In Sean Characky’s phone (and in his head) is an incomparable marijuana industry Rolodex. A who’s-who of cannabis breeders, geneticists and originators rolls off his tongue. This is the kind of contacts list a well-moneyed upstart would mortgage his second home to get, and these are all friends and colleagues of Characky’s from the barely legal days 20 years ago, when he and a few other pioneers in Southern California traded the clones and seeds that formed the nucleus of today’s dispensary menus.
“I got the original SFV [San Fernando Valley OG Kush] from Brett, who had Josh D.’s cut, back in ’98,” he says. “Back in the day, I was the guy who would sell it to you for ten grand. It’s no big secret I was the guy who would sell it to you, if you wanted it.”
Today, Characky can reveal these arcane marijuana secrets as if they were what he ate for breakfast that day. He can tell you — with the authority that only comes from being there, which cuts through the fog of competing stories, nicknames, and disputed lineage — that Skywalker OG is just OG, rechristened by an LA dispensary owner who happened to be named Luke. He can tell you about the beef between two other old-school growers that led one spurned partner to sell 50,000 clones “to every dispensary you can think of,” quite possibly the one move that is most responsible for sending OG’s distinct aromas of limonene and pinene into the lungs and nostrils of weedheads around the world.
What you won’t find is Characky showing any of this off on social media, making noise at the loudest booth at the Cannabis Cup, rubbing elbows with Instagram celebrities or pressing fistfuls of his weed into rappers’ hands, banking that a few bars’ worth of mention will be enough to create the next top strain. If you did, you’d probably laugh — or mistake him for a cop (or, just as likely these days, a Silicon Valley investor trying to “fit in”).
“I’m not a hip dresser. I don’t have any tattoos. I look more like a banker,” he says. “You have to fit a social media style in order to create a hype. I’m not much of a hype man. I work really hard and I’m glad people seem to like what I grow. That’s all I need.”
More important than those dusty old bona fides, dating from when today’s budtenders and hype extraction artists were in diapers, are the ones currently living under lights in a growhouse in the Las Vegas desert. Five years ago, Characky relocated to Vegas from LA, and consequently became a big fish in a smaller, regulated pond.
“I just got tired of living in Cali. LA is overrun,” Characky says. “All my roots are there, but the taxes are high, I got tired getting stuck in traffic. So I came out here to try and find new turf, and landed with some of the better groups in town.”
Characky is currently in charge of cultivation for Pisos, one of the Vegas-area dispensaries that went recreational this past July 1, and one of the few in Las Vegas (if you believe Characky’s story, and why not?) that’s fully vertically integrated — and the only one with these carefully curated genetics.
Which means Pisos is a strain-chaser’s dream. This also means that Pisos can get away with selling eighths for $69, and can struggle to keep them in stock. Whether they grasp the significance or not, at Pisos, tourists from around the world are buying eighths of the original Jack Herer, or an original cut of San Fernando Valley OG Kush, taken from the same mother plant Characky has kept alive through clones since those long-away days when a Clinton was president and “Intergalactic” was the top single on a Beastie Boys No. 1 record. (For the millennials: That would be 1998.)
“There are so many variations of the SFV now, but that Josh D. cut is still the best cut,” he says. “It seems to affect people in a way that’s more level.”
Also in Characky’s head is incomparable knowledge — what those plants want and what those plants need. How much potassium, how much light, how tall or how small they should be allowed to grow. Characky can tell you how many winners out of each 12-pack of seeds popped you can expect (one, usually), and how many legendary, life-changing cultivars that have been lost forever because the farmer didn’t know what he was doing (too many to count).
“You pop a new seed of Lemon Banana Sherbert and receive 1.7 ounces off of the test plant. Then you gauge this plant and say, ‘Can I do better?’” he says. “But how would I know if it’s a good one if I didn’t know how to grow? If I didn’t have the technical background, the finances, the elaborate set-up, start of the art lights, epoxy floors?”
Characky says that he wonders how many people today purchase Lemon Banana seeds, pop them in their house, and actually pop “the most amazing strain the world has never seen” — but then mistakenly throw it “to the wayside” because they didn’t have enough experience or knowledge to bring the plant to its full potential.
“I’m starting to see that all the years of growing I’ve had weren’t just because I had this amazing cut no one else could get,” Characky says. “It was organization and leadership skills, getting people to trust you and your grow technique. That’s how you end up with fire.”
To supply Pisos with dozens of strains, Characky needs no more than 10,000 square feet of grow space, divided into 22 rooms of 10 lights each, with hoods fixed to eight-foot-tall ceilings. In this way, each room can grow multiple strains simply by feeding each side of the room different nutrients. This gives him flexibility — and control.
If cannabis were more like another industry, Characky would be what you’d call a “master.” There are master brewers, master vintners, and so of course there are master growers. Right? Nah. “I don’t like the term master grower,” says Characky. “I don’t really know what a master grower is. I prefer to call myself more of an engineer. What I’m after is engineering the system that can grow the product to its highest level.”
In an industry where few growers make it to the two-decade mark, Characky says his over 20-year resume proves that he’s found “the secret” and that he’s been successful replicating it.
“Granted, I’m not saying other people can’t figure it out… But I’m hoping people understand that you can’t just get a pack of seeds, hire some dude who’s been growing in a garage, set him up in a 60,000-square-foot warehouse and make it happen,” says Characky. “It’s not just growing a seed, putting it into the ground and expecting to become a millionaire. That day and age is gone.”
But how would you know any of this — unless you knew? Who do you trust, and why? That’s the problem. “There’s absolutely no way to know,” says Characky. “I have the original SFV, but that’s if you believe my story. It’s all getting people to trust you.”
And here, at least, is where the trust is something you can see and taste. It’s in the flower.
TELL US, are you a cannabis grower? Do you have your own secrets of the trade?