on two new books about the culture of marijuana.
Mark Haskell Smith
Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup
Broadway Paperbacks, April 2012. 237 pp.
Matthew Gavin Frank
University of Nebraska Press, March 2012. 232 pp.
Apologies if you’re expecting this review to be lighthearted stoner fun, but I’d like to start by revisiting the case of Jose Guerena. The former Marine was shot two dozen times by a SWAT team on May 5, 2011, in his own house, while his 4-year-old son and wife hid in a closet in the next room. Guerena’s door was one of four that the officers of the Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff’s Department kicked in on that Thursday morning, with the intention of busting a marijuana trafficking ring. They found nothing drug-related, not even rolling papers, and left a 26-year-old father of two dead on his living room floor.
As Mark Haskell Smith and Matthew Gavin Frank note in their respective books, Heart of Dankness and Pot Farm, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug, in the same legal class as heroin or LSD. This is what gives a sheriff the right to dispatch a half-dozen heavily armed men to a private residence. You don’t have to be a pot smoker to consider Guerena’s fate a travesty and an outrage, and in fact, I’d bet most pot smokers would prefer not to think of it at all. The vast majority of the estimated 17 million Americans who use marijuana won’t ever have to confront the system that killed Jose Guerena, or feel its presence in any way other than in headlines. No amount of bureaucratic bluster or police muscle, not even the occasional horrific drug-arrest-gone-wrong, is going to scare them straight, because chances are they’ll be able to continue getting high in peace indefinitely.
Nevertheless, crackdowns have become more obscene and government rhetoric more heated. In an infamous February 2011 memo, Oakland-based U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag pledged to “enforce the Controlled Substances Act vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law” (emphasis added). Headline-grabbing pot busts have grown more violent than ever, but the drug is still so easily accessible and its use so widespread that those who would benefit most from legalization might reasonably choose to let others do the fighting.
Heart of Dankness and Pot Farm present two very different examples of civilians wading into the legally murky, phenomenally profitable marijuana industry. The former is a globetrotting, journalistic trip through the nerdier echelons of marijuana development, while the latter is a lyrical, present-tense memoir that barely strays from its Edenic setting. Sticky situations arise, particularly in the Sierras and surrounding regions where the federal/state distinction breaks down, but in both cases it proves perfectly easy for the writers to buy, grow, pick, and ingest as much weed as they please. Marijuana’s illegality is an obstacle in both stories, but a benign one, present mainly in the threat of arrest more than actual raids. For Smith and Frank, pot is foremost a safe, easy way for individuals to calmly enhance the world around them. Their books are proof of how the national conversation around this drug is changing, and how the market has evolved to meet the growing demand while federal and local governments remain stuck in the 1960s.
Smith is the mordantly funny author of novels with one-word titles like Moist, Salty, and Delicious. Here he leaves fiction for nonfiction as he searches for the meaning of another sensual adjective: “dank.” Heart of Dankness begins when Smith encounters a particularly bliss-inducing strain of marijuana named “John Sinclair” at the 2009 Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, which is kind of like an Oscars for international weed growers. The author attempts to discover what exactly makes pot “dank.” Is it the varietal of plant? The soil? The growing environment? The quality of beer and food available to the smoker as the high kicks in? This “quest” takes the form of a dozen-odd interviews with global weed experts, always culminating with, “What does ‘dank’ mean to you?” Smith’s encounters with these titans of tea make for an insightful and fascinating story, which the subtitle portends: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup. In these surprisingly sober (in both senses) sections, Dankness is closer to John McPhee than Hunter Thompson: intimate one-on-ones with acknowledged crackpot geniuses in an obscure field.
Smith’s botanists, for example, are so transcendently focused on the microscopic details of crystal growth, landrace genetics, “F1 hybrids,” and notional enzymes that they seem almost dismissive of the fact that, you know, this stuff gets you high. “People chronically overmedicate with cannabis,” says Michael Backes (his real name, though most of the names in these books are pseudonym; he’s now one of the top people in the most exclusive and inventive marijuana-growing businesses in Los Angeles), his allusion to “chronic” apparently unintentional. Many less discerning “patients” might reply the way my long-lost friend Adam used to whenever someone would get on his case for laughing too loud or rambling on: “Fuck that; I do this to get stoned.” Not every wine drinker is a sommelier, of course, and were marijuana to be legalized tomorrow, it’s unlikely that a Backes-level of scientific expertise would suddenly become common among American pot smokers. Anyone can easily access the prodigious scholarship on growing techniques already, through DVDs, websites, conferences, and symposia, not to mention books like Heart of Dankness. Pot’s legalization, however, might afford Backes and his fellow obsessives the respect that’s due them for being innovators in their field. One of his peers in the beer business, Sam Calagione, for instance, has enjoyed a profile in The New Yorker and a professional partnership with Mario Batali. But two of Smith’s central “cannabis personae,” Aaron and Don, can’t even have their full names used in a book that celebrates their innovation and intelligence — they are the owners of DNA Genetics, founded in Amsterdam in 2003 and known for its creation of several outstanding cannabis strains.
Heart of Dankness ranges from Europe to California and from federal wilderness to crowded lecture halls, and Smith is an engaging host in all of these places. But it’s occasionally difficult to discern who he assumes his audience is. Smith conveys the joy of a good high with enthusiasm that’s clearly telegraphed to his fellow heads, but unlike books such as Brian Preston’s very similar, more strident book from a decade ago, Pot Planet, he also takes care to parenthetically define certain terms — like “doing rips” — that barely qualify as slang. (That’s “inhaling hits of marijuana,” for all of you in the square community.) And while he carefully explains the most scientifically up-to-the-minute marijuana growing techniques, he possesses an anachronistic set of cultural references, referring to Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate reviews as “Star Search for booze,” and invariably describing any bearded younger man he sees as an “alt-rock” type.
I see from an image on Matthew Gavin Frank’s website that he would qualify as an alt-rocker according to this taxonomy, though his true background is in poetry and food writing. You can see hints of both in Pot Farm. As a memoirist, Frank has none of Smith’s pithy lightness, but he’s also funny, and Pot Farm is the more literary book. Very little actually happens plot-wise; narrative momentum comes mainly from the slow accumulation of detail about Frank’s coworkers at the title business, and his internal monologue about why he and his wife Johanna ended up there in the first place.
“I am going to try not to dwell on the details of our lives up to this point,” Frank writes early on, and lucky for us he fails at the task. He and Johanna have fled to the Central Valley because they spent the prior eight months living back in Frank’s parents’ house, helping out as his mother began chemo treatments. Frank’s evocations of this purgatory are stunning and affecting, the real heart of this book despite its provocative title. The pot farm serves as a metaphor for just how desperate he and his wife were for something other than sharing a bed in his childhood room. After months of silent sex (so as not to wake his parents downstairs) under a decades-old poster of Ryne Sandberg, months of maternal deterioration, months of Midwestern suburbia, Frank and Johanna find themselves “lost and insane with the thirst for solitude.” California, and the semi-legal employment recommended by one of Johanna’s friends, is their much-needed “cosmic high-colonic.”
One of the strains grown at Weckman Farm (another disguised name), called “Trainwreck,” is praised by many characters in Heart of Dankness. This is not the only moment in which the two books perform an illuminating dialogue. There’s the assertion by Jon Foster, a key Smith interviewee and proprietor of a revered Amsterdam coffee shop, that “[t]he best herb is handmade — artisanal cannabis by people who sweat the small stuff.” Michael Backes agrees that the best pot can’t be scaled; it can only come in small, meticulously managed quantities. Well, here’s Matthew Gavin Frank, sweating through his clothes in order to get the homegrown buds from plant to truck, acknowledging that
[i]f there’s a science to the curing process, [farm owner] Lady Wanda favors the shoestring variety. Here, rolodexes still trump the Internet. Apparently, it works for her. While many experienced growers employ swamp coolers, air conditioners, humidifiers, and dehumidifiers to keep the drying buds at a constant humidity level (about 50 to 60 percent), Lady Wanda seems to achieve the same result with discount fans and an old drafty barn.The farm crew, unlike any of the businessmen and scientists in Heart of Dankness, also manage to remain high for most of their waking hours without once discussing genetics. Their relationship to pot is similarly all-consuming; it’s their job, their home scenery, and, for one worker, the painkiller that keeps his cancer-stricken wife from living in agony. But there’s no quest for the perfect high on Weckman Farm, and no desire to engineer such a thing under LED lights. There’s only a deeply held belief among the workers that they are providing a medical service, and a general libertarian leaning that appears to be the default setting of serious marijuana growers. Heart of Dankness offers a thorough view of where marijuana cultivation is headed in the next five or 10 years and who might take it there, but Pot Farm has its own revelations, like the fact that workplaces such as Weckman were a great source of employment for displaced Hurricane Katrina victims, or that farm owners usually have to replace their furniture after each season because their employees are permanently caked in sweat and resin. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has described the “sudden movement from total concentration to Zenlike disassociation” that distinguishes a marijuana high; read in tandem, Smith and Frank’s books reach a similar yin-yang balance.
The authors of Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy (Wilkie Wilson, Scott Swartzwelder, and Cynthia Kuhn, third edition published in 2008) hypothesize that “the social association between marijuana and hallucinogens during the 1960s can account for its continued inclusion with LSD and heroin under the category of Schedule 1 narcotics, despite the profound differences in the potency of effects on (and risks to) individuals.” Pot and acid were both countercultural calling cards during the time when these classifications were made, a link further strengthened by a belief among users that both drugs provided the potential for mind-expanding, even peace-inspiring, experiences.
A few generations later, when two presidents have copped to trying it and even Pat Robertson has advocated decriminalization, pot has all but lost its rebellious quality, making the comparison with acid even less appropriate. The very first sentence of The Psychedelic Experience, Timothy Leary’s 1964 treatise, states that LSD promotes “a journey to new realms of consciousness.” You’ll search in vain for any equivalent claim from the dozens of users in Smith or Frank’s books. The hot-button word now is “medicate,” or for those less zealous stoners, “baked.” Pot and acid’s mutual Schedule 1 classification is a relic from a time before marijuana-growing became a middle-class boutique enterprise halfway between orchid cultivation and home-brewing. And neither of those activities boasts a vocal minority insisting upon their medicinal properties.
“If Gloria can’t smoke, she can’t eat,” Frank’s coworker says of his dying wife. “These propositions,” meaning the frequent ones that aim to tighten medical marijuana restrictions, “are death sentences for us.” That’s the most politically loaded moment in either of these books. The authors’ attitudes toward pot are better represented by their framing: both books begin with visions and end with epiphanies. Mark Haskell Smith feels compelled to uncover the meaning of “dank” while staring blissfully at the colors reflecting off the Brouwersgracht canal, and he concludes his journey in a full concert audience listening to an orchestral rendition of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” Matthew Gavin Frank starts by pondering whether or not his employer’s crops look like birds in silhouette, and closes in the car with his wife, speeding back into civilization.
The mentality that fuels our War on Drugs grows more out of touch and overreactive with each passing year, especially when compared to the actual experience of using marijuana, which both writers convey perfectly. A calm, quiet majority of pot users will continue to enjoy moments just like Smith’s and Frank’s, while state and federal governments will continue a blistering campaign to keep people from experiencing a dried plant that stopped being “countercultural” decades ago. In the gulley between the two sides, we have a multibillion-dollar industry full of unrecognized talent, countless pain-wracked patients taking pills by the dozen, and the periodic destruction of innocent lives like Jose Guerena’s. We’re lucky to have writers like Mark Haskell Smith and Matthew Gavin Frank chronicling this psychotic state of affairs in such varied and skillful ways, though I look forward to the day when their books read like ancient history.
John Lingan's writing has appeared in The Morning News, The Point, 7Stops, The Quarterly Conversation, and many other venues. He’s working on a memoir about becoming a father during college.
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