UK: High society

David McCandless
The Independent

Monday 05 Sep 2005

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You've smelt it, wafting sweetly across the park, floating over the fence
from the pumping party next door, rising to greet you off the plane at
Schiphol Airport. Is that a hint of pine? With an undertone of blackberry?
Ah, yes, it's the unmistakable complexity of gourmet cannabis.

For an emerging generation of herb elitists, the generic skunk sold on
street corners - the plonk of the cannabis world - no longer hits the spot.
These media executives, creative professionals and party people choose to
have their executive brain functions impaired by only the best brands of
cannabis: AK47, Charas, Kali Mist - vintage weeds that represent the summit
of 25 years of selective breeding and artisan horticulture.

"Why fly economy?" says Samuel, 34, who works as a graphic designer for the
music industry. "Connoisseur varieties are for those who want to smoke but
don't want to be monged out or fall unconscious under a radiator." He
regularly buys Northern Lights and Charas from a specialist London dealer
who delivers via moped, his wares lovingly clingfilmed and neatly
compartmentalised in a plastic toolbox.

At UKP150-UKP200 per ounce it's not cheap, but for Samuel high-grade weed
is a marker of taste. Bringing crisp, silver-tufted, hand-rolled Northern
Lights to a party gets him attention. Even bringing it to work can be
productive. "You can get things done on this kind of weed," he says.
"Deals, creative work, sharing ideas. It dissolves egos and makes everyone
happy."

Cannabis growing techniques have reached a level of artistry on a par with
the wine industry. The two main plant varieties - Cannabis sativa and
indica - have been rarefied and crossbred into hundreds of exotic strains.
Each has its own look, taste, and quality of high. A recent upsurge in home
growing have made these rarer varieties more widely available. Specialist
dealers have stepped in. A thriving "cannaseur" marketplace is blossoming.

Yearly crops are considered with the same scrutiny as a wine buff might
give a fine Alsatian white. Good vintage? Organically grown? Properly
handled? How does it taste? Citrus? Peppery? Fruity?

The buzz, though, is key. A cannaseur knows the difference between getting
stoned and getting high - and savours it. The effects of a good ganja
transcend the heavy, mindless "stoner" effects of street weed. Cerebral,
lively, trippy, the four-hour high set off by a supreme cannabis produces
emotional qualities usually reserved for key life moments.

It's no surprise, then, that the connoisseurs often inhabit the creative
industries: music, new media, advertising and film.

"It's great for gestating ideas, digging into your unconscious, getting
shamanic," says "Marcus", a 30-year-old published novelist who chooses to
remain anonymous. He gets through a modest quarter of an ounce of AK47 a
month. For him, a hit of sterling spliff is a great way to get into a
creative flow.

Connoisseurship is partly a response to the low-quality cannabis that has
swamped the UK market-place for years. While three million adults will have
smoked cannabis in the last year, according to the Home Office, most will
have inhaled garden variety, often adulterated, "monkey bedding".

"In drought periods, I've gone without rather than smoke that crap," says
Martin, 32, who works in post-production in the film industry. He orders a
quarter of an ounce of Durban Poison a week from his dealer in Richmond,
who in turn sources it from some drug geeks with an organic plantation
"somewhere in Sussex". A perfectionist, Martin used to buy from a website
until the hi-tech police shut it down. "I only smoke organic that's been
properly dried and cured," he boasts.

Much cheap weed is of the "schwag" variety, an American term for low-grade
grass composed mostly of stems and seeds, compacted into green bricks and
handed out in bags by street dealers. Headache-inducing with a chemical
aftertaste, it's the cannabic equivalent of Happy Shopper lager.

Worse, though, is "soapbar", the "Oxo cube" form of hashish that was the
dominant form of pot in the UK for decades. For many people growing up in
the Eighties and Nineties, it was their first taste of the drug. Shame,
then, that it isn't actually cannabis.

"Moroccan-made soapbar is actually an adulterated facsimile, made from
about 10 per cent ground-up 'vegetable matter', marijuana leaves, stems and
twigs and 90 per cent adulterant," says Nick Craston, editor of the
cannabis magazine Red Eye. "It's bound with beeswax. Nescafe coffee is
added for colour, and then it's given a lick of turpentine for a shine.
Basically, it's crap. It's bad for you. Another situation where
prohibition, in all its wisdom, is feeding people garbage."

The desire to avoid smoking garbage, and the status rewards of carrying
good weed, are fuelling the prestige market. "Once you've had a taste of
the good stuff you won't go back," says Craston.

The Dutch, of course, are the gatekeepers of excellence. Many a UK smoker
has had his passion ignited in the coffee shops of Amsterdam. Every
November, the city plays host to the international Cannabis Cup.
Glassy-eyed devotees from all around the world gather to sample and rate
the vintage crops. The best strains are crowned the connoisseurs' choice.
The growers get international fame while the seeds are hocked online for
about UKP140 for a bag of 10.

Craston has been on the select panel of judges twice. "You smoke and you
smoke and you smoke. We had 44 strains of hash and grass to smoke in, I
think, five days." The competitor weeds are rigorously evaluated. "You have
to judge them on taste, strength, smell and burn." Olympian weed is also
expected to look good. Buds are routinely coiffeured to increase score (all
the top growers use bonsai scissors).

Strength is a key aspect of prize-winning green. Potency of cannabis,
measured in delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, content, has been rising
steadily over the last decade. Street skunk is about 8 per cent THC.
White-knuckle varieties can hit 23 per cent or more. The Ice-o-Lator
varieties, a super-strong form of Dutch hash made by an ice-water
extraction technique, have won the Cannabis Cup many times and are much
prized among cannaseurs. They can reach up to 40 per cent and come with
their own health warning: "Experienced users only." "It was too much," says
one user who posted a report on the web. "We had to give it back."

Higher strength equals a more intense high, but it can also mean a greater
chance of paranoia and other bad-trip phenomena. More than a quarter of
cannabis smokers report anxiety as a regular or occasional side-effect.
Indeed, super-strong Dutch grass, or nederweed, has been the undoing of
many a British stag party. The Dutch government is now considering treating
nederweed as a type of drug in its own legal bracket after many a curious
tourist has ended up in a dimension not of their choosing.

"Tolerance is everything. If you lay off smoking for a while, it can really
kick you off into the deep end," says Lawrence, 28, a City broker who uses
high-end cannabis to unwind at weekends. "We had a boy's night recently. I
hadn't smoked for a month. Everyone was passing spliffs around. After 20
minutes, I pulled a whitey." (A "whitey" is a state of cannabis-induced
semi-consciousness accompanied by a distinctive bloodless skin tone.)

Few of these championship-level varieties make it over to the UK in
smokeable form, but the highly treasured seeds are legal to sell, import
and buy, although cultivation is obviously a no-no.

The bulk of vintage cannabis is now home-grown. Many connoisseurs are, in
fact, growers themselves. DIY hydroponic (soil-less) set-ups now cost less
than UKP200 to install. The internet is solid with blow-by-blow
instructions on how to cultivate high-yield, high-strength varieties. At
overgrow.com, enthusiasts exchange tips, maintain grow blogs, and post
impressive centrefolds of slender female plants with large, glistening buds.

Where criminal syndicates used to smuggle ninebars in the hulls of Jamaican
dredgers or the fuel tanks of lorries arriving from Morocco, now they
factory-farm. "There's still smoke coming from elsewhere, particularly
Holland," says Red Eye's Craston, "but it's mediocre compared with
home-grown. For gangsters, cannabis is still a big product. They still
import huge amounts of commercial garbage. But the bulk of pot-smokers and
growers are not criminals."

Most connoisseur varieties are grown by proud enthusiasts and small
co-operatives in basements, cellars and greenhouses. Leftovers from the
low-yield crops are passed around to friends and family or sold to a small
customer base of fellow aficionados.

Personal cultivation is not without its dangers, however. Despite the
reclassification of cannabis to a class C drug, which means that most
adults will only get a warning for being in possession of small amounts for
"personal use", the Government has yet to set any guidelines on what
constitutes personal use for growers.

Also, top-drawer cannabis thrives under 24-hour halogen floodlights, which
guzzle electricity. The power companies now have "FBI" divisions that track
down anomalous pockets of high electricity use - often the result of a
heavyweight hydroponics set-up hacking into the local supply.

For many, though, the risk is worth it. They see growing as a sacred hobby
and smoking as an antidote to the times. "You can see the damage that
alcohol is doing to our society," says Craston. "People get pissed up and
go out looking for a fight. You get nice and stoned, you go out looking for
Mars bars."

The 18th Cannabis Cup runs from 20-24 November (www.cannabiscup.com)

The cream of the crop

HIGHS

- AK47

Named after number of days it takes to grow, this sativa cross is famed for
its crystalline feel-good high and smoky flavour.

UKP150 per ounce

- CHARAS

Catch-all term for sticky black hash from the Himalayas. Favoured by Indian
sadhus (holy men) and Soho graphic designers, it's hand-rubbed and
exceptionally good.

UKP210 per ounce

- STRAWBERRY COUGH

A legendary weed with a hint of ripe strawberries characterising its
after-taste. Very rare - usually not for sale.

UKP300 per ounce (if you can get it)

- G13

Super strong variety, stolen, apparently, from an American government
growing programme - although that might just be marketing. Very popular
when it first came out, but, like America, less fashionable now.

UKP250 per ounce

LOWS

- SKUNK

Generic hybrid pot, selectively bred by the Californian horticulture legend
"Sadu Sam", who named it after its distinctive pungent odour. Earthy taste
with spicy undertones, not very strong, nor cerebrally pleasing.

UKP80 per ounce

- SOAPBAR

Analysis of this adulterated hashish has revealed topsoil, plastic and even
veterinary salt supplements. Tastes like burning rubber. Avoid.

UKP50 per ounce

- POLM

Like olive oil, hashish has first, second and third pressings. Polm is
about the 10th pressing - a low-grade hashish with a high wax content and a
tarnished flavour. Soapbar in disguise.

UKP120 per ounce