On July 1, Oregon’s voter-backed legalization initiative, Measure 91, went into effect. At just around midnight, thousands of people gathered alongside Portland’s Burnside Bridge for the promise of free weed and a celebratory smoke out hosted by Portland NORML. Local breeders Stoney Girl Gardens handed out tens of thousands of free seeds in celebratory packages.
Although the event, dubbed “The Burnside Burn” was still technically illegal — it is illegal to publicly consume cannabis in a now-legal Oregon — local authorities looked the other way.
“You choose your battles,” Sgt. Pete Simpson told local news station KATU. “From what I understand, this wasn’t an unruly group. It wasn’t creating a huge public safety issue and that’s really our main concern with any large event.”
Upon arriving in Oregon, I was gifted 20 appropriately named “Happy Girl” seeds leftover from the Burnside Burn giveaway. Under Measure 91, it is now legal for up to four plants to be grown in a household of persons over the age of 21.
Testing for Gender
I placed eight seeds on a damp paper towel, wrapped them up, sealed them in a ziplock and let them sprout. Three days later I had eight eager sprouted seedlings ready to plant. I planted all eight seeds into a pot knowing full well that some would grow to be males and would need to be eliminated immediately to prevent pollination — and therefore seeding — of my female plants. It would also be impolite of me to keep mature males on my balcony garden as the pollen is easily spread by weather and animals and could pollinate nearby neighbors’ legal gardens. Unfortunately, the guys had to go to keep the Happy Girls happy.
A couple of days later my seeds shed their shells and sprouted two big healthy cotyledon leaves each (one freak seedling grew three). The cotyledon leaves are the two rounded leaves that appear first, before the well-known serrated leaves characteristic of cannabis appear. Instead of waiting for the plants to begin showing their sex, which would be weeks down the line, I was given the opportunity to identify the gender immediately using a “plant sexing” test provided by Portland-based Phylos Bioscience.
The test process itself is surprisingly simple. The plants are ready to test as soon as the second set of serrated blade leaves appear. I labeled each plant in the pot 1-8 and then gently tore off one cotyledon from each. The leaf was placed on the corresponding test strip and a heavy kief-catching grinder was used to smash the plant material into the strips before returning them to the lab.
The testing process took just two hours. Once a sample is received at the lab, a hole is punched out of the leaf-smeared card and placed in a test tube to extract the DNA. It is examined in order to determine if the plant has, like humans, two X chromosomes (female) or an XY chromosome (male).
Although commercially available tests could take up to two days for results, I was able to learn within hours that five of my balcony babies were male, and therefore must be eradicated. I removed the male seedlings and repotted the remaining three babies in their own pots so they would have room to spread out their roots, grow a nice strong taproot and produce lots of lush leaves.
Because I planted so late in the season, I have no real intention of harvesting bud from them, rather I would prefer to keep them vegging for the purposes of fresh cannabis juice. Cannabis is a short-day annual plant, meaning it measures the amount of uninterrupted darkness to determine when it is time to reproduce and die. In nature, cannabis plants measure the darkness and as the summer nights get longer and turn to fall, the plant flowers, produces its seed and dies. By flashing a light on my balcony garden after the sun goes down I am preventing my plants from ever flowering.
Genetic Testing Shapes Gardens
Growers often choose to grow from clones because when cut from a female plant, the clone is also a guaranteed female. Plants grown from seed, although more labor-intensive, have the ability to grow stronger taproots and are often larger and healthier than a plant grown from clone. Breeders are the rare gardeners that save males, since they are aiming to pollinate and produce seeds from their plants.
Phylos Bioscience says they see more seed-grown plants in outdoor gardens, which are legal and regulated in Oregon. Although their sex-testing program has just begun, they intend to learn more about the clone and seed markets and how growers interact with their plants.
“We don’t run into a large amount of indoor growers who grow from seed unless they are bringing in new strains,” says Nishan Karassik, co-founder and CEO of Phylos Bioscience. “However, due to the recent high levels of pesticide findings in Oregon and Colorado product, healthier seed-grown plants could help reduce or remove the need for pesticide use. Clones often carry pests and systemic diseases, which are difficult to control without pesticides. For this change to happen, stabilization of seed genetics and seeds at a lower price point will encourage the industry to lean towards seed-grown plants.”
Earlier this year, local newspaper “The Oregonian” wrote an exposé on dangerous pesticides being found on legal cannabis. The newspaper purchased lab-tested flowers and concentrates from local dispensaries and had them re-tested. What they found was that dangerous pesticides were being used on raw flower tested just once before processing. Although the flower came up clean on lab tests, once concentrated, the remaining pesticide concentrated as well leaving unsafe levels in the product.
The article prompted the state to issue a letter to all licensed cannabis growers to immediately cease using unsafe pesticides, except those approved by the state department of agriculture for crops meant for human consumption.
Although pesticides don’t alter the genetic structure of the plant, they continue to linger in soil and the surrounding environment long after their use. Much of the harm to humans is still unknown. When a clone is taken from a sprayed plant, the pesticide will continue to linger. If another clone is taken from that clone, it will have much less but potentially still some residual pesticide on it.
Karassik says that he hopes the ease of the tests, which cost $20 per seedling, will push more growers to grow from seeds and lead to more sustainable industry practices. Commercial growers are already utilizing the service, but Phylos sees small-time hobby growers as a potential larger market in legal states since the ease allows small-time growers to experiment with varieties.
A Research Hub for Medical Marijuana
Phylos is trying to learn everything they can about cannabis, including undertaking the massive task of mapping the cannabis genome. For the purpose of the sex tests, they are only extracting the DNA to determine gender, but not archiving the strains in the genome mapping. While much of the genetic sequencing work will help demystify the cannabis family tree, it will also help identify certain traits found in cannabis, such as a tendency towards hermaphroditism.
“We will never have a test for hermaphrodites, only the tendency to turn hermaphroditic,” says Mowgli Holmes, co-founder and chief science officer at Phylos.
Hermaphroditic plants are actually female plants with a genetic predisposition to turn hermaphrodite under stressful cultivation conditions. With the right nurturing, a grower could prevent the plant from producing male pollen.
“You can’t test a baby for bad attitude, but maybe there is a gene that can predispose you to a tendency,” says Holmes.
Holmes says the genetic mapping of cannabis is identical to the massive international research project currently mapping out the human genome — 23andMe. For $199 any human can participate in the human genome-mapping project by submitting a saliva sample for genetic sequencing and following up with series of surveys about their genetic traits. Researchers are studying all strains of humanity — haplogroups, the equivalent to cannabis plant landraces — to unlock the secrets of the human body.
Holmes marvels at the fascinating and confounding ways the cannabis plant mirrors human life.
“Most plants are monoecious, or don’t have a sex. Only nine percent of plant species are dioecious. The fact [that cannabis] has an XX-XY chromosome system like humans is unique,” says Holmes.
For 10,000 years cannabis followed the planet with humans and was cultivated as a food, medicine and fiber source. As those plants migrated with increased globalization, they mixed just like the humans carrying them.
“After all this dispersion to the four corners of the earth, the cannabis races came back together on the West Coast of the United States and in Holland and hybridized insanely. The genetic structure, the chromosome structure, the population structure and history are just kind of similar to humans,” Holmes says. “There’s just not another plant with that many analogies to human life.”
Phylos is providing their genetic data to the Open Cannabis Project (OCP), a group whose mission is to provide regulatory and ethical structure around the data being gathered on the cannabis plant. The OCP will create a database to serve as proof that all the strains currently in circulation are public domain and can never be patented by the new corporations attempting to enter the industry as it becomes legal.
“If Monsanto comes in and takes Sour Diesel and renames it and tries to apply for a plant patent, the people at the Open Cannabis Project will say ‘No,’” says Holmes. “It’s the best way we have thought of to turn the data to good public use.”
Holmes says they aim to support breeders so that in the future they can obtain licensing fees for plants they breed, if larger companies want the ability to grow and sell them.
“In a normal legal world that would be the law and karmically it’s the right thing to do — but in the future we would like breeders to be more rewarded for the work they do and breeders should be rewarded for their work through licensing fees. I think all cannabis strains should be available for private use, I don’t ever want to see cannabis strains restricted so that private individuals can’t use them for medical use,” Holmes concludes.
Holmes and Karassik say they hope to see Oregon become a national leader on research-driven cannabis policies that improve collective understanding of the cannabis plant and its interaction with human life.
“We really hope Oregon can look at the previous policies done right and wrong in other states and become a national leader,” says Karassik. “Our policymakers are really open to doing the right thing and being leaders, which is really positive.”