This Web Exclusive is offered as a supplement to Fast Company’s February 2004 article “The Cannabis Conundrum.”
In the annals of medical-marijuana history, it was a significant moment: In June 1998, British regulators granted GW Pharmaceuticals a license to cultivate and supply marijuana for research and pharmaceutical development. There was just one problem: Where in the world would Geoffrey Guy, GW’s founder and chairman, find a legal source of pharmaceutical-grade marijuana seeds — enough to grow “tons” of material? Someone in England’s Home Office gave Guy a tip: A reclusive Dutch company called Hortapharm, founded by two Californian expatriates, might be able to help him out.
In the world of ganja connoisseurs, Hortapharm’s founders — David Watson and Robert Clarke — are near-gods. Clarke, Hortapharm’s principal botanist, is the author of Marijuana Botany and Hashish!, the first serious, science-based books on cannabis cultivation for a counter-culture readership. Watson, the company’s CEO, traveled to nearly every marijuana-rich country on the planet and assembled what is arguably the world’s most comprehensive cannabis-seed library. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, credits Watson with “almost single-handedly preserving hundreds of strains of cannabis.”
When I met Watson in his office in a residential neighborhood in Amsterdam, he presented me with two marijuana seeds. One seed, from Kashmir, was the size of a pinhead — “wild ditch weed, wannabe marijuana,” Watson called it. The other was a hemp seed, as fat as a lentil. The seeds could easily have symbolized the breadth of his study of Cannabis sativa.
Watson has a linebacker’s build and a crooked, Jack Nicholson smile. On the subject of cannabis, he is ferociously opinionated, frequently punctuating his assertions with an in-your-face refrain: “Do you understand?” What follows are excerpts from a lengthy interview, in which he describes how he and Clarke came to be two of the pioneering entrepreneurs in the Aboveground Marijuana Economy.
What drove you to collect cannabis seeds?
I had a jewelry and clothing import business during the 1970s and early ’80s, and I did a lot of traveling throughout Asia. While I was in India, I became aware of Ayurvedic medicine, which still uses cannabis to treat a wide variety of illnesses. I’ve always had an interest in seeds — I’m a lifetime member of the Seed Savers Exchange in the US — and I began collecting cannabis seeds to see how different strains might be used for different medical applications. I also saw how eradication efforts by international law enforcement agencies were having a negative effect on the very high end of the gene pool. I wanted to collect that high end before it was lost. I collected in Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Colombia — thousands of strains from dozens of countries.
How would you find the seeds that you wanted?
It depends. If it’s during the growing season, you might be able to make contact with an illicit farmer. If it’s out of season, you’ve got to connect with a person who sells illegal cannabis. I’ve walked into pharmacies and asked, “If I was interested in getting seeds from the cannabis plant for making medicine, where would I get them?” In south India, I notified the police that I was collecting and one of them gave me a plant as a present! My goal was to collect all of these genetics worldwide. It wasn’t easy — sometimes you have to step into harm’s way to get the goods.
What kind of a plant would you look for?
In general, you’re looking for a clean genetic profile — the ability to produce the compound you’re after. And you want a plant that’s producing lots of flowers — lots of resin. If the plant doesn’t have a lot of resin on it, it’s probably not going to have very much THC in it, even if the profile is incredibly clean. You need both.
The clones that people are using to produce illicit marijuana are by far primarily only THC [the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana]. They don’t really have the other cannabinoids because year after year, recreational smokers have selected only for THC and rejected everything else. But because we’re breeding for medicine, we’re after THC and all the other cannabinoids. [Cannabis is comprised of 61 cannabinoids, complex molecules unique to the plant, of which THC is the best known.] I don’t have any interest in collecting varieties that have been developed in the West by marijuana growers. They’re just have the same old THC, which is what recreational smokers are looking for. I want varieties that have unusual characteristics in their growth or flowering period, or new and unusual sources of cannabinoids.
What led you to launch Hortapharm?
Our original business plan was to breed pharmaceutical-grade cannabis and use it to produce a cheaper, generic version of Marinol. [Marinol is a synthetic-THC tablet for treating nausea induced by cancer chemotherapy.] We knew we could produce pure THC from the plant, which is superior to a synthetic. I’m convinced that the synergistic effects of the full plant, which in its natural form produces 400 compounds, is far more medically beneficial that any single synthetic component.
We were going to knock our price down at least a third or more from Marinol’s price tag. We thought that within a year or two, we could grab 66% of Marinol’s $20-million market, which was enough to support our small company. But money wasn’t the reason we did this. We were really interested in bringing cannabis back into mainstream medicine.
Given the drug laws in the United States, I guess you had no choice but to set Hortapharm up in the Netherlands.
We never could have carried out this activity in America — we would have turned old and gray just waiting to do the work. So in 1994, we applied to the Dutch Ministry of Health for a license to cultivate cannabis. We finally got it in 1997, which made us the Netherlands’ first legal operation to grow cannabis for pharmaceutical research. The application process was extraordinarily rigorous. I was shocked by how long it took. Holland has this rep as the marijuana capital of the world. But while it’s true that you can buy a small amount in a coffee shop, the government is very strict with cultivation.
How did you go about growing pharmaceutical-grade cannabis, which must be standardized to be made into a medicine?
That’s the thing. If you bought tomato seeds and grew 100 plants, they’d all come out the same. But if you bought cannabis seeds on the black market and grew 100 plants, you’re probably going to get a lot of variation. Amateur growers just don’t have a full understanding of how to breed. I had spent years collecting cannabis seeds worldwide. We grew thousands and thousands of those, analyzed them, and selected for the target compounds we really wanted. We grew the plants in a big glasshouse and we also grew outdoors, in secret locations.
[Watson displays a photograph of five acres of high-grade pot, cultivated for seed production, from “somewhere” in Europe.] After we extracted the seeds we wanted from this crop, we burned all five acres. My American friends were dumbfounded — it would have been worth millions of dollars on the black market. But that’s what plant breeders do — we grow 100,000 plants, keep 100 of them, and trash all the rest. I love to kill. I’m getting rid of everything that’s imperfect.
Okay, so you got the seeds you wanted. How did you then grow plants that were genetically consistent — a prerequisite for producing medicine?
Cannabis is normally a heterozygote, which means it has two sets of chromosomes — one from the mother and one from the father, and they vary. Through a proprietary technique we developed called selfing, we became the world’s first breeders to develop homozygote cannabis, in which both sets of chromosomes are identical. We then mass produced plants with just the one cannabinoid profile we wanted. We grew plants that were 98% THC, or 98% CBD. And that’s what Geoffrey Guy [founder of GW Pharmaceuticals] was looking for. He wanted different cannabinoids — THC, CBD, CBC, CBG — which he could then blend in different ratios and explore them for their medical efficacy. We were the only ones in the world who had what Geoffrey badly needed.
How did you meet Dr. Guy?
We had sent a representative to a meeting of the Multiple Sclerosis Society in England, which Geoffrey attended. We were the only people there that were supporting the U.K. government’s position on medical marijuana, which was to take a step-by-step approach to studying the issue. Everybody else just wanted to legalize medical marijuana tomorrow. We felt it was better to test the materials first and put them through a normal drug-approval process. Our colleague impressed Geoffrey, and he contacted us.
When Geoffrey came over here in 1998, we were getting close to our financial limit. We’re an R&D company — we didn’t have a product that was making an income. The problem for Geoffrey is that all cannabis experts have backgrounds — they’ve built their expertise by working with an illegal material. But Hortapharm was fully licensed by the Dutch government. So Geoffrey got a legal supply of pharmaceutical grade germ-plasm. And he got me and Robert Clarke to pass along our knowledge. We gave him at least a five-year head start.
If Sativex, GW’s cannabis-based medicine for treating MS symptoms, gets approved by British regulators, what effect will that have on the debate over medical marijuana?
It will prove to people, patients, and businesses that cannabis can be a valuable therapeutic agent. And once Sativex gets the go-ahead in the UK, it will quickly win approval in Europe, Canada, and Australia — and the U.S. will be the one country to stand there and say, No, cannabis has no therapeutic application. But I don’t think American scientists will stand for that.