée and kids into a rental apartment. Because the feds found weed inside his car, forfeiture laws allowed them to take it. After paying his attorney fees, Chemdog said he ended up about $40,000 in credit card debt.
“It's sad, you know. Nothing you can do. Eventually things will turn around for me,” he said. “I wish I was gifted at other things in life.”
The feds also took the Tupperware container from his freezer that contained Chemdog's entire 20-year seed collection, including two of his original 13 seeds that he'd been waiting to sprout.
Chemdog was hoarding genetics, like many of today's cultivators. People have been afraid to part with their seed, or share their product beyond their local black markets.
If you think it's about the money, you're really barking up the wrong tree with the wrong people.
Around 2000, those closed circles began to crack, when the early Internet connected like-minded folks determined to open-source the nation's cannabis talent. One idealistic group called the Devil Harvest Krew drove around the country, cajoling cultivators into trading clones of their pot – cuts of the mature plant that can be replanted. Chemdog strains had been kept in closed circuits until around 2003, when DHK and other traders got their hands on them and spread them around the land.
“Many relationships were destroyed, reputations tarnished and a few people even fell into the hands of the police,” one professed DHK member wrote on a message board. “BUT In the end, what started as 4 internet friends' ballsy decision, in reality, changed the cannabis scene in this country by moving over 300 elite/clone-only and choice seed selections of cannabis into every nook and cranny of the good old USA.”
That dangerous work, of course, was entirely unpaid.
“If you think it's about the money, you're really barking up the wrong tree with the wrong people,” said JJ, a happily salaried union construction worker, who's also the decorated breeder behind Stardog and Stardog Guava (naturally, both have Chemdog pedigree).
“I'm a working man, and if I don't go to work everyday I can't pay my mortgage,” he said. “We were all poor hippies to begin with.”
But that's not a complete picture. Some breeders of that era made a whole lot of money. They just didn't do it in this country.
Chapter VI: Marijuana moguls
After wandering the Asian hinterlands for more than a decade, Blakey, also known as Shantibaba, arrived in Amsterdam in the early 1990s with a deep tan and an impressive library of seeds.
He joined many refugees of the war on drugs, drawn to the Netherlands' policy of tolerance toward small-scale marijuana growth, sale and use. Like the literary émigrés of 1920s Paris, the expat breeders shared their artistry, experimented, consumed lots of intoxicants and shepherded in Amsterdam's golden age of cannabis cultivation.
“There was some really fantastic work being done,” said the 51-year-old Blakey. “Proper work, breeding work.”
In discreet envelopes, those prize-winning seeds were shipped to homes around the world. Unable to sell freely stateside, many U.S. hobbyists hopped a plane to Holland to set up royalty deals with the banks, giving them the right to sell on their behalf.
Untold millions were made at these seed banks, and continue to be made. But where there's real money, there are also suckers and robbers.
A prodigy parakeet breeder as a child in Western Australia, Nevil Schoenmakers founded The Seed Bank of Holland, one of the first Amsterdam seed banks, in 1984. The 28-year-old advertised it in High Times magazine, and the prospect of mail-order strains sent the American market into paroxysms.
He collected, bred and mailed his wares to thousands of U.S. growers, swept the awards at the Cannabis Cup, made millions of dollars and pissed the hell out of Interpol. In 1990, Schoenmakers was apprehended in Australia on a U.S. extradition request, posted $100,000 bail and vanished.
Blakey, alongside Arjan Roskam, co-founded the wildly successful Green House Seed Company, credited with such blockbuster strains as Super Silver Haze, Super Lemon Haze and Hawaiian Snow. Blakey says his personal fingerprint is on the White family – White Widow and its kids, White Rhino, White Russian and Blue Widow – some of the most renowned strains in the world.
“I did make a lot of money, but I did lose it several times,” said Blakey. “We were very successful and people probably thought we made a lot more money than we did. But we made it by pretty hard work.”
Today, Green House sells millions of dollars of seed a year, employs more than 100 people and counts more than 40 Cannabis Cup wins. But Blakey's no longer with them. In 1998, he sold his share (the split between the two breeders has since curdled into one of the most openly catty feuds in the cannabis world). Shantibaba now runs Mr. Nice Seed Bank in Switzerland, using Schoenmakers' high quality genetics. Whether Schoenmakers was fairly compensated for that is in dispute.
Another man who made a nice dime off Schoenmakers' seeds is the Dutch seed gatherer and keen cannabusinessman Ben Dronkers, who bought the Seed Bank for a steal when Schoenmakers was staring down 20 years in prison. He built it into the mega-bank Sensi Seeds, while reportedly being arrested more than 80 times by Dutch police.
“He made millions and millions and millions,” said Jorge Cervantes, the man who wrote the textbook on cultivating cannabis (literally) and the encyclopedia on the plant (literally). “A handful of people, I'm guessing, made more than $10 million.”
Wary of the feds, Cervantes spent decades hidden under a dreadlocks wig, beret, goatee and dark glasses, before outing himself as George Van Patten on NPR in 2010. Cervantes' YouTube videos often fetch more than 200,000 views, and he wanted to know how many clicks I expected this article to get, so he could calculate how much time I was worth. (About half an hour.)
With his books, DVDs, columns and regular speeches, Cervantes knows well what Dronkers of Sensi Seeds and Arjan of Green House embraced with such success. If you're a pioneering “potanist” and want to cash in, turn yourself into a brand.
Chapter VII: Marijuana Inc.
In 2011, Scott Reach, an Alabama farm boy and veteran marijuana hobbyist, won the Cannabis Cup for Moonshine Haze, which hits, “like a shot of espresso, without the caffeine jitters” and “made us all geniuses,” as one reviewer observed.
“A couple of people came up to me and said, ‘Listen man, right now's your moment,’” Reach recalled. “‘There are people who win this thing and think the world and the moon should be theirs and they never go anywhere.’”
Last year, Reach, 40, went many places – Chile, Panama, Costa Rica, Spain – an estimated 200,000 miles all around the world.
In 1999, Reach was one of the four founding members of the Devil Harvest Krew, and he served the group's cause diligently for eight years. He confirmed that relationships were destroyed (hoarding of seeds, jealous infighting). Reputations were tarnished (lying about genetics or spreading bugs and disease). And people did go to jail (for mailing seeds or large grow operations).
Reach mostly avoids alcohol. He says the stuff killed his father and a friend. And when Reach had a serious battle with cancer a few years back, losing his right testicle to the disease and 60 pounds to the medicine, he says pot helped him with the pain, the nausea and the heavy realization he could die. In 2009, after 10 years in the Internet underground, and with $5,000 on a credit card and 10 pounds of his own pot, Reach opened one of the first U.S.-based seed brands, Rare Dankness.
It's hard to make Amsterdam money selling marijuana seeds in the U.S., because it's illegal to ship them anywhere. But Rare Dankness has managed a brisk trade in Colorado.
“I don't own a Ferrari,” he said. “I have a pickup truck in my driveway. But I don't worry about my mortgage anymore.”
Other breeders have followed suit in the last few years, launching seed banks and bringing their hoarded seeds and new designs to the market. But it raises the question: What exactly does it mean to brand a breed of pot?
“We're not seeing too much branded raw cannabis. That's pretty rare,” said Troy Dayton, CEO of the ArcView Group, one of the cannabis industry's leading investment firms. “Think of it in terms of produce; How many brands of tomatoes can you name? Now, how many brands of salsa?”
But Reach isn't bothered by that; he has no desire to patent his breeding work. He wants to see the plant legal.
“If we're going to heal cancer or fight AIDS, you have to do it legally and all share it,” he said, “before Monsanto and Phillip Morris get into it and lock it down.”
Within a few years, Reach says other people are bound to plant his seeds anyway and start growing his strains commercially too. Like a prescription drug turning generic, any premium based on his exclusive ownership of a strain would likely be short-lived.
“Someone's going to knock it off,” he said. “It's a plant. Ultimately, it's a frickin' plant.”
Reach knew Rare Dankness had to bank on more than top-shelf cannaboid profiles. He needed a value-add, a brand that guaranteed quality, authenticity and cultural cachet. “I have a 10-year plan,” he said.
Reach is currently developing a $10 million production and processing facility that will become the basis for the first fully branded, vertically integrated Rare Dankness outlet, like a Nike store, where everything inside is made by and branded Rare Dankness. His baseball caps are already out of stock.
I'm going to pop those beans. We're going to be known throughout the lands.
An electric thread of optimism binds all these magic-bean men. They got in on the basement floor of a winning social movement that few saw as inevitable just a few years ago. And while Big Ag and Big Pharma couldn't mess around with a Schedule I substance, a bunch of hippies, potheads and dreamers got a multi-decade head start. That ragtag crew now has the credentials to shape the fastest growing industry in America. They just have to figure out exactly how to do that.
“I'm lucky as hell. I wouldn't trade this life for anything right now,” said Kushman. “It's not the money and it's not the fame. Whatever quasi-celebrity I have, it's the respect. The feeling inside that I've really helped people. I feel like I'm actually making a mark.”
Last summer, he founded Kushman Genetics. It's illegal to make a profit off of growing, selling or distributing cannabis in California, but Kushman is hoping to make a name for his brand before the state's laws shift and he can start raking it in. After collecting seeds for 25 years, he says he has dozens of strains the world has never seen.
“I'm going to pop those beans,” he said. “We're going to be known throughout the lands.”
Chemdog is more circumspect. He's felt the bitter whip of the law, and his probation only wrapped up last August. But while biding his time making pipes, he's been dreaming up ways to leverage his legend. In 2013, he trademarked “Chemdog” for use on hats, T-shirts, sweaters, tobacco jars and “cigarette lighters not of precious metal.”
(Chemdog said his 12-year-old son thinks “Chemdog” is just a clothing line that he owns. After a pause, he acknowledged that the kid may have Googled it.)
“Good things come in time,” he said. “In the meantime, I'm going to keep blowing glass.”
But even if his home state of Massachusetts were to legalize recreational weed soon, which is likely, Chemdog probably wouldn't be able to get a job in the industry, because he's a convicted felon. And even if the federal government were to suddenly legalize cannabis, Chemdog still wouldn't be able to patent the Chemdog strain, because its genetics are in the public domain.
In fact, you can download them on your iPad for 99 cents.
A few years ago, in the hopes of improving cancer treatment, Kevin McKernan, a veteran of the Human Genome Project, decided to sequence the cannabis plant. A Grateful Dead fan familiar with the lore of Chemdog, McKernan naturally chose Chemdog 91.
In a hotel room overlooking Amsterdam's Keizersgracht canal, and with the assistance of a coffee pot, soap, grain alcohol and some magnetic particles, McKernan isolated Chemdog 91's DNA. Back in the U.S., McKernan and his team at Medicinal Genomics mapped the first cannabis genome.
McKernan and his colleagues used Chemdog genes to develop a test for mold or bacteria within marijuana – the only known cause of death from the plant – which can be especially dangerous for patients with weakened immune systems. Their work will also help researchers fine tune the properties of cannabis to better treat conditions such as epilepsy.
In other words, Chemdog may have been cursed with an outlaw life, but he was blessed with a place in history.
“That's mind-blowing,” said Chemdog, who had absolutely no idea that his strain was the first sequenced cannabis plant, or that top cannabis scientists around the country wanted to talk to him, or that he had become this much of a legend.
“I feel kind of good. I think it's cool that I did something like that for the people,” he said. “I wish it was something else. But that's what it is.”