The Case for Sun-Grown Cannabis (And How High Times Almost Ruined It)

I like my cannabis like I like my men, sun-kissed and with a little dirt on them. 

When I was growing up in the 1990’s, I thought cannabis grew best indoors. Every magazine or reference to cannabis cultivation included pictures of large light systems and rows of smaller plants being fed by machines and drip systems. 

My first attempt at cultivation happened after I was able to afford a 1000 watt high pressure sodium lamp. I rigged a system in a tiny closet in my Chicago apartment and prayed that the electricity bill would not increase to a level of suspicion. “Hydro”, a word referring to cannabis grown using the hydroponic method, would soon become synonymous with “quality bud”. 

Of course, the reason cannabis was brought indoors had nothing to do with quality and everything to do with prohibition. Clandestine grow rooms provided cannabis for the nation and fed the story that indoor production somehow equated to higher quality. This resulted in the proliferation of growing equipment and infrastructure to support indoor cultivation. The indoor industry continues to thrive as states like Colorado demand that all cannabis be grown indoors, and the prohibition of interstate commerce forces production into areas with inhospitable climate conditions. 

How can sungrown cannabis compete with an entire industry and regulatory system set up to favor indoor production? The answer may be in examining how the public’s perception of sungrown came to be.

Years ago, when I was the Director of Research and Patient Services for Berkeley Patients Group, I would observe patients purchasing cannabis and I noticed that appearance or “bag appeal” as we called it, was a driving force in purchasing decisions. Now, this was long before products were tested and there was a handy cannabinoid content number on the jar or a cannabis sommelier to steer you in the right direction. In those days, all flower was labeled with the name of the dispensary and the only information you were given was cultivar and whether it was indoor or outdoor. The bag appeal was driving patients to the indoor products. The outdoor product looked “stringy” or like a “less dense nug”. The indoor product on the other hand, was lauded for looking like “the buds in High Times”. Tight, covered in orange hairs and crystals, these packages were chosen over the outdoor time and time again. 

To be fair, outdoor in those days was not usually lovingly tended to on a daily basis, it was planted in a remote location and watered and kept alive until harvest. I get it. I get why the indoor looked most appealing. And I get it because I also used to read High Times magazine.

Growing up in the 1990’s in Chicago pre-internet, information about cannabis was NOT easy to find. Sure, there were books like The Big Book of Buds by Ed Rosenthal and other coffee table type anthologies of cannabis porn. But, by and large, High Times magazine was the source of weed knowledge and imagery for those in prohibition states (and pre-1996, that was all of them). Yes, High Times showcased the carefully curated buds being grown in some of the most high tech indoor grow spaces. Why indoor? Because everything else was subject to criminal justice interference. 

So, save for the hippies in the hills of the Emerald Triangle, cannabis was being grown in basements and spare rooms, and sometimes entire houses! Every month, I would flip through my High Times magazine and like a 16 year old boy with a Playboy, I would eye the centerfold and think, now THAT’s what good weed looks like! 

Fast forward to Berkeley Patients Group circa 2010. Without accurate information on cannabinoids, terpenes, the farmers or even the accurate cultivar, patients were falling back on what they know good weed to look like…according to High Times

This universal decision among cannabis consumers over what good weed looks like, is really no different than the long held straight male fascination with blonde hair and gigantic breasts. High Times or Playboy centerfold, both offered a version of perfection swallowed hook, line and sinker. But, if we can evolve past Barbie as the ideal woman, can we become more sophisticated in appreciating the beauty of sungrown cannabis? I say yes, but we are not there yet.

As of today, sun-grown cannabis is still perhaps the best kept secret of the industry. At Berkeley Patients Group, we used to sell outdoor for ⅔ the price of indoor because that’s what the consumer told us it was worth. In today’s regulated marketplace, the story is the same, with sun-grown product fetching about ½ the price of top-tier indoor, and this is even at dispensaries in Emerald Triangle where sun-grown thrives. And, with testing, we know that sungrown flower can yield the same THC levels as indoor, and usually produces a wider and more intense terpene profile naturally due to its interaction with the elements. Throw in the fact that sungrown cannabis is the most sustainable production method and is often done at the hands of craft farmers who grow their plants with loving intention. 

So, will someone please tell me why, in the cannabis world,  the organic, delicious, unique apple from the farmers market costs half as much as the waxy red pesticide bomb from the grocery store? The only answer can be, because the consumer does not know what to look for when seeking out quality.

Enter the Ganjier program. Casting aside the preconceived notions about outdoor cannabis, the Ganjier program is training students to recognize quality the way it was meant to be observed. Uniqueness of cultivar, craft of the cure, mouthfeel and effect. All of these characteristics of the cannabis experience should lead to the definition of quality. 

The days of orange hairs and tight nugs will yield to discussions about bouquet and appellation, and sungrown will finally be held up as the ultimate way to grow cannabis. The price will likely go up, but I’m willing to live with it.

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