It’s Good to Be the King
Arjan Roskam’s Cannabis Empire Is More Than Smoke and Mirrors
Aug 6 2013
Franco Loja, head breeder for the Green House Seed Company, inspects a specimen of the marijuana strain called Limon Verde in the Cauca region of Colombia. All photos by Jackson Fager.
ne afternoon this May, Arjan Roskam lounged on the deck of a 24-foot sport-fishing boat. He was speeding through a deep bay off the Caribbean coast of northwestern Colombia, keeping an eye on a line he’d cast a few minutes before. Arjan is 48 years old, well over six feet tall, and clean-shaven. He has the rough-hewn mien of a Dutchman, and possesses a piercing baritone that cuts through chatter like an oboe. He looks and sounds like a leader, one of those rare souls who was able to fulfill his destiny without compromising. He is the most recognizable and controversial figure in the business of marijuana, the self-styled and self-described “King of Cannabis.”
I was traveling with Arjan through the mountains and jungles of Colombia, along with a crew of international pot growers he calls the “Strain Hunters.” We were searching for three exceptional but elusive varieties of marijuana that have remained genetically pure for decades. They have lyrical, almost mythic names that roll off the tongue: Limon Verde, Colombian Gold, and Punta Roja. The day before our jungle excursion, we’d found specimens of the latter two strains in a nearby marijuana grove maintained by paramilitary groups and local farmers. Arjan was elated. He had acquired the first two of the 200 or so landraces—strains of marijuana that have naturally developed in far-flung regions around the world—and he was hell-bent on getting them all.
Arjan and his breeders will grow thousands of plants from these landrace seeds, pick the strongest ones, and breed new commercial strains based on their exotic genetics. This is the first step in a long, intricate process that makes it possible for a local deliveryman to show up at your house with a backpack bouquet filled with varieties like Alaskan Ice, Bubba Kush, and White Widow. If you’ve ever been cornered by a bleary-eyed pot nerd at a party, you know that the reason we’re not all still smoking Thai stick and twiggy, seed-filled weed is because of the thousands of commercial breeders around the world mixing, cross-breeding, experimenting, and developing new flavors, effects, and qualities—all from what is essentially a common mountainside plant.
From the water, the snowcapped foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range loomed in the distance. It extends right up to the country’s Caribbean coast, and just over 26 miles inland. Two peaks (one named after Colombia’s colonial liberator Simón Bolívar) stand at about 19,000 feet. The topography is freakish and stunning. The temperate highland air and year-round equatorial sunshine of these mountains makes for one of the most fertile regions in the world to grow and harvest cannabis. During the 1960s and 70s, thousands of tons were exported from the very same 100-meter-deep bays we were cruising through. Smuggling boats followed a northern route via the Caribbean, onward toward the United States. It was a weed rush colloquially called the “Bonanza Marimbera,” and it transformed hundreds of peasant farmers into wealthy drug lords. The foundation of Santa Marta, the vibrant coastal city where we were staying, was literally built of drug money.
A recent edition of El Tiempo, Colombia’s daily newspaper, had boasted “la marihuana vive una nueva bonanza”—heady times for growing and shipping weed from Colombia’s northern coast were back, as the demand for marijuana continues to grow exponentially. These days, however, Colombian growers aren’t producing much Colombian Gold. Instead, like the rest of the industry, they’ve shifted toward hybrids developed by breeders and growers in California, British Colombia, and Amsterdam—breeders like Arjan.
If cartels and other criminal organizations were the millionaires of last century’s drug booms, then pot breeders—horticultural nerds holed up in grow houses and labs across the world—may very well be the future billionaires of this one. Like Monsanto, or other agribusiness giants, massive companies could end up controlling the plant at its most basic level, which is why Arjan is so important to this business: he controls Amsterdam’s Green House Seed Company, one of the largest seed companies on the planet, which styles itself as “the most successful cannabis business in the world.”
Green House claims to have won 38 Cannabis Cups, nearly twice as many as any other company. In the wake of legalization in US states like Colorado, and with the prospect of legalization in countries like Uruguay, Arjan is betting on a future where the demand for weed will evolve and mature, and he’s doing everything he can to ensure that he’ll be the one on top when the dominoes of criminalization tumble around the world. And he should be. The man is arguably is the best-positioned, legitimate drug dealer out there; he isn’t just selling drugs—he’s helping to build the culture of the industry.
As we fished and downed cans of beer on the boat in Santa Marta, sparking massive joints stuffed with hash and pungent bud, Arjan kept an eye on the ocean. Eventually one of his lines was pulled taut, and he grabbed the pole from its holster and commanded the seat at the stern to reel in his catch. Before long, a six-foot iridescent fish writhed on the white deck of the boat. We ate it for lunch. It was delicious.
Colombia’s Caribbean coast was a major area for marijuana smuggling in the 70s and early 80s.
A ccurately estimating the size of the global marijuana market (both legal and illegal) may be flat-out impossible—they range from 10 to 140 billion dollars per year. Arjan claims he owns 25 percent of the seed market, a smaller subset of the entire industry, but arguably its most crucial. And while this figure is extremely difficult to verify, industry sources I spoke with on background said that Arjan’s math isn’t too far off. Considering there are currently hundreds of seed companies worldwide, this is a fairly significant slice of the pie. And while Arjan also owns weed-selling coffee shops, a clothing line, and even a booze company that makes cannabis-flavored alcohol, his primary business is to create new varieties of marijuana to sell on the international market. This is a lucrative, and somewhat exclusive segment of the market. To unlock new flavor profiles and new body effects through the combination of cannabinoids and terpenoids (the lesser-known chemical in weed), an expert level of knowledge is essential. Breeding new lines is not genetic engineering per se, it’s just husbandry. But, like the modern wine industry, growing pot has become a valuable science that requires an artisan’s skill, knowledge, and sensibility.
Franco Loja is Arjan’s gaunt, hyperactive head breeder and business partner. He’s 39 years old and previously served as a paratrooper in the Italian military. As he explained to me this spring, “The beauty of cannabis is in its variety. It’s not just one plant—it’s thousands of plants. Breeding plants is creating something new. You could compare the job to that of a Michelin-star chef creating new recipes. The ingredients are almost infinite to combine.”
Franco and Arjan’s business model relies on finding these rare plants, which, as I witnessed firsthand in the mountains, is easier said than done. Weed is still very much illegal in Colombia, and guerrilla factions, paramilitary groups, and other gun-toting bands of frightening humans usually control the areas where it is best grown. Arjan’s name recognition and economic clout open doors, but he still has to travel through these remote, militarized zones. This requires arduous journeys in trucks or on foot, journeys that Green House’s competitors are, frankly, too timid or too cash-strapped to embark upon.
At a seaside restaurant inside Tayrona National Park near the city of Santa Marta, Arjan told me about one of his life’s most pivotal moments, which underlines his unwavering belief in the plant. “When I was 17,” he told me, “I went to Thailand. In the north of Thailand, I was hiking and I met a very old man who at that time was curing heroin patients with marijuana. I stayed there for a week, and at that time, I thought the guy was really crazy. But the more I stayed, the more I learned from him, and the moment I went away, he gave me some seeds and told me to remember one thing: in the future, those seeds could overthrow governments.”
Magic beans from a mysterious stranger. It’s a Jack and the Beanstalk story. Who exactly plays the giant in Arjan’s life is unclear. It could be the beast of illegality, or lobbying pressure wielded by the industries that control other, regulated vices like tobacco, alcohol, and petroleum. Or it could be the insurmountable fact that, despite his leadership in the community of pot growers and business people, he’s never quite fit in.
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