Growing with the Guru of Ganja Ed Rosenthal
If Ed Rosenthal’s name isn’t immediately familiar to you, chances are you’ve never attempted to grow pot in your dorm room or basement.
“I’m sort of a wildcatter,” says Ed Rosenthal, his Bronx, New York accent showing through the laid back California exterior he’s cultivated over 40 years living in the Bay Area. “What I mean by that is, I have the confidence of fools. I tend to think, OK, I might be able to do that.”
Beginning in the late 1960s, Rosenthal first saw his early cultivation efforts appreciated in the apartment building he resided in on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan. Admitting he wasn’t the most skilled horticulturalist at the time, he says, “I was not what one would now call a good grower – but I was really enthusiastic. And here I was growing pot and getting all the likeminded people in my apartment building high all the time.”
The freedom to grow marijuana in his apartment led him to think about the potential for others to grow indoors like he had. “I decided that it was so great that I would make these little grow tents and sell them,” he says.
Rosenthal explains that at that time Rolling Stone magazine featured a regional insert called the “New York Flyer,” a local addition paper placed inside magazines that appeared in the New York City area. “And so I went to their offices to get some publicity and they said that a guy had just come in with a story about how to grow marijuana.”
That chance intersection happened to be with writer Mel Frank, who would later become Rosenthal’s co-author on the seminal book the “Marijuana Growers Guide Deluxe Edition” – a work that would serve as the bible of bud for many a home grower during the nascent, pot growing days of the 1970s. The guide’s influence became so widespread that in 1978 it garnered a book review by the New York Times and for decades since has been recognized by novice and expert growers alike as the first great work to put cannabis cultivation within the reach of the average Joe and Jane grower.
“I didn’t know at the time that book publishing was a rich person’s business,” says Rosenthal, now 71 years old with a few more book titles under his belt. “When I started this, I had no money.”
Since then, Rosenthal’s independent publishing house, Quick Trading Company, has sold over 2 million copies of more than a dozen titles on the subject of cannabis ranging from cultivation and seed breeding to hash making. Those books, which are as homegrown as the man himself, have helped to create the colossal U.S. marijuana market we know today – a business that shows every sign of continuing its steadfast march toward massive popularity and sky-high profits.
If Rosenthal had stopped at book publishing, that might have been enough to ink his credentials in the pot hall of fame and call it a day. But his story goes far deeper than a couple million books sold. Over the ensuing decades, he would become a cultivation innovator, as well as an influential drug policy figure, and one of the key people credited with developing vital policies of civil regulation for marijuana legalization.
At Home with Ed
It’s a brisk Northern California winter night as I make my way up Rosenthal’s driveway, a first glimpse of his house providing me with the initial tempo for the next two hours spent with the guru of ganja.
Before arriving at his house, I had imagined the carnival scene inside – a psychoactive firing squad of super-charged pot, 4-foot bongs and general Bacchanalia, and me in the middle of the circus lobbing questions at the weed professor through a cloud of blue smoke and pumping Rasta beats. What I actually got was less dramatic but much more likely – Rosenthal’s wife and publishing partner Jane Klein greeting me with a handshake and a smile and Mr. Rosenthal sitting me down in his well-lit workplace that more resembles an architect’s loft than a scene from “Fear and Loathing.”
Their residence – a modest house on a tree-lined street in the middle of Oakland, California – is the picture of docile, middle-class America. Where other suburban front yards might feature a hedgerow of junipers or a basketball hoop, Rosenthal has taken advantage of the driveway’s southern light exposure and is growing tomatoes and bell peppers in a self-styled, portable greenhouse he calls “Meals on Wheels.” Lately, he’s been working on this home project meant to extend the growing season by a couple months and employs a system of heating the roots through a simple aquarium pump. His plants look well-fed and happy and are in the process of building strong, healthy roots – all in the middle of December.
“That’s a little system that I developed,” he says proudly. “You couldn’t do this in Kansas or a place where it gets these hard freezes. But places where the temps are marginal or semi-marginal, you can do it.”
Constructed with 2x4s, castors and plastic sheeting, it’s effective and very simple to put together. And because it’s built on wheels, the setup is portable and can be moved around during the year as the sun’s arc varies.
“In February, we’ll start getting sunny days again,” he says, “so that plastic sheet will come up during the day and we’ll put it down at night.”
It’s interesting to hear the man whose name is synonymous with growing chronic spend the first 15 minutes of our conversation excitedly sharing tips about growing killer tomatoes and bell peppers in the middle of winter. But I’m realizing that this is the real Ed Rosenthal – an innovative horticulturist who long ago choose a path toward cannabis cultivation over, say, another ag specialist’s choice of corn.
Wondering where it all started, I ask him about his first experience with the plant.
“In terms of using it – first of all, I grew up in a time when cannabis was not part of the culture,” he says. “Even with the bohemian culture, it was exotic. I got into it in 1964 when I was about 20 years old. After I got high, literally just a couple of times, I realized that this was going to be important to me.”
He credits some of his inspiration for cannabis coming from Carlos Castaneda’s book “The Teachings of Don Juan,” which documents events that took place during an apprenticeship with a Yaqui Indian shaman. “He had this little smoke which was an ally,” says Rosenthal. “And I recognized that – not that I was a shaman, but that this was an ally.”
That little ally is what would take him from his Lower Eastside walkup growing cannabis to pursuing a college degree in philosophy and psychology for “a lot of years” in an attempt to remain ineligible for the Vietnam War draft.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was taking an upper-class major. There were no direct jobs associated with a philosophy and psychology degree,” he says. “So I dropped out because I was told that I was ‘1A,’ which meant totally draft eligible and that being in school would no longer help me. I’d been taking an extremely long time to get a bachelor’s degree – I mean, a really long time. I was doing it strategically, until I was 26, and at some point they said, ‘Fuck you, get in line.'”
With the help of those years studying psychology, Rosenthal convinced the Army that he might not make the best soldier due to mental unpredictability. “Eventually they realized, at the convenience of the Army, that they did not ever want me,” he says pausing and dropping into lunatic’s thousand-yard stare like the one he fixed on his intake officer back in the ’60s. “I was ‘4F’… I came behind pregnant women and children.”
After a period working in New York City, in stock compliance of all things, Rosenthal took a leap of faith and moved to San Francisco to fulfill his destiny.
“I left my career as a youthful indiscretion to help make pot legal,” he says with a smile.
Eyes on the Prize
After his arrival in California in 1973 and publishing the “Marijuana Growers Guide Deluxe Edition,” he continued to expand as an author, cannabis grower and advocate for the legalization of marijuana use.
With the passage of California’s pioneering Prop 215 in the 1990s, which authorized medicinal use of marijuana, Rosenthal put his expert knowledge of cannabis to work with state and local governments to implement the delivery of high-grade cannabis for patients. But as it would turn out, the protection of that state law was not enough to keep him from being prosecuted. Though he was appointed an officer of the City of Oakland, he was soon alerted by the federal government that the city had no right to tell him that he was free from criminal charges by the feds.
“I was told [by the City of Oakland] as long as I obeyed the laws, regulations and ordinances that I was free from prosecution by the federal government, the state government and the city government,” he says. “During the trial, they didn’t allow us to mention that the city had given us the right to grow or that we were growing for medical patients.”
In the end, Rosenthal was found guilty of maintaining a marijuana grow space. When the jury discovered that vital information had been withheld from them, the majority made statements to the court – after already being dismissed – claiming that they had been duped by the government. But it was too late, Rosenthal had been found guilty of a felony and was released on one-day, time served.
“When I was given one day, the judge thought that I was going to run from that courtroom as fast as I could,” he says. “But I went outside and denounced him. It wasn’t enough to not do time – he made me into a felon because of his unfair treatment.”
Instead of retreating into the shadows and hiding from law enforcement after that encounter, Rosenthal doubled down and continued his activism on behalf of patient rights, keeping his eyes on the prize of his goal after leaving New York. Nothing short of legalization would be acceptable.
Old and New Media
It’s been nearly 40 years since Rosenthal first turned on a generation to the concept of freely growing cannabis at home and his contributions to the industry continue to expand. He’s managed to carry on penning bestsellers like the “Marijuana Grower’s Handbook,” “Beyond Buds” and “Marijuana Pest and Disease Control,” as well as new titles like “Marijuana Harvest” co-written with David Downs – all valuable resources for the avid cultivator.
Rosenthal’s also recently made a guest judge appearance on the TV show “The Collective,” a nationwide search to discover the next successful cannabis entrepreneurs, fashioned after the incredibly successful show “Shark Tank.” He’s got a few more exciting innovations in mind, too, like working with a terpene project and creating a special light to increase THC production. And now he continues to make plays at helping cannabis become completely legitimate for recreational use in California.
“I’m more forward-looking,” he says. “I’m always moving forward.”
Rosenthal’s vision for the future of California legalization titled “The Marijuana Bill of Rights,” seeks to be a more straightforward road to recreational legalization, cutting through the static that can often confuse voters.
“If you look at election results and the numbers, marijuana is always way more popular than any politician,” he says. “And who would you rather spend an evening with, some of the Republican candidates or some good marijuana? It’s a no-brainer.”
Originally published in issue 19 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE.