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High Anxiety

Concerns over mold, police and thieves hang in the air as cannabis growers wind down harvest

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UNDER A MICROSCOPE 'Cultivating weed is like playing Russian roulette,' says author Jorge Cervantes.
  • UNDER A MICROSCOPE 'Cultivating weed is like playing Russian roulette,' says author Jorge Cervantes.

At harvests all across Northern California, as daylight wanes and nighttime temperatures drop, pot growers, some of them third generation, are excited by the promise of a new crop of fresh, pungent weed. They also prepare for the unwanted arrival of cops and robbers.

Last week in Mendocino County, two men were arrested and jailed as suspects in a marijuana heist and murder. Not surprisingly, anxiety levels often drive famers to harvest before the flowers of the female plants have produced maximum levels of THC — the psychoactive stuff that provides the high. Better to have something than nothing.

Marijuana is a tough row to hoe, especially at harvest. Ask Jorge Cervantes, author of The Cannabis Encyclopedia and one of the world's foremost authorities on everything related to weed, both medicinal and recreational. He lives in Sonoma County from May to October and in Spain from November to April. Ever since 1968, when Cervantes grew his first crop, he's been cultivating and harvesting pot and writing about it.

"I was in a California marijuana garden not long ago," Cervantes says. "It was a tightly packed quarter-of-an acre and easily weighed a ton. A DEA helicopter hovered overhead for nine minutes. We timed it. The grower was never busted and the weed never seized. Nearby, another grower was raided, his crop confiscated."

Cervantes pauses for a moment and adds, "Cultivating weed is like playing Russian roulette: you never know for sure what's going to happen, even when you play by the rules."

According to Cervantes, the weather—especially rain and fog—can be as big a factor at harvest as police and thieves. Mold and mites pose a problem, along with the feces of insects that can taint the flowers of the plant. Cervantes suggests that growers wash their buds with a mild solution of hydrogen peroxide and then carefully dry them.

"You wash your vegetables," he says. "You should also wash your dope. Since THC and the other chemical compounds are oil-based, washing won't harm the buds."

Cervantes also suggests that growers test the potency of their plants, either by themselves or at a lab, something that hippie growers rarely, if ever, did back in the day. Moreover, he insists that whenever possible growers ought to harvest in stages, starting with the big, ripe buds at the top of the plant and working their way down to the bottom.

"A staggered harvest can produce 40 percent more total weight," he says. "The smaller buds at the bottom will fill out after the top buds are harvested."

These days, harvesting marijuana is far more about science and less about the phases of the moon. At Pure Analytics laboratory, founder and biochemist Samantha Miller performs basic tests to determine THC levels and "all kinds of other stuff." Miller doesn't advertise the location of her Sonoma County lab, and there's no sign on the front door, either, but her website, pureanalytics.net, provides the information necessary to make safe, secure contact.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California for most of her adult life, though Miller has often thought of herself as an outlaw. She estimates that less than half of the marijuana industry in northern California is compliant with local rules and regulations. There are still a lot of outlaw marijuana growers in the hills and in greenhouses.

"I have a long relationship with the plant," Miller says. "I enjoy it that our lab helps both marijuana patients and growers. When we started, we had spikes in testing at harvest. Autumn is still a big time of the year, though recently farmers have begun to bring in samples when plants are just six weeks old. They want to find out which ones will have the most potential at the end of the growing season. It pays to plan ahead."

Miller understands the need for confidentiality. Farmers unwilling to furnish a physical address or even an email contact drop off samples of their product for lab results that are detailed, comprehensive and easy to understand. Numbers, not names, are attached to the samples that dispensaries send to Miller's lab.

"In Marin and Sonoma, where marijuana is a deep part of our culture, marijuana harvests are exciting times," she says. "We're happy to play our part."

In Sonoma County, marijuana growers and patients also leave buds for testing at Peace in Medicine, the play-by-the-rules dispensary in Sebastopol. A veteran at the dispensary suggests that clients arrive discretely with a gram of marijuana and a recommendation from a doctor. To have the product tested, pot farmers and pot patients have to join the collective.

Welcome to the world of nearly legal weed.

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