by David Downs
Funny, naughty, and hyper-contemporary, hard-boiled summer paperback Baked follows Miro, breeder of hit marijuana strain Elephant Crush, as he wins the High Times Cannabis Cup and ends up shot in a gangland dispensary dispute. Los Angeles novelist Mark Haskell Smith releases Baked — his fourth book — this fall on the Black Cat imprint of Grove/Atlantic press. Below, the 53-year-old screenwriter and professor continues his talk with Legalization Nation about the wild world of million-dollar marijuana strains, literary research in Amsterdam, notorious gangbangers, and Prop 19. [Edited for space and clarity. Pt. 3 of 5]
Legalization Nation: In your thank you notes you credit the Strain Hunters. Who are they?
Mark Haskell Smith: There's this series of movies these guys who own Greenhouse, Franco and Arjan, make. They did one movie where they went to Malawi and they try to find wild, landrace strains that haven't been hybridized and maybe have some pure genetics that they can take back and hybridize and use in their research.
Basically what's happening is kind of like what's happening to the tomato and the apple. As certain strains get popular, like, OG Kush is popular here, almost every kind of pot that you can get has a little bit of that Kush in it or Northern Lights or Skunk. They say, 'there's Skunk in everything.'
Well, they're trying to find a pure skunk — heirloom strains that they can dial stuff back and come up with variations. One of the things that's interesting: all cannabis is strong. It's not about making it stronger anymore, which has more to do with growing. Now they're looking at effects and flavors and things like that to try and get a variety, just like at a wine store where you wouldn't want your only choice to be a Chardonnay or a Cabernet Sauvingnon. It's nice to have a Merlot or a Sauvignon blanc. That's where they are at. They're really trying to make different experiences for smokers.
Legalization Nation: So popular strains lead to inbreeding, and the Strain Hunters help refresh the line. Who are DNA Genetics?
Mark Haskell Smith: Two guys who are from Los Angeles and who are growers who didn't want to go to jail for doing what they love so they moved to Amsterdam and started developing strains and won a few cannabis cups and they're probably one of the top three strain breeders and seed companies in the world.
Legalization Nation: Are they doing genetic engineering or is it more on the Mendel level of selective breeding?
Mark Haskell Smith:One's just named Don and the other's Aaron so it's DNA. It's all old-school. What's interesting about cannabis is it has male plants and female plants so they get a Congolese male — a pure sativa that grows fourteen feet high and takes eleven months to flower and they can cross it with an indica that's easier to manage and grows shorter and blooms faster and come up with something.
Some breeding is done to help growers and some is done for flavors. Like the DNA guys have this strains called Chocolope. It's a great name. It was a Chocolate Thai that also grew really tall and really rangy crossed with one of their strains of Cantalope Haze, which was shorter. They wanted a chocolate flavor with the Haze, then they also back-crossed it — whatever that means — to make its grow cycles shorter and plants shorter so people can grow them indoors.
Legalization Nation: Is there such thing as a million-dollar strain like the book's Elephant Crush?
Mark Haskell Smith: The big seed companies like Green House, they make between $20 and $40 million a year just selling seeds. Someone like DNA might make $5 to $10 million, but they're all very cagey and just say 'we sell four million seeds a year'. And I have to look online to see their web site and go 'Well at $10 a seed that's $40 million.'
So it's a huge business and they aren't the only companies. Some places just distribute. Some famous ones in Canada are just seed banks and get seed from all these different companies. As legalization and the medical thing is moving forward, DNA Genetics is moving an office here so when the time is right they'll be ready to sell their seed here.