Marijuana, Hemp and Cannabis are commonly talked about in the news everyday. A new multi-billion dollar a year industry is springing up like a weed (pun intended). I find that much of the information available is inaccurate, steeped in emotion and rarely giving the whole truth. I hope to dispel some commonly held myths about this amazing plant and maybe help some future cannabis or hemp growers to see a path forward.
What is Cannabis?
Cannabis sativa is a fast growing, dioecious annual originating from Central Asia. It is now commonly found growing in all regions of the planet that can support flowering plants. It is photosensitive and requires shorter days to produce flowers and seed. Being a dioecious plant some seeds will give you a male plant and some will give you a female plant. The female flowers are what we are after when using it for medicine. The stalks provide the fiber and cellulose for other products,
Artifacts of cannabis use date back to the earliest human history. Scientist have found remains of the cannabis plant in some of the oldest human archaeological sites. We have formed a relationship with this plant that I and others feel is critical to our success as a species. But more on that later….
In the course of its evolution it has been spread across the globe by traders who have realized its importance for fiber, fuel, food and medicine. Depending on the region where it is grown, it can exhibit many different shapes, sizes and characteristics.
In Southeast Asia plants tend to exhibit a narrow leaf structure and grow in excess of 10 ft tall. The effects of this type of plant tend to be very uplifting and stimulating, even bordering on psychedelic. This region is where the Thai sticks of the 60’s and 70’s originate. This is also where a lot of “Hemp” varieties come from.
Plants that come from the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan and Pakistan tend to be short and squat with very large wide fan leaves. The effect from these plants are very sedating and lead to “couch lock” or the feeling of sinking into your seat and not being able to get up. This is the classic “Kush” and is a dominate gene line in many cannabis varieties today, also these types of plants are known for hash making.
The first references to cannabis use dates back to 6000 BC when the seeds were used as food up until about 2700 BC when Chinese medical manuals talked about its use as medicine. From there it spread all across the globe with its many uses being displayed in different cultures. The Egyptians used it for papyrus, in India its was used as medicine and around 800 AD the first instances of using it as a intoxicant arose.
It is believed to be brought to the Americas by the Spanish around 1500. They wanted to grow hemp for rope. Most rigging on sailing ships were made of hemp. Hemp rope is among the strongest, longest lasting and most mold resistant fibers on earth — perfect for sailing ship rigging. It was also used for clothing and other textiles. Hemp was such an important crop it was grown by many of the founding fathers and considered a very important staple crop. The access to hemp was so important Napolean’s invasion of Russia was partly about access to Russian hemp.
The seeds of the cannabis plant are little power houses. They contain all the essential amino acids needed for life in the perfect ratios. They are rich in healthy fats and essential fatty acids. They have a ideal 3-1 ratio of Omega 3 and omega 6 and 25% of all calories are in the form of protein. The oil from the seeds also has many therapeutic and industrial uses.
It’s many uses include rope, cordage, textiles, fabrics, fiber, pulp paper, art canvas, paints, varnishes, lighting oil, biomass for energy, medicine, food oils, proteins, building materials and leisure consumption. There are few other plants that are so versatile and beneficial for the planet and mankind. It is also a perfect crop to include in a rotation as it is known to improve soils.
Throughout history many cultures have put regulations and restrictions on its use as an intoxicant. In the US, many states put restrictions on it throughout the early 20th century, mainly based of false assumptions. There were many studies during this time that document the false claims made about hemp by the government and financial interests. It wasn’t really until The Marijuana Tax act of 1937 that cannabis was criminalized across the country. The reasons for this were not altruistic. This was just another corporate influenced action carried out by the government for the betterment of a few. Before this time cannabis tinctures and extracts were commonly available to people for a range of different ailments and it was a common medicine.
The Tax act of 1937 didn’t specifically make cannabis illegal — there were many laws written in the years after to do that. But the tax act effectively made cannabis undesirable by putting such a high tax burden on the farmer that it made it cost prohibitive to grow.
In 1935 the first working hemp decorticator was built. Before that separating the fibers from the pulp was a very intensive process that held hemp back in the emerging world of synthetic fibers and processes. This was the same time Dupont created a patent for Nylon, making plastic from petroleum and developed a new process to make paper from wood pulp, William Randolph Hearst was cornering the paper and Newspaper markets and the financier Andrew Mellon was backing the whole thing.
The availability of a machine to easily take hemp and turn it into raw materials for the production of paper, textiles and medicine was about to affect the bottom line of big business and we all know what happens when big business gets involved. They saw from the early 1930’s how hemp could affect their business and started making steps to hinder the hemp market.
Andrew Mellon while Secretary of the Treasury appointed his wife’s nephew Harry J Anslinger as head of the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1931. Hearst starting in the early 1900’s was using “yellow journalism” to sway readers to believe things that were not true, so it was easy to convince the public that “lazy Mexicans smoking marijuana” were a problem. He used his influence to tell lies about cannabis and its users. This was the same for African American’s, Jazz players and Chinese immigrants. Marijuana is a traditional Spanish term for cannabis. In the US at that time the term was co-opted by the powers that wanted to make it illegal. The term “marijuana” has racist origins and there is a big push currently in the US cannabis industry to refer to medicinal and adult use “marijuana” as cannabis and the fiber/seed type of cannabis as “Hemp”. For the purposes of this article going forward I will refer to medicinal/adult use as cannabis and all fiber and high CBD varieties as hemp.
The Difference Between Cannabis and Hemp.
Both hemp and medicinal/adult use cannabis are from the same plant, Cannabis sativa. Over the course of this plant’s history humans have selectively bred for different traits, some for fiber/seed and some for the resinous flowers that are used for medicine. All types of cannabis contain Cannabiniods. With THC (Δ 9- tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidol) being the most common Cannabinoids. They were both isolated in the late 1960’s by Israel biochemist Dr Raphael Mechoulam. Dr Mechoulam is the world’s foremost researcher on the medicinal use of cannabis and has also isolated many other novel cannabinoids that are showing great medicinal value.
I would argue that the cannabis plant has had the highest level of manipulation compared to many others. It exhibits so many different traits depending on what its use is. Many claim that today’s cannabis is much stronger that that of the 60’s-70’s and there is some truth to that. Cannabis used to be a mix of THC, CBD and other lesser cannabiniods but through careful breeding much of the CBD has been bred out, leaving a stronger product. CBD is somewhat an antidote to THC. It mellows its effects and can be used if someone is having a bad experience with too much THC.
Breeding And Cannabis Today
The 60’s and 70’s were the heyday of cannabis varieties being transported across the world. This is before many growers started growing Sinsemilla and plants were chock full of seeds. Many of these seeds and seeded flowers were transported around the globe leading to many different types of cannabis being grown. One of the regions of the world that is fantastic for cannabis growing happens to be in what is called the “Emerald Triangle’ that consists of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties in Northern California. This was a hotbed for surfers and world travelers who went to different valleys and mountain sides across the world searching for novel varieties to bring back home to California. Many of the seeds being spread were also from military soldiers traveling through war torn regions. These today are called “landrace” strains.
A real advancement came to the US after the book “The Primo Plant: Growing Sinsemilla” by Mountian Girl was published. Sinsemilla is the practice of removing the male plants from the area where the females are and was used in other parts of the world. This causes the female flowers not to be pollinated and produce seeds, so more plant energy can be used to make the compounds that we are after.
This was the beginning of the narrowing of the genetic gene pool for cannabis. By the early 1990’s the cannabis world started to change rapidly. Through selective breeding some growers were enticing out some really novel characteristics, like really pungent aromas and dried flowers that looked really pretty. This caused a huge change in the cannabis market. A lot of people got rid of these special strains from different regions of the world to replace them with “hype” strains that are pretty but are missing the special characteristics of “landrace”strains. Unfortunately many of the regions that these landrace strains come from are no longer able to grow cannabis. The US war machine stretches far and wide and so does the war on drugs. This has led to the cannabis gene pool narrowing even more. It is possible that some cannabiniods could have been lost all together due to bad breeding practices looking for only certain traits and the loss of traditional cannabis growing regions.
At this same time California started to crack down on the peaceful cannabis growing communities that were developing. All they wanted to do was their best for the planet around them and to have access to the plant they felt a connection to. Most were organic farmers and really cared about the land. The war on drugs was in full swing and we all know how the government feels about peaceful people trying to do their own thing. This led to the communities being broken up and the start of a very lucrative black market. The amount of money that could be made was incredible because of the supply and demand aspect and the war on drugs stifling supply. This allowed gangs and people who were not peaceful to dominate the market and start this industry on the dirty destructive path it has been on since.
Luckily today voters have created change in many states. Now 33 states have a medical cannabis program and another 11 have a adult-use cannabis program. While many claim it to be legalization, I prefer to call it regulation. There are strong corporate influences that pour money into politicians’ pockets to influence the way regulations will go. Many regulations are not founded in reality but only serve to restrict people’s abilities to provide themselves with their own cannabis and line corporate shareholders pockets. It is not free and open as if we were growing a tomato or even brewing beer. There are many, many rules that people need to abide by that force people to buy from the very corporations that are paying to have the rules written in their favor.
Owning a small medical cannabis shop in Maine I see everyday big money coming into the state to influence law makers. There are at least 3 very active patient and business advocacy groups that are pushing back against “big cannabis”. Much of this money is coming from the tobacco and pharmaceutical companies. There are also large investment firms getting involved. Former congressman John Boehner who was adamantly opposed to any cannabis bills when he was the speaker of the house, now sits on the board of directors of one of the largest publicly traded cannabis companies in the world.
The amount of oversight and regulations that they are trying to impose on us makes it hard to stay viable being a small family run business. Once again most of these regulations are not based in any sort of reality and are only there to protect corporate interests in this $60 billion a year industry. It is quite common in states that have adopted adult-use to disband their medical programs, which is not good for patients. The care and thought that we put into our products can not be rivaled in a corporate dominated industry. Profit should never take precedent over people and planet, but that is what the corporate influence in the industry is causing.
The important take away here is that if you are interested in this industry or patients’ availability to access plant medicine that changes their life for the better, then please get involved. Whether it is in your own town or at the state level there is always a constant push by big cannabis to dominate the market just like many other industries. There are great advocacy groups in every state that are pushing for common sense policies that help maintain the integrity of the medicine and people’s access to it. After seeing first hand the power of this plant to get people off of pharmaceuticals that are hindering their lives, I feel it is of the upmost importance to fight the corporate take over of cannabis.
Cannabis as Medicine
One benefit of “legalization” it the ability for research to be done in a clinical setting. Now it is common knowledge in many countries (not in the US yet) that we humans all have a endo-cannabiniod system. We have chemicals closely resembling phytocannabiniods that are found in cannabis in our bodies. These chemicals affect special receptors that everyone has. This system is in every cell of their bodies and for reasons not yet completely understood, some peoples systems don’t work as well as others. Luckily cannabis is here to help. Some common diseases such as Crohns Disease, Fibromyalgia, Macular degeneration and others are greatly helped with cannabiniods when a lot of modern medical treatments fail. I do not know of any definitive research why cannabis works so well with so many issues but there is a lot of great research being done and hopefully soon we will have a much better picture.
There are many different ways to consume cannabis. Most common are smokable flowers. This is great for a rapid onset and relief of some symptoms. Along with this are concentrates (hash). Concentrates take the glandular trichomes that contain the active compounds and strip them off the plant. There are a few ways to make this happen with some being more pure then others.
Next would be tinctures and capsules. I feel these are the most medicinal way to take cannabiniods internally. You can dose them at different dosages and it is easy to make different ratios of THC:CBD. We have had great success at out little store using different ratios of cannabiniods. Patients report back that they have decreased or completely stopped using many pharmaceuticals.
Then there is topical application. Cannabiniods are effective when used right at the site of an ailment. It’s not only effective for pain issues but also skin issues.
Cannabis contains over 700 beneficial compounds including phytocannabiniods, terpeniods and other secondary plant metabolites. There are about 50 that are produced beyond a trace amount. They all work together synergistically with each playing a role in the final effect.
THC is the main cannabiniod present in most cannabis. It is responsible for the “high” that most people associate with cannabis use. It is neuro-protective, reduces inter-ocular pressure, muscle tension and spasticity. It also exhibits analgesic and anti-inflammatory activities not to mention anti-cancer/tumor properties. There have been breeding projects in the past couple of years to increase the CBD in proportion to THC in certain strains to provide different medicinal benefits.
CBD is the main cannabiniod in hemp. It is also found in cannabis varieties to varying degrees but it has been bred out in search of a more potent cannabis flowers. In industrial hemp CBD concentration tends to be quite depending on the cultivar, there are breeding projects to increase the CBD content of the plant for extraction, to make CBD products. CBD’s benefits include anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and analgesic properties. It has also great for but not limited to anxiety, stress and irritability. CBD by itself is great for pain but it is really about the synergy between itself, THC and other lesser cannabinoids.
With CBD gaining such a buzz in the past few years it is everywhere. Gas stations, drug stores, everywhere!!! Buyer beware. Just as with our food it is best to know the source or risk ingesting who knows what. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there just trying to profit off of the buzz. Full spectrum is best. Legal hemp has to have under .3% THC but often has other cannabiniods that aid in the effect of the medicine. Try and stay away from products that use isolates. Isolate is a refined CBD product that contains only CBD. Studies have shown isolate to be much less effective than a whole plant medicine. The 2018 Farm bill allows for the hemp to be grown at the federal level and many New England states have had hemp programs for a few years so finding CBD products from locally grown hemp should be fairly easy. As with anything, know your source.
There are other notable cannabinoids that are showing promise for a variety of different ailments and conditions such as tumor reduction and anti-cancer abilities. They are Tetrahydrocannabivarian (THCV), Cannabindvarin (CBDV), Cannabichromene (CBC), Cannabinol (CBN) and Cannabigerol (CBG) plus more that are still being discovered and researched.
There are also aromatic compounds that have a strong effect on the medicinal properties of cannabis. Many of the same terpenoids and secondary plant metabolites that provide the therapeutic effect in traditional herbs are present in cannabis. It is said that the cannabinoids are the gas pedal and terpenes are the drivers of effect. Some dominant terpenes are aplha-pinene (Found in pine it is an anti-biotic and has anti-tumor properties), Limonene (found in lemons, antidepressant, increases THC/CBD effect), Myrcene (Found in hops, muscle relaxant, analgesic), Beta-caryophyllene (Found in black pepper, strong anti-inflammatory), Linalool (found in lavender, calming, anti-anxiety) and terpinolene (reduces the cognitive effects of THC). There are many more terpenes that play a role in modulating the effects of cannabiniods even at trace levels.
The big thing to understand is that whole plant medicine is always better then isolated extracts. Any one of these compounds will have an effect on their own. The greatest effect is when they are used in conjunction with each other. There are different ratios of CBD:THC that are very valuable for different effects. The interesting thing about cannabis medicine is there are no set rules. Through trailblazers using trial and error throughout prohibition we have a rough guide and with more research happening everyday we are starting to get a better understanding. Another variable is the fact that everyone processes cannabiniods at different rates. A dose that one person will not feel will affect someone else very differently. Same with smokable cannabis. Some strains will give many people an elevated, anti-anxiety feeling, while others will feel down and may induce anxiety.
So a note here. I am not a doctor and always recommend that people who are on pharmaceuticals should consult with their doctor before starting a cannabis regimen. Many doctors are much more open to the idea than they were a few years ago. There are some interactions when taking cannabiniods with drugs that are reliant on the P450 liver enzyme. It is best to talk to a doctor if you are taking one of these drugs and want to start a cannabis regimen.
For now we are left with some simple rules to follow based on what we do know. Cannabis is not for everyone. I do feel that many people could benefit from its use, whether it is CBD, THC or both. We do know we have evolved with this plant since early human history. It has been a source of food and medicine up until the early 20th century. This has caused us to develop an endocannabinoid system that is self regulating. Everyone has a different number of receptor sites that adjust to the amount of cannabiniods we are consuming. The recommendation is always “low and slow”. Start with the lowest dose and then slowly over the course of a week or so increase the dose until you notice the desired effect. After a week, increase the dose some more but if you notice no addition benefit then you go back to the dose that had the best effect. You can not fatally overdose with cannabis. You can overdose and have a bad experience but that will fade in a few hours. Many overdoses lead to a good case of the munchies and a good nap. If the experience becomes difficult simple breathing exercises are very helpful.
Taking more than your therapeutic dose will cause your system to down regulate and decrease the amount of receptors that your system has. This will cause a decrease in medicinal benefit. This is why novice adult-use cannabis users only need a small puff on a joint to receive a strong effect and more seasoned users can consume a lot more to reach the same effect. Our mottos at the store are “Low and slow” and “less is more”. To reset your endocannabiniod system all that is required is to take an abstinence break. Completely abstaining from all cannabis use for 4 or more days should be sufficient.
After seeing first hand in our shop the wide range of benefits that cannabis medicine provides, it is just astounding. It’s amazing to see people take their health into their own hands, try something different and receive great benefit. It is about trial and error, keeping track of dosage and effects. It’s not as cut and dried as a doctor telling you to take a pill at a certain time everyday. There are so many variables to this field of medicine it requires a little bit of diligence but from everything I have seen it is worth it.
I personally have been using cannabis for 20 years and this plant has been my companion ever since the beginning. Shortly after I started consuming cannabis I found the book written by Jack Herer titled “The Emperor Wears No Clothes”. This book blew my mind wide open!! It is a great reference for anyone wanting to know more about this wonderful plant and its history. It also opened up my eyes to many of the other derailments of truth that are present in our world today.
I have been on this journey growing cannabis for over 18 years. I started in a small closet with a friend using a two part chemical nutrient “designed” for cannabis. There are a lot of myths in the cannabis growing community, which is understandable due to its illegal underground nature. Even with legalization the world of cannabis research is still in its infancy. But times are changing for the better and that is a good thing.
Traditionally, before legalization, cannabis was grown in a controlled indoor environment with high intensity discharge light (metal halide, high pressure sodium) using hydroponics or an inert medium (peat or coco coir) and feeding with regular applications of chemical fertilizers that are tailored to cannabis. Typically they will contain very high levels of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. The common thought being Nitrogen in vegetative state and very high P and K in the flowering stage. I know many of you know the issues with only focusing on these three nutrients. Not to mention the amount of toxic runoff you get using these principals. The streams in northern California are lined with salt deposits from countless growers using unsustainable practices. Also included are harsh pH adjusters, growth hormones and whatever else a nutrient manufacture wants to put in there. As you would guess all of the unbalanced nutrients, chemicals being applied and an environment without natural predators lead to a situation that requires constant application of fungicides and pesticides.
Another huge issue with the industry is its reliance on plastic bottles. Many “advanced” nutrient lines use 6-10 different types of bottles. Many of these are redundant, further increasing the toxic run off into the water supply. The industry as a whole has such a huge carbon footprint. I don’t blame people for thinking this way is the only way. Research and information were forced into the far corners of the internet where anonymous personalities would spread what they have learned through trial and error. Fortunately there is a better way, and Acres USA helped to lead me in a better direction.
Luckily for me after my first grow I wound up working for one of the first indoor garden shops on the east coast. We sold the classic chemical nutrients but also focused on organic practices. The best part was the store owner was an advocate for the principals put forth in Acres USA magazine and had been to a couple of conferences. He had an awesome collection of books that would later show me the way to sustainable cannabis. I was 19 when I was turned on to Dr. Elaine Ingram, Phil Callahan, Charles Walters, Hugh Lovel, Rudolf Steiner, and other great Acres authors. After that “Teaming with Microbes” by Jeff Lowenfels came out and I started digging through the Acres book list. In that time I moved to Western Ma and found NOFA/Mass.
I attended the 2011 NOFA summer conference and made it in time for the first class. It was Dan Kittredge’s class and it blew my mind. Here was this guy threading together all these different works I was reading into conscious thought. Not only was he talking about factual nuts and bolts farming but also about energy agriculture and esoteric thoughts. I thought “Wow, I am in the right place.”
That next January the first Soil and Nutrition Conference was right in my town. That first day with John Kempf opened my eyes even more. He started talking about terpenes and secondary plant metabolites, I knew I was in the right place. So hearing someone talk about ways to boost plant health and increase the medicinal value of plants was music to my ears. I attended the next few Soil and Nutrition Conferences and dug into the work of Graeme Sait, Carey Reams, William Albrecht, Steve Soloman, Arden Anderson and the whole biological mineral balancing world. It did feel a little odd to be one of the few cannabis growers there gleaning ideas off of broad scale agriculture and trying to bring those ideas into my little basement set up.
Eventually I found my way to ICMAG, an online cannabis forum with members world wide which had a great organic section. When I joined a new thread was started talking about using “living soil” and people talking about cation balancing, microbe, mulches, worms and cover crops all for indoor growing. One of the major things was the inclusion of No-till methods. I was already on this path of reusing my soil and playing with biodynamic methods so felt right at home. Luckily these methods are really starting to catch on in the larger industry. What was once an obscure group of people using these methods has now grown into the preferred method of cultivation to produce the highest quality flowers with the least impact to the earth. Probiotic is a buzz word recently taken up by advanced conscious cannabis growers utilizing microbes and ferments to achieve healthy plant growth and clean runoff from cannabis farms.
Many of the same practices put forth by NOFA and the organic/regenerative community are being followed by the indoor cannabis community. In fact I would argue that it is expanding the organic message even faster than the traditional farming community. I have seen time and time again growers who were using chemical cannabis growing practices switch over to organic nutrient dense, probiotic practices after seeing what it does to the quality of cannabis. From there they will see the light of how valuable organic farming as a whole is and start to change their eating practices and how they live their lives. It is a really great spring board for the younger generations to get involved in where their food comes from. I was surprised at the last Soil and Nutrition Conference how many cannabis growers were there gleaning ideas, to bring back to their gardens.
Fermentation farming practices are gaining momentum in the cannabis industry as well. The use of facultative microbes such as lactic acid bacteria and EM are common practice. Korean Natural Farming is bringing a whole new dimension, allowing growers to produce their own nutrients utilizing the plants that are around them and scraps from fruits and vegetables.
Currently the base of my soil is about 10 years old and only gets better. I have fostered a thriving soil food web in my pots utilizing diverse cover crop species and different types of mulches. When I pull back the mulch layer you can find red wigglers, millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs, shredder mites, rove beetles, Stratiolaelaps scimitus, and other friendly organisms. Recently I started using a combo of buckwheat hulls and pine shavings and have brought in naturally colonized soil and now there are flushes of Leucoagaricus leucothites mushrooms when the conditions are right.
Getting Started With Living Soils
Starting with a good soil base is the first place to start no matter the scale on which you plan to cultivate. I personally follow the standard Cornell mix that contains 1 part long grain sphagnum peat moss and 1 part aerator. The most common aeration inputs are perlite, pumice and rice hulls. From there I add 20% high quality worm castings, compost or a combo of the two. This is the most important part, it needs to be of the highest quality. There needs to have a thriving soil food web, as this is what makes it all work so well. The same processes that are at work in healthy field soils are at work inside pots.
Next would be to add amendments to provide the food for the plant to grow. I personally rely on a Ca dominant very diverse mix. I am fortunate to live fairly close to FEDCO where they have all the goodies I use. Also the Bionurtient Food Association has a mineral depot where a lot of these amendments can be sourced as well. My mix contains soft rock phosphate, gypsum, wollostonite, zeolite, sul-po-mag, Tennessee brown rock phosphate, Shrimp meal, fish bone meal, kelp, basalt, granite, dry humates and biochar. I have created this mix based on the work of Albrecht and Tiedjens, shooting for a Ca saturation of 75% while balancing other minerals as well.
Mineral balancing in peat based soils is tricky. My mix is balanced based on the atomic weight of the elements in each amendment. I do not take into account some of the addition minerals coming from the compost or peat. I have found that providing a balanced base mix and then allowing a thriving soil food web do the rest of the work, works quite well. Soil testing peat based mixes is tricky and not a lot of labs do it correctly.
Other problems with testing peat based soils is most labs rely on the fact that traditional field soil is 2 million lbs per acre. Peat base potting mixes are much, much lighter. I know that many labs use a volumetric scoop instead of actually weighting the sample. This results in an inaccurate test result. There are some agronomists who are working with cannabis who are trying to change this. I do know that Logan labs and Spectrum are the go-to for peat based soil testing in the cannabis community. They will give you a rough snapshot but I do not rely heavily on soil tests. Another issue with testing peat based mixes that have had Calcium carbonate amendments added to them is they tend to over report Ca. To solve that and get a better picture is to do an AA 8.2 soil test just to see what the Ca levels are more accurately, while also doing a M3 test for everything else. I personally am not looking for perfect test results. I look to plant health and quality of final product to guide most of my decisions. Once again it is exciting that cannabis is being more accepted and we can start to venture into plant sap testing and more tangible metrics other than how a plant looks.
There are a lot of different ways to achieve a good soil mix. With a simple search on the internet you can find a few different recipes that you can mix on your own. There are also a few great companies out there selling living soil mixes. I know locally Coast of Maine has some mixes focused towards cannabis growers. Their lobster compost is also my preferred compost for building new soils.
In an outdoor, field or greenhouse situation many cannabis growers use a mix similar to one I described in pots. This is not what I would recommend. Just as any other crop it prefers to go directly in the ground. There are many cannabis and hemp growers that are very successfully testing field soil and amending accordingly utilizing the principals of nutrient dense farming. Still many growers are stuck in their ways and use pots or a bed. I always suggest a thick ground covering in pots or in the ground. Most of the biological activity happens in the top 6” of the soil so keeping that moist is essential. I prefer a diverse mix of living cover crops and a thick mulch of either hay or I really like pine shavings/buckwheat hull mix. Other cannabis growers are using ramial wood chips with great success. It is always a good idea to go out into the forest or other area with really healthy soil and take a few handfuls and add it to the surface of the soil. Diversity is key in this system of growing.
Cannabis is just like any other annual with a few twists. One big difference is that it is photosensitive. Cannabis requires 12 hours of complete darkness to flower indoors and will start flowering in July- August depending on cultivar. During this time the plant switches in to the flowering cycle and will put on a lot of growth fast. In indoor cultivation we call this the “stretch”. Some strains will double or triple their size in a few short weeks before slowing vertical growth and starting to build flowers. At this time male plants will make themselves known and should be cut down to prevent seeding (unless you are growing hemp for seeds).
Other than that it is about as different as tomatoes are from lettuce. Usually the plants require support to deal with the heavy flowers depending on the variety you are growing. Some require a shorter season and will be done in the end of September and some need a much longer flowering time stretching into late October, early November.
Strain selection is one of the most important things when growing in the shorter New England climate. Looking for something that is done by mid October is ideal. If the plant has to go much more than that you run into issues with mold and potential frost. Cannabis can take a bit of frost especially if you have a very healthy plant with high brix. Powdery Mildew (PM) and Botrytis or bud rot are two of the major issues when flowering a long season plant in a short season like we have.
The fall is the ideal time for PM to really take hold and decimate a crop. Using biological foliar sprays you can help keep PM at bay even in the prefect conditions for it. Compost teas (when properly brewed), Effective Microorganisms (EM), Lactobacillus, various ferments and Bacillus sp. are some common preventive sprays that can help establish a healthy microbiome on the phyllosphere. I like to focus on plant health when thinking about disease and pest problems. I have found that staying away from raw N sources and from using too much postasium helps greatly. Using only amino acids and focusing on Ca/B/Si relationship during stretches when Ca is a limiting factor is very important to building strong cell walls that will defend against pests and diseases. There are also some emergency sprays that can cut down a PM outbreak if it happens. Potassium bicarbonate, milk and baking soda are some common products that can help. There are also a few commercially available organically certified products to help with mold issues.
One note. Never spray a flowering plant. Spraying the flowers can have all sorts of harmful effects. From damaging the flower and slowing growth to ruining the medicine that you worked so hard to grow. I have found in emergency situations regular sprays of water are effective for PM and pest issues but not Botrytis.
Botrytis or the dreaded “Bud Rot” is a growers worst nightmare. It is very common in New England due to the warm moist days, cool nights and common fall rain showers. There is no cure for Botrytis. Prevention is key. Keeping the plants out of the rain in fall is a good step and if that is not possible trying to dry the plants after a rainfall is a good plan. Once it sets in, removal of infected buds is the only way to control the issue. Many growers wind up harvesting before the plants are truly ready to keep from losing everything. Fall is a stressful time for outdoor cannabis growers.
Some common Cannabis insect pests are Spider Mites, Thrips, Aphids and less commonly in New England Broad mites and Hemp Russet mites. There are other pests that can cause issues but these are the most common. As with any pest as soon as it takes a strong foothold it is hard to control with out the use of more toxic rescue chemicals. A solid Integrated Pest Management system should be on the forefront of every growers mind.
Using beneficial insects is my preferred method of dealing with pests. There are some great companies out there that sell beneficial insects at smaller quantities for the home gardener and many have experience working with cannabis growers both indoors and broad scale. Things to look for are ship dates and where they are located in the country. Many predators require next day shipping as manufacturers can only put so much food in the shipping containers and when the predators run out of food they tend to eat each other or just die. All larger insectaries harvest the predators on Monday and ship to the middlemen sellers for them to ship to the customer and hopefully have growers receive them by Wednesday or Thursday at the latest. Immediate release is vital. Beware of companies that ship every day of the week, they will most likely not have fresh stock, many will be dead and it will be hard to establish a beneficial population.
In my indoor environment I release predators on a monthly basis. Constant application is key. Many of the beneficials need very specific environmental factors to reproduce. It’s best to do some research before just applying beneficial insects. Also understanding the life cycles of the insects that you are trying to control is very helpful to determining the proper course of action. There are many pests out there and fitting the proper predator with the targeted pest and environment is important. Reputable companies will be more then happy to help.
I put out a few different types of predators monthly targeting Thrips, Spider Mites and Aphids.
What I have found effective for my space is the application of delayed release Amblyseius cucumeris sachets, Orius Insidious (Minute Pirate Bugs), Phytoseiulus persimilis, Neoseiulus californicus, Mesosiulus longipes and Aphidus Colemani. There are also a few beneficial predators in the soil mainly coming from bringing in different types of mulches and duff from forest settings and healthy soils. Stratiolaelaps scimitus, Rove beetles centipedes and predatory nematodes inhabit the soil helping to keep any pests that reside in the soil at bay. Fungus gnats are a common nuance that are controlled by soil predators.
Sachets are little bags of predators, eggs and a food supply that slowly release predatory mites over the course of 3 weeks to a month. Cucumeris is mainly targeted to 1st instar thrips but they are also a general predator that can consume spider mite eggs.
Orius Insidius is a general predator that is focused on adult Thrips. They can also eat spider mites, their eggs, and are known to help control aphids as well. Phytoseiulus persimilis, Neoseiulus californicus, Mesosiulus longipes are specific to spider mites and the three have different attributes that make them better suited for different situations.
Aphidus Colemani is a predatory wasp that is only for the control of aphids. They are a tiny, tiny wasp that injects a living aphid with a egg of its young. Over the course of a week the egg hatches and starts to consume the aphid from the inside. As they grow the aphid becomes a “mummy” and at the right time a new predatory wasp emerges and continues the cycle. It’s really cool to watch.
There are organic sprays on the market to help take down an out of control outbreak. My preferred one for most issues is Insecticidal soap and if the problem is a thrip outbreak then you can use Beauveria bassiana. Once again never spray anything on a flowering plant.
Now you made it through the season and you have beautiful flowers that are rich in terpenes and cannabiniods and you want to preserve the quality of your harvest. This is where many people go wrong and ruin a great harvest. The key is a long, slow drying over the course of 10 days to a week. Many highly volatile compounds can be lost with improper harvesting, drying and curing. There are many ways to get to a finished product but following a few easy rules will maintain quality.
My preferred method is to harvest the plant and break it down into smaller manageable branches. From there I take off all of the fan leaves that do not contain any trichombes. Then I hang then in a room that is kept at 55-60% humidity and at 60˚ F. This is an ideal situation and not everyone has that ability, but keeping it as close to that as possible is key. Terpenes start to easily burn off over 75˚ F and if the environment is too dry then the flowers will dry too fast leaving you with a harsh taste and loss of terpenes.
Once the stems are dry enough for a small flower to be broken off the stem it is time to trim off the excess leaf material and store the trimmed flowers into a storage container that is kept around 60% relative humidity. Leaving a loose fitting lid on helps and you should open the jar once a day for a week to allow the flowers to “breath” a little. If the jar is sealed right way and forgotten about they tend to pick up a stale aroma. If stored while still wet it is very possible and likely that you will form Botrytis and ruin you medicine.
Getting Into the Industry.
Now this is an exciting time. The emergence of a $60 billion a year industry with the projections only expected to rise! The sad truth is this market is dominated by corporate goons that are trying to take away access from people who really care about this plant and what it can do for mankind. They only see dollar signs. Getting into the industry requires a lot of hurtles to jump over.
First you have to have financial backing. This is hard seeing the federal government still considers Cannabis to be illegal so no banking institution will help. Not only can you not get loans but because the Feds consider profits from the sale of cannabis to be “drug money” no bank will even allow you to have a bank account. This sets up the market for predatory high interest loans, but also the take over of smaller startups that are having a hard time competing with corporations that benefit from the economy of scale.
Then you get into over-regulation. Many states have adopted a seed to sale trace program. While I understand that there needs to be a way to track products in case of a contamination issue or other unforeseen situation. I do not know why growers need to keep track of every leaf that comes off a plant. This adds a tremendous amount of overhead to a smaller business. From the person hours it takes tracking all of these different metrics to the high cost of tracing systems that are required to report daily to state governments, it is all too much for a smaller business owner with the odds stacked against them.
The main reason governments claim they need seed to sale tracking is because they worry about diversion to the black market. First off the black market is what paved the way for the legal market. This industry would be nothing without the rebels who bucked the unfair system of prohibition and fought for legal access to this wonderful plant. Now their efforts have been co-opted by big money interests.
One part of the legal industry that I do agree with is testing procedures. I would love to see all cannabis tested for pesticides, mold and heavy metals. This part is a real shame. Limiting growers access to the legal market is fueling an unregulated black market that the legal market wants to stop. It all makes no sense. We need a commonsense approach, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem likely.
I wanted to get out of the shadows when I started to have children and the risks of growing in the black market exceed what I was willing to sacrifice. Unfortunately we had to leave our wonderful little community in the Happy Valley of Western Mass. Luckily we found our way to Maine which has had a strong patient advocacy group since they stated their medicinal Cannabis program in 1999. My wife and I opened Lovelight Medicinals in the spring of 2018 and what a ride it has been. Advocacy groups here in Maine are fighting harder then ever since adult use has come into play. Big money interests are flexing their muscles putting forward many bills that will limit patient access and hurt the 2000+ independent small caregivers that are in the state providing great medicine to patients in need.
As you can see it is an uphill battle to get into the cannabis industry at this time. A much easier market to get into is the hemp market. There is a lot less oversight and licensing is very approachable. In Maine all that is required is a simple license from the state. State inspectors will come around and test your crop to make sure it isn’t “hot” or over the legal limit of .3%THC. A hot crop has to be disposed of so selecting proper hemp genetics is vital. There are a few varieties out there that will not go hot, the Wulf variety being one that I have worked with. But just as the Cannabis market is being influenced so is the hemp market. New rules being imposed in many states have lowered the threshold on how the .3% THC is being tested, which affects farmers across the country.
In the hemp market at least there are a variety of end products depending on the grower’s goals. You can grow for the CBD market growing resinous high CBD containing flowers, for the fiber market, or for seeds. Seed selection is import for the final outcome. Different types of seeds are bred for different purposes. Know your seed supplier is key.
I hope that this has been helpful to people with only a trivial knowledge of this plant, its uses, history and benefits. This plant was put here, as many plants are, for the betterment and success of the human race. We would do much better if we were to drop the fear that has been instilled in everyone of us over the past 100 years and embrace all the Cannabis plant can do for us. Fiber, Fuel, Food and Medicine what more could you ask from a plant?