This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Last week the Liberal government in Canada announced the creation of its Legalization Task Force. Composed of doctors, politicians, addiction experts, and cops, it has the people with the expertise—in the government's humble opinion—needed to bring cannabis out from under criminalization and into a legal framework.
But, as I'm sure even they would admit, one thing they're lacking on the task force is anyone with any real knowledge about the plant itself. There's no one on the Legalization Task Force that has any practical experience with weed other than telling you why it's bad or trying to keep it away from you. I doubt very much that any of them would admit to being a regular consumer (if I'm wrong on this, I hope some task force members hit me up for a session) let alone grown it or studied it from anything but a prohibition perspective.
That is certainly not the case with Al the Alchemist.
Al is one of Canada's foremost weed experts—something for which there's currently no official accreditation, but is a position that has to be earned all the same. The former host of the canna-educational Class in Session has been involved in cannabis for more than 30 years and has been growing weed for most of that. He takes the plant seriously and as a result is an invaluable source of information. Since meeting him a few years ago, he has completely changed my awareness of weed and how it works. I sat down with him recently to talk about some cannabis-related topics, including legal versus illegal, sativa versus indica, and the other false dichotomies the legal cannabis industry is being built on.
VICE: So how did you get into cannabis?
Al The Alchemist: Literally when I was a kid, we just decided one day to smoke weed. [It was with] my friend Ricky, who's no longer with us, he passed on. Anyway, I helped Ricky do his paper route, and he stole some weed off his dad, and we just decided to try it! And it was just the best fucking experience! There were a couple others like: There was a pimp that was around in our neighborhood, about a block away from my parents' place—really nice guy, but he was a pimp, no way around it! He had the silk suit and drove the Cadillac—he was a pimp. I got up the balls to knock on his door one day, there were about four of us, so I went and knocked and knocked on his door and waited and waited and finally the door opened and this guy looked at me and started laughing! I was like, "Uh, can I get some weed?" And he laughed in my face and slammed the door! And as I was turning around to leave he opened the door and said, "Hey, where're you going" And I gave him $10, and he filled my hand! Like it wasn't a gram, he filled my hand and said, "Now go have fun!" He still thought of me as a twelve-year-old kid.
What was the point when you started learning about it?
My friend's uncles, they were kind of the old rounders who were selling all the weed, so I started learning right off the hop, "Oh, this is Mexican weed, and this is Colombian." I knew what they each looked like. I knew what Thai looked like. I was really into it! Like, "Oh I heard that the Mexican tastes that way because they cure it with bananas and put it flat under mattresses!" etc.
I guess so much of cannabis industry is based on oral tradition…
One of the old traditional ways, they don't do it anymore in Afghanistan because of all the bullshit they have to go through, but one of the old ways of making hashish in Afghanistan was to extract it from the plant using the friction techniques, but then putting it in a clay urn, sealing it with animal skin and wax, and then burying it in the desert for like six or seven years. And then digging it up because it's fully cured, it's been heated and cooled—the desert gets hot and then super cold and hot and super cold every day—so it does that for seven years before it's ready.
And that's the traditional way of the past. In the 70s, they were processing hash like that.
So I guess these are the techniques that are lost now?
The Russian invasion into Afghanistan fucked that all up. They couldn't do those processes anymore.
How did you decide you wanted this to be a thing you wanted to spend some time actually learning about?
It's never been something that I've actually ever sat down and read books to study—it was just an organic gathering of knowledge, like exposing myself to the plant at such a young age, and exposing myself to the criminal side of it really. Learning about dealing, learning about the different companies it was imported from, that gave me a thirst and then when I moved out of my parents' place when I was eighteen, we grew a plant. We were like, "Hey, let's start growing this weed and see what we can do!"
There were no books, you couldn't go and buy High Times, they were outlawed in Canada at that time. It was before [Marc] Emery stepped up and said this is wrong—and thanks to Emery for doing that because that knowledge is now available. But when I was a kid, there was trial and error. We grew a plant with fucking laundry soap because we knew it had phosphates in it! Like, "Hey look we grew a plant!" And just slowly I started figuring stuff out and was like, "Hey I can grow weed!" Well, that's not true—one of our friends took the three year fucking biker apprenticeship. He grew for these guys, and they're pretty hardcore guys—and that was the first guy in our circle that really knew—he took the plunge, and then I started learning, I did a two year apprenticeship, I guess you could say, through him. We used to grow ruderalis hybrids. It was right when the Roadside Rudys collection was pretty big news. But one thing my buddy figured out from growing outdoors on his apprenticeship was that they flower ultra fast. It was unbelievable!
You mentioned off the top how you became interested in the criminal involvement side of cannabis.
Fascinated by it!
It just seems because of cannabis being criminalized, there's really no way to separate the development of and history of this plant from the criminal side of it.
Yeah, it developed completely criminally! Everything being adopted on the licensed-production side was developed under the prohibition. A lot of the techniques, everything! It all comes through the black market. So it's just legitimizing it. I don't understand where the resistance is. The government is willing to take these things and totally ignore everybody that was involved in the black market side. Saying, "Oh, this is the new thing. If you have a criminal record involving cannabis, you're no good to us!" To me, it's all asinine. These are the people you want on your side, growing the weed, people that have done time for it and are passionate about it and weren't scared and still went and did it. You know they got out of jail and still went and grew more and more weed.
A cannabis criminal record is almost like a résumé.
Almost? In my opinion it is.
You would have had to learn from someone or be protected by someone: You would have had to always be adjacent to someone that was criminally involved.
Yeah, and back in the day, it would have been bikers. I mean, nothing wrong with bikers. In my opinion, they were the ones that kick started the cannabis industry and made it what it is. I'm glad there was a group of people who said, "Fuck the government, people want this product, and if they're not stepping up to the plate to grow it, we are!" And I'm really happy for this. People are so quick to talk down in the activist community about the biker grow ops—but a lot of these recipes, strains, and everything we enjoy happened because of the bikers.
You bring up the development of strains. I find it really interesting right now that there's this whole push for good legal weed versus bad illegal weed—but correct me if I'm wrong—a lot of these strains on all sides come from the "black market."
A lot of them come from California. What people don't realize, back to the biker thing, a lot of these bikers were military, and they would collect these seeds from other counties and then grow them once they got back to California. They became part of collectives—there were six Afghani seeds that started Amsterdam basically. And I'm pretty sure it was six seeds that got smuggled out of California into Amsterdam. They were originally from Afghanistan into California, but from California into Amsterdam, and that's crazy! I mean, that could be folklore too, but…
What is it about the West Coast of the US and Canada? Why did cannabis develop so much there?
California! California started a lot of shit, they really did. And because of the Pacific Northwest community, it's not just California because we have Oregon and all of these other places. Eventually working its way up the networks of growers and hippies and people who were passionate about the plant through the 60s and 70s and that came to Canada too. A lot of Canadians traveled the world and also collected their own genetics. There was a pioneer, I don't know if I can say his name, but he was from Winnipeg, and he was flowering weed before Ed Rosenthal wrote about it. He didn't write a book about it, but if he had, he would have been the Ed Rosenthal.
Yeah, when did you realize that there was a national community?
I guess when Emery started stepping up to the plate. We were all like, "Who is this guy? We can buy bongs and books again." Here's a guy who didn't have anything to do with weed, but that realized how wrong it was and said, "Fuck it!" We thought that was the coolest thing: "Holy shit, he went from Ontario to Vancouver." Then we realized that there was the Vancouver scene, and one of our friends brought some strains from Vancouver—one of them was called the "Dankouver," and it was a crazy fucking strain! And another one that they just called "Van Couver," which smelled like strawberries. We realized that there was this huge scene out West.
I guess that was the origins of the fabled "BC bud"?
Yeah, the first ones we were getting were the Hawaiian Skunk, and we called that one the "nug." Pound-A-Plant, which later became the legendary BC Hash Plant, but when we were getting it, it was called "pound of plant." And we were getting the "Rude Northern." It was the rankest, rudest, hardest, densest, chunkiest bud. Really dark.
I think some people don't realize that these strain names actually have origins. There's a reason it's called this or that thing.
No different than a Ford or a Passat—they all have an origin. There is a reason.
There's almost this stripping of the heritage of cannabis going on.
Oh yeah, the history of cannabis has been so removed that it's hard to say what the history of cannabis is. All we have are these bastardized legends, and it's easy to gloss over that. Because of that, it's like we're just making it up as we go along. And to me, they're forcing people to lie! So now people have to say, "Oh it's a sixty/forty indica/sativa!" Oh yeah, how the fuck do you know that? You know that this particular phenotype is expressing this and that—you KNOW that, and you're going to communicate it to someone who is counting on you for the right answer? People can just tell somebody anything right now, and people are going to believe it! They think, Well, the dispensary guy told me this, and it must be true. He's a professional, and he deals with cannabis. He knows whats up! No.
It's even worse when you go to your doctor and your doctor is telling you this stuff?
Fuck yeah! Your doctor is trying to tell you, "Oh, what you need is sativa!" Well, do you? And what's sativa? What's an indica?
Well, what is an indica, and what is a sativa?
Well, a sativa means it's been cultivated, which is all cannabis. It's all cultivated, so everything's a fucking sativa! And an indica means it has to come from India.
So how did it come to the point where people think indica means you're going to get sleepy and sativa means you're going to get jumpy?
For that we've got to go back to the beginning, to the early days of classification. So we've got Linnaeus, he's the guy that categorizes cannabis sativa. The L in the Sativa—L name? That's Linnaeus.
He used correct terminology. He found a culture, a group of people that were growing cannabis, and they had bred—literally selectively bred the cannabis for two different reasons: one for fiber and one for oils. So he chose the proper name of an anciently cultivated cannabis. Cannabis sativa.
But he made no assertions about the effects of sativa?
No! Literally, he used the correct terminology, because this society had been growing cannabis in this region, and they developed, through selective breeding, making it better every year. He drew a picture of this plant, and it's a really lanky plant with stringy arms. But if you grow weed, and you've grown it for any length of time, you know that if you get your plant's root bound, they get lanky! If you grow weed in fields and you plant them side by side, like six inches apart from one another, it won't matter if it's a broad or thin-leaf cannabis plant, it's going to look like that picture Linnaeus drew: It's going to get really skinny, and it's going to stretch, and it's not going to have big branches. So there's your sativa.
Then we have Lamarck. He was in India. He was categorizing all things Indica, which means all things from India. He even classified a mango as an indica. There are lots of indicas that have nothing to do with cannabis.
"Well you don't want to eat that mango before you go to work, that's a bedtime mango." [laughs]
He found the plant growing in the wild. It wasn't being cultivated in a field or anything like that. It didn't have a whole bunch of other plants six inches from it, it was allowed to spread out it, it had like the squatter structure, with big fucking shrub like appearance and a broader leaf. Because he was in the north of India where plants don't grow super tall, they grow pretty wide and have a broader leaf! But if you go to the south of India, you're going to find the really lanky, "sativas" so to say.
So could you conceivably take the same seed and grow it tall and lanky or squatter?
Well, a broad leaf will be a broad leaf and a thin leaf will be a thin leaf. It's not going to change that much. However, there's a guy in Columbia that claims at about eight thousand feet you can turn broad leaves into thin leaves.
So there's nothing about the broad leaf that means you'd be sleepy?
Where did all this idea about indicas making you tired, etc. come from?
Well, Holland comes into the scene, and they started cracking seeds and saw these differences, so they went to the books and said, "Well, that's a sativa and that's an indica," and they ignored where they came from. So then Afghanis (strains) became indicas, North Asians (strains), Nepalese (strains), that all became indica.
I guess maybe it was easier for them to classify that way?
I mean there's Africans that are broad leaf! Are they indicas? They're Africanas! Just like there are Afghanicas, Asianicas.
So can you break down cannabis into two—some make you sleepy and some make you wide awake?
I think it depends on the person's metabolism and brain chemistry.
Yeah, because I've tried stuff that people said was a sativa and I was tired afterward.
Yeah, for sure! Haze often makes me want to go to bed after, but that's a haze! And I'll start my day more often than not with kush, because for me it's light, it's daytime weed, it doesn't have any staying power. And like some of the heaviest kushes that I've watched my friends nod off from—to me that's how I start my day because it doesn't last long. I don't get the narcotic feeling from it. So I just think it's all based on metabolism and brain chemistry really.
THC is THC—the THC in indica is no different than the THC in sativa. People are so trained, and I really think in a lot of cases there's a psychosomatic effect. When people are told that it's a sativa, there's an anticipation, they build it up themselves. I'm guilty of just rolling joints and smoking them with people and not disclosing if they're an "indica" or "sativa." And people that are so "sativa sensitive" are like, "Oh that's awesome, I feel so gooood." Well yeah, you just fucking smoked a haze, I don't know if I should tell you that or not because you might have a panic attack, you know? And then with panic attacks, I've had panic attacks, but I'm not saying it's because of the weed I'm smoking. It's because of my brain chemistry at the time.
So what does causes strain differentials then?
Terpenes. It's the cannabinoid profiles too, but really terpenes are the ones. If we started looking at strains that make people paranoid—chances are they're sharing common terpenes. And strains that make people sleepy—chances are they're all a certain type of terpene profile. I'd like to see weed being slowly classified in those realms.
So then I guess the logical thing to talk about from that would be irradiation and a reduction of terpene clusters, so what does this mean when we talk about irradiating cannabis?
You're stripping the character, bottom line.
The other thing I wanted to talk about is the idea of CBD and THC and this sort of false dichotomy that these are the two trichomes. It's kind of the whole post–Sanjay Gupta effect. That there's good trichome in CBD and bad trichome in THC because supposedly one only affects your body and one affects your mind, but don't they interact?
They both exist within the same trichome. The trichome is the gland, and within that gland, we have the full cannabinoid spectrum. Both THC and CBD are important.
But they're just two of a few right?
Yeah tons. There's THC, CBD, CBG, CBN, and all of those existing in acid forms as well as they're fully decarboxylated forms. There just haven't been enough tests. THC was the one they were testing for the longest time, so they know the most about it. And now they know about CBD. But they haven't really delved into all of these other ones. We are just getting started.
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