The Year of Sungrown Weed 

California's 2011 cannabis crop is golden, despite global warming and the recent federal crackdown.

California is renowned for having some of the best produce in the world, and that reputation is being extended again this year to its sun-kissed cannabis. The state's annual outdoor marijuana crop has come in, and despite global warming and heated federal threats, the harvest looks quite golden. Growers, dispensary operators, and experts say California's 2011 outdoor is bountiful, cheap, high-quality, and more medicinal than in years past.

More people are growing more ganja than in years past and more of it is being grown outdoors, said Ed Rosenthal, Bay Area author of several cannabis cultivation books. Cannabis is a seasonal crop in California with an estimated value of $14 billion per year. Though most of it is thought to be grown indoors nowadays, outdoor growing is becoming increasingly popular.

Outdoors, the bushy weeds can grow as big as small trees throughout the dry, scorching summers. Seasonal workers cut them down before the first fall rains start. After several weeks of drying, curing, and trimming leaves off the buds, the crop is ready for storing or consumption.

The fall harvest typically means a drop in prices as a glut of weed comes to both the black market and the burgeoning dispensary market, and this year promises substantial savings. In the medical scene, eighth-ounces — which can go for $55 — are on sale for as low as $35. Ounces that retail for $360 can be found for as little as $200. That's a boon to low-income patients, several operators say.

Rosenthal said price cuts might be even sharper in the black market, because dispensaries are not hoarding inventory like they usually do. Federal saber rattling and efforts to shut down storefront collectives has operators nervous about stocking up, Rosenthal said. When cash-needy growers can't quickly sell their product, prices drop. "It's going to make for very low prices," he said.

The quality of outdoor this year is also rivaling indoor-grown sinsemilla, and that's something of a sea change, experts say. In the Seventies, all cannabis was grown outdoors, but the federal drug war in the Eighties pushed farmers out of direct sunlight.

Since the Nineties, indoor product has come to dominate California cannabis. It tends to be stronger, better-looking, and more easily controlled than an outdoor grow, watchers note. But under the protections of Prop 215 and AB 420, the state's two landmark medical cannabis laws, outdoor is making a comeback, many say.

David Bienenstock, editor of High Times Medical Marijuana magazine, based in Santa Cruz, has gone on several fall garden tours this year. It's another big year for Kushes and Diesels, but his favorite this year is a Nor Cal hybrid called Tangelo. "It has this amazing tangerine citrus smell," he said. "I think people are bringing more and more knowledge and experience to outdoor growing and they are producing this incredibly high-quality harvest because of that. I think as people return to putting plants in full sun — which has been going on for a while — it's becoming a big part of why the outdoor harvest product continues to get better in quality."

The outdoor harvest is not only higher-quality, but it's more medicinal. In 2011, outdoor growers have embraced the high-CBD strain Harlequin in a major way, said Bienenstock. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a non-psychoactive anti-inflammatory molecule in marijuana. Highly therapeutic for pain, CBD dampens the euphoria of pot's main active molecule, THC, which is why black-market breeders had nearly eliminated CBD from contemporary pot. The Bay Area medical scene has been using labs to identify high-CBD strains and get them to growers — to bring CBD back, as it were.

Addison DeMoura, co-founder of Steep Hill Lab in Oakland, said 2011 ushers in a new era of high-CBD outdoor Harlequin as well as other high-CBD strains, such as Blue Suede Shoes and ATF. For the first time, they're systematically coming to market, Bienenstock noted. "The dispensary provides this new feedback loop between patients and growers, and out of a big choice, the growing market is for non-psychoactive and less psychoactive pot. It goes against the US Attorneys' entire point for making a target of these places."

This year's outdoor harvest might have been even more impressive had it been affected by global warming. "The one thing I've been hearing everybody wail about is the weather patterns they've been used to and have relied on have not been consistent," Bienenstock said.

Charlie Custer, co-founder of the Tea House Collective in Humboldt County, wrote: "The last two years' late spring rains, cool and humid summers and soggy falls have been wonderful for our salmon and just perfect for our mold."

Grape farmers are worried about losing 30 percent or more of their crop, and cannabis crops suffer from the same mold as grapes, he said. "Many growers along the coast have suffered more than 50 percent losses," he said.

Consequently, greenhouse-grown ganja has emerged this year as the new halfway point between fully outdoor grows and a controlled environment. Hybrid enclosures are also changing the terminology of the harvest.

This year, Harborside Health Center, SPARC, and others have started calling "outdoor" cannabis "sungrown" cannabis. It better reflects the product's origin and battles the stigma that outdoor is somehow contaminated, dirty, or weathered, they say. "I think it's a good way to remind people that that's the natural way to produce this plant," Bienenstock said.

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