Cultivation Kickoff:

A long strange trip

Cannabis legalization is a significant policy change with big social ramifications. In Canada, it took years of advocacy, the development of a sophisticated underground economy, and tons of illegal dispensaries to bring about the shift in public opinion necessary to convince our elected officials.

It all started with a few people growing a plant for themselves.

I am one of those people who started with a couple of plants at home and found a career. For others, it may have led to improved wellness, or a hobby, or tomatoes. No matter the outcome, it all started with those first plants.

Our goal here at Inside the Jar is to present accurate and insightful content while respecting the origins and culture of cannabis, and that stands when we explore cultivation. Our writing might focus on big business, small commercial cultivators, home growers, or tokers, but through it all we will strive to put these discussions in context.

As a grower myself, I am excited and frustrated by the first Canadian edition of legalization. I expect things to improve over time, but I’m also willing to tackle the barriers that litter the path to operating legally now.

For example, this first iteration of legality does provide opportunity for small and large cannabis businesses to thrive. If one has the money to build, the wherewithal to navigate compliance, and the gardening chops to produce a decent product, it is a time of opportunity. If not, it can be a frustrating and confusing mess.

The issues don’t only impact businesses, however. These regulations also legalize non-medical home growing. While it is not what many had hoped for, with a very small plant limit and some odd provincial rules, it is now possible to grow four plants without breaking any federal laws.

Because of the previously illicit nature of the substance, cannabis cultivation has been somewhat shrouded in mystery. Many people might be inclined to try growing a little for themselves, but are intimidated by the wall of cannabis-specific fertilizers at the local hydro shop, the high-intensity lights recommended for indoor cultivation, or the bearded growers rocking hoodies with ball caps and shades as a uniform (like me!).

There is so much information online that it can be overwhelming. Much of it is false, and even more gives an illusion of certainty.

So, here I present the kickoff to our cultivation coverage. This is what I do, and I will communicate how and why. I will give free advice, and bring others in to do the same. I will talk about growing methods, post-production, and maybe even sneak some terpenes in.

I will be grounded in something that has been entirely lost in the media’s focus on stocks, infused beverages, automation, global markets, regulations, and all the general fuckery happening today: the cannabis plant.

It is, after all, just a plant.

What it takes

So, if cannabis is just a plant, can we grow it like the tomatoes on the deck?

The short answer is: “yeah, pretty much.”

In many ways, there is nothing preventing new growers from treating cannabis much like other annuals. Get some good compost and topsoil, water properly, and be ready to deal with common pests—that is the crux of it.

Cannabis can also be grown in space-agey fashion with bare roots and timed misters. It can be grown with liquid fertilizer in rockwool insulation, or peat, or coconut waste. It can be grown with salts in water.

Each of these methods can produce high-grade product, too.

There are some tricks that can help, but the best thing a prospective grower can do is try. Pop some seeds and grow some plants. Gardening is a hobby as old as civilization.

Those that want to do this for a living will have a significant advantage if they have a history with cultivation of the plant. Even on a small scale, plants are variable living beings, and guiding them through their life cycle provides insight no text can match.

When starting out as a cultivator, it is about finding a method that fits. Make it fun. Whether planted in living soil in the backyard, peat moss in containers, or suspended in a liquid solution, it is the passion and interest of the gardener that will lead to success.

Keep in mind that there is no correct way to do this. There are dozens of methods, with technologies that have been developed for each.

Home growing experience has historically been the foundation for cannabis growing expertise, as well. People have been sharing methods and genetics for a long time, so there are some large communities that can be tapped into.

Forum life

In the early 2000s, an online community began to proliferate at overgrow.com. (A new site exists at this link now.) This platform gave growers the chance to share methods and results anonymously.

Overgrow quickly became a marketplace, too. Seeds and clones were shared and sold. Brands emerged. Specific boards emerged for different methods, including the beginning of the notorious ‘ROLS’ thread, which stands for recycled organic living soil.

This site was shut down in 2006, with arrests taking place in Montreal.

In the time that followed, a number of forums popped up to fill the void. ICMag, Rollitup, Grasscity, and THCfarmer were among the big ones.

There was lots of information, and plenty of misinformation. The urge to dismiss someone because their forum handle was something like DankBroOG69 was strong, but anyone could be a hidden weed ninja.

These forums provided a window into how others grew their weed, and often led to discussions and arguments over methodology, equipment and tech, cultivar origins, and other general bullshit.

There was lots of information, and plenty of misinformation. The urge to dismiss someone because their forum handle was something like DankBroOG69 was strong, but anyone could be a hidden weed ninja.

Nowadays, the forums are still active, but social media has taken some of that mantle. Twitter offers discussion around regs and the legal space, along with the new-fangled cannabis stock scene. Facebook has groups of growers and vendors. Ignoring all the influenzas, Instagram acts as a huge illicit marketplace, with millions of pot pics from growers⁠—great and garbage.

The hydro store

Along with the online forums, people have relied on niche retailers, colloquially known as ‘hydro stores’, for a couple of decades.

Not quite a nursery, not quite a hardware store, these shops carry everything needed to grow cannabis inside. Cloning equipment, ducting, dehumidifiers, fertilizers, pesticides, reservoirs, and so much more, which aren’t normally all grouped together, all in one place.

These shops, often founded by growers themselves, are more than just vendors of equipment and fertilizers. Many of them offer grow advice, for better or worse, that has influenced a whole generation of new and amateur cultivators.

Constitutional cannabis

The illicit cannabis economy has long relied on home growers for product. Cultivating on a large scale is risky in an illegal environment, as size makes illegal operations easier to find. This also stands for outdoor and greenhouse grows, which are easy to identify visually.

So, the era of the grow-op emerged. There was lots of demand for the product, which was restricted by law, leading to the development of a robust underground economy.

Smaller scale growers saw the opportunity to make some decent money by setting aside their basement or garage to grow weed. There was some risk, but the reward might double their annual income with a 300- to 500-square-foot space.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, many of these growers became protected by personal production licenses (PPLs) under the Medical Marihuana Access Regulations (MMAR), as they also qualified as medical cannabis patients.

Terry Parker speaks to the media after the courts agreed he had a constitutional right to use cannabis for his epilepsy.

In 1999, R. v. Parker was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada, where it was determined that Canadians have a right to access cannabis as a medicine, in this case to treat severe seizures. Parker had been charged with cultivation, and successfully argued that he should be legally allowed to grow, as people with a medical need had to procure that medicine somewhere.

Thus the MMAR was born.

With no legal cultivators, the government tried to establish a single licensed producer for the whole country. The idea being that they could go back to prohibiting home growing if they could supply “reasonable access” This company was Prairie Plant Systems, now CanniMed, a business that was bought by Aurora in January 2018.

Of course, this one company could not provide anything resembling “reasonable access”. Over the next 15 years, the number of medical cannabis patients increased drastically. Many were undeservedly raided and arrested. They fought in court. They usually won. They all deserve some credit for getting us to legalization, and the governments of the day opposed them every step of the way.

As MMAR licenses proliferated and courts set constitutional precedents, a layer of protection was added for many cultivators. Get a license, stay within your plant counts, and grow to your heart’s content.

Yes, some licensees were breaking the law to sell the product. This became less risky as time passed, and court decisions came, leading to the growth of a complex economy.

The Cannabis Act

The Cannabis Act is a massive step in the right direction, despite its flaws. Not only was home growing made legal, but the modular system of licensing opened up many more possibilities for aspiring small businesses.

For home growers, the new Canada-wide regulations allow everyone to grow four plants for themselves and carry up to 30 grams of dried flower. While both limits are arbitrary and far too low, let’s not forget that the task force recommended limiting plant height to 100 centimetres, which could have made the meter stick a law enforcement tool.

People can also share cannabis with other adults, as long as they are not selling it. That is great for small groups that want variety and offers serious potential for some cool home growing events.

It is important to know your provincial regulations before setting up a home grow. While it is highly unlikely the police will find out if you grow five plants instead of four, there are some weird provincial rules. In B.C., for example, your plants can’t be visible to the public under any circumstances, as evidenced by the odd raid that occurred in Revelstoke earlier this year.

Quebec and Manitoba have tried to ban home growing completely. The courts told Quebec to fuck off, so the province then did the illicit market a solid and raised the legal age to 21. Manitoba has also made it illegal to consume edibles in public, leaving everyone waiting for the unveiling of the snack enforcement unit.

Yeah, incidents like that are total bullshit, but that was just some asshole cop being an asshole cop. These things should sort out over time, not that this provides much solace to the couple that had their home ransacked by eager enforcers.

In fact, the provinces have been the ones leading the weird weed law charge as of late. Here in B.C. you can take plants for a walk, but only if they are not in flower. Quebec and Manitoba have tried to ban home growing completely. The courts told Quebec to fuck off, so the province then did the illicit market a solid and raised the legal age to 21. Manitoba has also made it illegal to consume edibles in public, leaving everyone waiting for the unveiling of the snack enforcement unit.

Meanwhile, federal regulations have improved for small operators. The Cannabis Act allows people to just grow, without needing to deal with distribution headaches. The flip side is possible, too, focusing on processing and distribution only. They also allow farmgate sales, despite many provinces banning direct sales of any kind. Extracts and edibles are legal and on their way in 2020. Despite the depressingly bureaucratic process of licensing and product approval, the system should now allow for specialists at each level of the supply chain, offering an alternative to the monolithic PubCos currently dominating the market.

Looking ahead

Legalization is going to change cannabis cultivation. For a long time, many of us have hidden from the public. Scientists and data analysts were nowhere to be seen. Large scale production was impossible.

We are stepping into a new era, and nothing will be like it was. We will see closet-bred genetics and high-tech cultivation collide with analytical chemists and hoody-toting hippies.

It will all be very interesting and hectic, producing many entertaining stories. The era of legalization is upon us, making it easy to discuss politics and social impact. We will do that elsewhere in our publication, but here we will always remember to give the plant the attention it deserves.