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At up to ?300 an ounce, exotic strains of designer cannabis are fuelling a booming market in herbal highs for affluent smokers
You've smelt it, wafting sweetly across the park, floating over the fence from the pumping party next door, rising to greet you off the plane at Schiphol Airport. Is that a hint of pine? With an undertone of blackberry? Ah, yes, it's the unmistakable complexity of gourmet cannabis.
For an emerging generation of herb elitists, the generic skunk sold on street corners - the plonk of the cannabis world - no longer hits the spot. These media executives, creative professionals and party people choose to have their executive brain functions impaired by only the best brands of cannabis: AK47, Charas, Kali Mist - vintage weeds that represent the summit of 25 years of selective breeding and artisan horticulture.
"Why fly economy?" says Samuel, 34, who works as a graphic designer for the music industry. "Connoisseur varieties are for those who want to smoke but don't want to be monged out or fall unconscious under a radiator." He regularly buys Northern Lights and Charas from a specialist London dealer who delivers via moped, his wares lovingly clingfilmed and neatly compartmentalised in a plastic toolbox.
At ?150-?200 per ounce it's not cheap, but for Samuel high-grade weed is a marker of taste. Bringing crisp, silver-tufted, hand-rolled Northern Lights to a party gets him attention. Even bringing it to work can be productive. "You can get things done on this kind of weed," he says. "Deals, creative work, sharing ideas. It dissolves egos and makes everyone happy."
Cannabis growing techniques have reached a level of artistry on a par with the wine industry. The two main plant varieties - Cannabis sativa and indica - have been rarefied and crossbred into hundreds of exotic strains. Each has its own look, taste, and quality of high. A recent upsurge in home growing have made these rarer varieties more widely available. Specialist dealers have stepped in. A thriving "cannaseur" marketplace is blossoming.
Yearly crops are considered with the same scrutiny as a wine buff might give a fine Alsatian white. Good vintage? Organically grown? Properly handled? How does it taste? Citrus? Peppery? Fruity?
The buzz, though, is key. A cannaseur knows the difference between getting stoned and getting high - and savours it. The effects of a good ganja transcend the heavy, mindless "stoner" effects of street weed. Cerebral, lively, trippy, the four-hour high set off by a supreme cannabis produces emotional qualities usually reserved for key life moments.
It's no surprise, then, that the connoisseurs often inhabit the creative industries: music, new media, advertising and film.
"It's great for gestating ideas, digging into your unconscious, getting shamanic," says "Marcus", a 30-year-old published novelist who chooses to remain anonymous. He gets through a modest quarter of an ounce of AK47 a month. For him, a hit of sterling spliff is a great way to get into a creative flow.
Connoisseurship is partly a response to the low-quality cannabis that has swamped the UK market-place for years. While three million adults will have smoked cannabis in the last year, according to the Home Office, most will have inhaled garden variety, often adulterated, "monkey bedding".
"In drought periods, I've gone without rather than smoke that crap," says Martin, 32, who works in post-production in the film industry. He orders a quarter of an ounce of Durban Poison a week from his dealer in Richmond, who in turn sources it from some drug geeks with an organic plantation "somewhere in Sussex". A perfectionist, Martin used to buy from a website until the hi-tech police shut it down. "I only smoke organic that's been properly dried and cured," he boasts.
Much cheap weed is of the "schwag" variety, an American term for low-grade grass composed mostly of stems and seeds, compacted into green bricks and handed out in bags by street dealers. Headache-inducing with a chemical aftertaste, it's the cannabic equivalent of Happy Shopper lager.
Worse, though, is "soapbar", the "Oxo cube" form of hashish that was the dominant form of pot in the UK for decades. For many people growing up in the Eighties and Nineties, it was their first taste of the drug. Shame, then, that it isn't actually cannabis.
"Moroccan-made soapbar is actually an adulterated facsimile, made from about 10 per cent ground-up 'vegetable matter', marijuana leaves, stems and twigs and 90 per cent adulterant," says Nick Craston, editor of the cannabis magazine Red Eye. "It's bound with beeswax. Nescaf? coffee is added for colour, and then it's given a lick of turpentine for a shine. Basically, it's crap. It's bad for you. Another situation where prohibition, in all its wisdom, is feeding people garbage."
The desire to avoid smoking garbage, and the status rewards of carrying good weed, are fuelling the prestige market. "Once you've had a taste of the good stuff you won't go back," says Craston.
The Dutch, of course, are the gatekeepers of excellence. Many a UK smoker has had his passion ignited in the coffee shops of Amsterdam. Every November, the city plays host to the international Cannabis Cup. Glassy-eyed devotees from all around the world gather to sample and rate the vintage crops. The best strains are crowned the connoisseurs' choice. The growers get international fame while the seeds are hocked online for about ?140 for a bag of 10.
Craston has been on the select panel of judges twice. "You smoke and you smoke and you smoke. We had 44 strains of hash and grass to smoke in, I think, five days." The competitor weeds are rigorously evaluated. "You have to judge them on taste, strength, smell and burn." Olympian weed is also expected to look good. Buds are routinely coiffeured to increase score (all the top growers use bonsai scissors).
Strength is a key aspect of prize-winning green. Potency of cannabis, measured in delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, content, has been rising steadily over the last decade. Street skunk is about 8 per cent THC. White-knuckle varieties can hit 23 per cent or more. The Ice-o-Lator varieties, a super-strong form of Dutch hash made by an ice-water extraction technique, have won the Cannabis Cup many times and are much prized among cannaseurs. They can reach up to 40 per cent and come with their own health warning: "Experienced users only." "It was too much," says one user who posted a report on the web. "We had to give it back."
Higher strength equals a more intense high, but it can also mean a greater chance of paranoia and other bad-trip phenomena. More than a quarter of cannabis smokers report anxiety as a regular or occasional side-effect. Indeed, super-strong Dutch grass, or nederweed, has been the undoing of many a British stag party. The Dutch government is now considering treating nederweed as a type of drug in its own legal bracket after many a curious tourist has ended up in a dimension not of their choosing.
"Tolerance is everything. If you lay off smoking for a while, it can really kick you off into the deep end," says Lawrence, 28, a City broker who uses high-end cannabis to unwind at weekends. "We had a boy's night recently. I hadn't smoked for a month. Everyone was passing spliffs around. After 20 minutes, I pulled a whitey." (A "whitey" is a state of cannabis-induced semi-consciousness accompanied by a distinctive bloodless skin tone.)
Few of these championship-level varieties make it over to the UK in smokeable form, but the highly treasured seeds are legal to sell, import and buy, although cultivation is obviously a no-no.
The bulk of vintage cannabis is now home-grown. Many connoisseurs are, in fact, growers themselves. DIY hydroponic (soil-less) set-ups now cost less than ?200 to install. The internet is solid with blow-by-blow instructions on how to cultivate high-yield, high-strength varieties. At overgrow.com, enthusiasts exchange tips, maintain grow blogs, and post impressive centrefolds of slender female plants with large, glistening buds.
Where criminal syndicates used to smuggle ninebars in the hulls of Jamaican dredgers or the fuel tanks of lorries arriving from Morocco, now they factory-farm. "There's still smoke coming from elsewhere, particularly Holland," says Red Eye's Craston, "but it's mediocre compared with home-grown. For gangsters, cannabis is still a big product. They still import huge amounts of commercial garbage. But the bulk of pot-smokers and growers are not criminals."
Most connoisseur varieties are grown by proud enthusiasts and small co-operatives in basements, cellars and greenhouses. Leftovers from the low-yield crops are passed around to friends and family or sold to a small customer base of fellow aficionados.
Personal cultivation is not without its dangers, however. Despite the reclassification of cannabis to a class C drug, which means that most adults will only get a warning for being in possession of small amounts for "personal use", the Government has yet to set any guidelines on what constitutes personal use for growers.
Also, top-drawer cannabis thrives under 24-hour halogen floodlights, which guzzle electricity. The power companies now have "FBI" divisions that track down anomalous pockets of high electricity use - often the result of a heavyweight hydroponics set-up hacking into the local supply.
For many, though, the risk is worth it. They see growing as a sacred hobby and smoking as an antidote to the times. "You can see the damage that alcohol is doing to our society," says Craston. "People get pissed up and go out looking for a fight. You get nice and stoned, you go out looking for Mars bars."
The 18th Cannabis Cup runs from 20-24 November (www.cannabiscup.com)
The cream of the crop
*AK47 - ?150 per ounce
Named after number of days it takes to grow, this sativa cross is famed for its crystalline feel-good high and smoky flavour.
*CHARAS - ?210 per ounce
Catch-all term for sticky black hash from the Himalayas. Favoured by Indian sadhus (holy men) and Soho graphic designers, it's hand-rubbed and exceptionally good.
*STRAWBERRY COUGH - ?300 per ounce (if you can get it)
A legendary weed with a hint of ripe strawberries characterising its after-taste. Very rare - usually not for sale.
*G13 - ?250 per ounce
Super strong variety, stolen, apparently, from an American government growing programme - although that might just be marketing. Very popular when it first came out, but, like America, less fashionable now.
*SKUNK - ?80 per ounce
Generic hybrid pot, selectively bred by the Californian horticulture legend "Sadu Sam", who named it after its distinctive pungent odour. Earthy taste with spicy undertones, not very strong, nor cerebrally pleasing.
*SOAPBAR - ?50 per ounce
Analysis of this adulterated hashish has revealed topsoil, plastic and even veterinary salt supplements. Tastes like burning rubber. Avoid.
*POLM - ?120 per ounce
Like olive oil, hashish has first, second and third pressings. Polm is about the 10th pressing - a low-grade hashish with a high wax content and a tarnished flavour. Soapbar in disguise.