I was traveling with Arjan Roskam, self-described “King of Cannabis,” 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...
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.
Arjan Roskam dubbed himself the “King of Cannabis” and scours the world for rare marijuana.
rjan wasn’t always a magnate. He started growing in basements and apartments in and around Amsterdam nearly 30 years ago. “We were just pot growers enjoying our smoke,” Arjan reminisced. “After a few years, we figured out that we weren’t the only ones. There are 2 billion people who enjoy that smoke, and we were very lucky to jump on this wagon in the 80s. That wagon became a train, and the train became an airplane. That airplane is flying really fast now.”
“And really high,” added Franco.
“Yes,” Arjan said. “Really high.”
Arjan first found success in Holland, a country that decided decades before California that it was better to regulate the near-universal desire to get stoned than attempt to ban it. He started breeding new strains of weed under the Green House name in 1985, opening his first shop seven years later. He wasn’t the first to the game, but over the course of his career he leveraged his early adoption in the legal weed market into a form of self-appointed chairmanship. He often serves as the spokesperson for Amsterdam’s guild of coffee shops, and has polished the image of his company into an internationally recognized operation. “It’s very successful,” he said. “To give you an idea, just last year we sold over 400,000 packs of seeds. That makes us the number-one seed-seller in the world.”
And it looks as though Green House’s profile will continue to rise. As growing pot evolves from a clandestine pursuit into something any garden hobbyist can consider, a seed company’s image is more important than ever. This is what marketing hacks refer to as “brand equity,” and Arjan and Franco are busy building the equity of Green House Seed Company by bolstering its profile through the company’s online operations.
The Green House has produced a handful of hour-long documentaries shot during strain-hunting trips they’ve taken to Malawi, Morocco, and India, among other far-flung locales, in search of the ultimate high. The videos, ambitious in their cinematic aspirations, have garnered several million views on YouTube. In them, Arjan comes off as the sociologically enlightened Arnold Schwarzenegger of weed, lending an ear to the sometimes-painful stories of peasant pot growers as he crisscrosses the globe in a tank top and cargo shorts. According to David Bienenstock, a former senior editor for High Times, Arjan has “adopted a modern marketing sensibility,” something that’s woefully missing in much of the nascent industry. The Dutchman has an American understanding of market forces, which makes it somewhat ironic that the American industry has shut him out, even as it has exploded over the past decade as states across the country have embraced legalization on various levels. Importing seeds remains illegal in the States.
“The game between illegal and legal in our industry forces us to stay sharp,” Franco told me. To combat this tension, Green House has heavily invested in research and development, “to keep flexible, to adapt to new laws, new regulations, new market demands, new repression, and new openings. We can’t afford to choose our own market strategy.”
Arjan knows how to grab what’s directly in front of him, a skill that has landed him a negative reputation with his competition. Some refer to him as a pretender, a businessman in the garb of a breeder; however, like any other industry, having vocal detractors could be interpreted as a sign of success.
Breeders do not think of themselves as drug dealers, but as hyperskilled farmers, more akin to cheesemongers or vintners. There’s an unwritten understanding that your product ought to speak for itself, that the plant is above any one person. In 1999, Green House, alongside two other companies, was stripped of its Cannabis Cup in the Hash category following accusations of vote rigging. It’s a reputational wound that festers and further diminishes Arjan’s cred among the hermetic Amsterdam pot scene. But Arjan shrugs off such setbacks without fear. Even during moments when marijuana was highly illegal in most parts of the planet, he stamped his face directly on his product, knowing that weed would eventually blossom into a quasi-mainstream consumer product. It was a bold move, and one that’s indicative of a personality that continues to rub certain segments of the marijuana industry the wrong way.
Gato stretches out the floral, sweet hash he made from by dumping a bucket of THC crystals into a meat grinder.
hree days before my sit-down interview with Arjan and Franco, I was following Arjan through Colombia’s southwest Cauca region to scope out a massive grow operation headed up by a 35-year-old Colombian man who goes by the name El Gato, or “the Cat.”
Gato isn’t as svelte as his nickname suggests, but his moniker is an apt descriptor of his spry business acumen. Raised in Miami, he cut his teeth growing in Latin America before founding and operating large-scale industrial operations in a handful of nations. He currently consults for Uruguay’s government about marijuana legalization. It’s obvious that Gato looks up to Arjan and acts as his protégé, paying close attention when he speaks.
Our visit was less of a strain hunt, and more so a way for Gato to show off how well he’s done for himself since taking over the family business, a breeding and seed-sale operation he named Marimberos (a reference to the faded glory days of Colombian weed supremacy). The plantation is massive, with plants growing outdoors covered by acres of clear plastic sheeting draped over a lattice of bamboo poles that extend down the slope of a mountain. A quick calculation clued me in to the stakes: Gato and his head grower, a former assassin he met in prison, have 8,000 plants that yield 4,000 pounds of weed every harvest. Because of Colombia’s year-round stable weather, the operation produces three harvests a year, which roughly equates to six tons of weed.
Over the past few years, Gato’s father and two of his brothers were gunned down by rivals. “My two brothers got killed in the last three years by some fuckers in Medellín who think they are the kings of pot,” he said. “They think they control the business because they’re bandits, but they control the market through violence, not quality.”
Quality is Gato’s chief mission. He tries to grow excellent pot because he loves it. It’s as simple as that. “Your hobby becomes your business automatically,” he said. “You don’t look for it. It’s like when you’re a good singer, and you become famous—you don’t ask for that shit. Some good singers hate fame, but that shit arrives. With grass, it’s the same. My daughter’s mom, she told me one day I had to choose between marijuana and her. I divorced her that day. How can you fucking complain about pot when you live like a rich hooker? You have everything you want. Everything in your fridge came from this pot.”
Later Gato took me on a tour of his storehouses, his drying and curing facilities, and the small indoor factory where he makes hash and other processed goods. At one point he shoved a bucketful of dried THC crystals into an industrial meat grinder, producing a flow of gooey, floral hash that looked like melted chocolate. He gushed about his particular strand of weed, named for one of his daughters. The blend is a deep, couch-locking hybrid called Nicole’s Kush, and while it hasn’t risen to the same popularity as some of Arjan’s varieties just yet (and can’t be found in the States), it is some truly primo shit. If things go right for Gato, his daughter’s namesake could be his breakout hybrid that will solidify his dominance in the industry.
Pay dirt. Arjan shows off the Punta Roja seeds he and his strain-hunting crew found near Santa Marta, Colombia.
rjan’s breakout hybrid was White Widow, named for the abundance of trichomes that give the plant a white tint. The blend is a legendary variety available around the world and has even been name-checked in episodes of Weeds. It gives the user an intense energetic euphoria and offers a spicy smoke with a sweet, buttery finish. It won the Cannabis Cup in 1995, which is part of the reason why the question of precisely who developed this particular strain is a major point of contention among the Amsterdam grower community. So much so that it has resulted in a fundamental rift that still divides opinion regarding Arjan’s motivations as a businessman and a human being.
The story behind the creation of White Widow is convoluted. Arjan claims a grower he worked with in the 80s named Ingemar was the progenitor of the strain, which Green House perfected over the next decade. But Arjan’s former business partner, an Australian named Scott Blakey, claims he invented it at Green House, and when he left the company in 1998 he took the first stabilized generation of plants with him to form a new company. These days, Scott is better known as “ShantiBaba,” and his company is called Mr. Nice Seed. ShantiBaba is merciless in his accusations against Arjan. According to Scott, Arjan doesn’t deserve credit for the discovery, or the numerous accolades that have been bestowed on White Widow.
Part of the reason the White Widow debate has persisted all these years is because the weed market is largely deregulated. Patents and intellectual property aren’t yet applicable to the pot industry, so neither side has been able to take their grievances to court. It’s purely a battle of reputation and a clash of inflated personalities. Arjan rarely speaks about the accusations, but when he does, his language is vitriolic. In 2011, he composed an approximately 4,309-word post on International Cannagraphic’s online forum, lobbing ad hominem attacks on ShantiBaba that labeled him a huckster while simultaneously shoving sales figures in his face. “Green House represents up to 50 percent of the market in Holland, Spain, England, Italy, and in many more countries,” he wrote. “In most shops it works like this: for every GH pack sold, one pack is sold from all other companies together. Just call any grow shop in Spain, or ask large distributors like Basil Bush or Plantasur, and you will have an idea of the volume of seeds we sell compared to Shantiblabla.”
he afternoon we found the Punta Roja landrace strain was exceptionally beautiful. We found our prize after hiking up into a modest grow operation in a valley a few hours outside of Santa Marta. The logistics of the trip were somewhat overwhelming, as we were shuttled from hotels to fields to conferences with local leaders, eventually arranging a meeting with our contacts on the side of a road. But once we were actually surrounded by what we had been seeking, both Arjan and Franco became amplified versions of themselves.
We surveyed a hundred or so plants that Arjan and Franco had identified as pure sativa based on their thin leaves and narrow bud structures. Franco explained the importance of internodal distance between the branches of the plant, how seeds must mature in their casings before they are plucked, how Punta Roja—or Red Dot—was given its name. When we came across a particularly superb phenotype, he was elated. Each of us couldn’t help but to plunge our hands into the raw, sticky buds that smelled of pine and sawgrass, overwhelmed by the thrill of discovering seeds that could be taken back to Amsterdam.
“This is original material that I can breed, that I can store in my library, that I can use to create new genetics, that are gonna win Cannabis Cups,” Franco said. “These are going to make people rich, put people in jail, change destinies and lives. And this is why I wake up with a smile every fucking day of my life.” His tawny face creased as he looked skyward and howled, “We got seeds, man!”
Arjan ran down the hill to rifle through the plant. He grabbed handfuls of tiny seeds, plucked any living plant material from them, and secured them into small plastic bags. He spoke wildly about the potential of the industry, prophesizing of a time in the near future when governments will limit the THC content of commercial marijuana. In that version of the future, flavor is more important than effect, and controlling rare, as-of-yet unincorporated genetic material gives the grower a huge leg up on the competition.
The discovery of these seeds marks the beginning of Arjan’s real work. Once back in the lab, Franco and Arjan will plant the seeds, pick the best specimens, and replant their seeds. They’ll repeat this process many times over until they have it just right. Ultimately, they will grow upward of 10,000 plants from these seeds. They’ll attempt to stabilize different lines to optimize factors such as flowering time, mold and fungus resistance, and resin. Five years down the line, unique qualities inherent in the source strain could form the basis of an entirely new creation.
Or not. But even if these specific source strains don’t pan out on a consumer level, Green House will still catalogue the mother plants and keep the line alive, while analyzing the cannabinoid and terpenoid properties. It’s possible that a pharmaceutical giant on the hunt for specific strands could knock on their door—in 2003, Bayer paid $40 million for the right to distribute Sativex, a marijuana-derived medicine designed to alleviate spasticity, overactive bladder, and other symptoms.
Arjan and his associates know very well that theirs is a risky business with no immediate reward. But betting on a world where marijuana is legally closer to wine than heroin has the potential of the most handsome of rewards, which include the priceless adventures that people like Arjan and Franco must embark on to collect their ultimate bounty.
“We all know that in ten to 20 years everything will be legal,” Arjan said. “We’re just keeping all our options open and finding all the keys for the future. One of the keys is all the different landraces.”
This metric of success was proven during our time in Colombia; Arjan and his team found all three of the strains he had gone there to find. Though festooned with the regalia of his own personal mythos—his uncle, Peter, was a big-time potato farmer in Holland, another sign of his horticultural destiny—and the stigma of millions of dollars he’s made from a successful gray-market business, Arjan fancies himself a humble man.
“I still want to be alone with my plants in my room, smoke, that’s it… That’s my main thing, enjoying watching my plants grow,” Arjan said. “I’m a farmer.” Then he took a hit and reconsidered. “I’m a farmer with big ambitions.”
For beautiful bud footage from the mountains of Colombia, watch Kings of Cannabis below:
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