What do you really know about Cannabis Sativa?


Blackberry Kush, pictured above, is an indica—but what you think you know about this class of weed could be wrong. Photo via Flickr user Dank Depot

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.
Photo courtesy of Al the Alchemist

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 theRoadside 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!

Photo courtesy of Al the Alchemist

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.

Read the full article and learn more @ VICE Canada.