California takes Stock of its Legacy Genetics
Preservation of cannabis genetics pushes forward with a participatory research project.
Since the dawn of California’s back-to-the-land movement in the late ‘60s, California cultivators have created a durable and potent brand of sungrown, outdoors cannabis, much of it grown in the state’s northwestern counties of Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino Counties, which would later come to be called the Emerald Triangle. After surviving two of the harshest decades of the War on Drugs, the region began to develop a strong reputation for the quality and potency of its cannabis, due not only to the skill of the growers, but to the unique geographical characteristics of the land. Similar to Burgundy wines or parmesan cheese, the cannabis in this region, locals believe, cannot be grown anywhere else, leading advocates to both fight for geographical indicators that would prevent cultivators from claiming false provenance and to preserve the stories and genetics. Two projects, the ongoing California Appellations project and an ambitious participatory research project recently funded by the state, will help to transform a once-underground activity into what will eventually be a nationally acknowledged heritage — maybe not a UNESCO Intangible Heritage just yet, but we’re getting there.
What's in an Appellation?
Sure, you may be drinking a red wine. But are you drinking a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? The only reason you can take heart that it’s actually from the region it claims for itself are a series of regulations, some centuries old, that assure the consumer of the product’s provenance. Yet while all serious cannesseurs agree that terroir — the unique combination of soil, climate and cultivation traditions applied to the cannabis plant — matter as much for cannabis as it does for wine, prohibition has prevented cannabis cultivators from seeking the same protections for their own crops. However, cannabis growers alliances throughout California have been working with the state to craft, for the first time ever, appellations that will codify the primacy of these cultural and agricultural traditions for once and for all.
California voters agreed with this premise when they approved of Prop 64, which legalized adult-use cannabis, in 2016. The idea gained renewed momentum in the past two years. It’s also been complicated by the state’s decision to consolidate its cannabis regulation under the Department of Cannabis Control and to change various components of the program — components initially hashed out by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the growing alliances — as well. As it stands, the Cannabis Appellations Program in the CDFA’s Office for Environmental Farming & Innovation, which now adjudicates appellations applications, has paused on accepting them. But it’s certainly a heavy lift to prove one’s territory as worthy of an appellation. For starters, only outdoor-grown cannabis is eligible; it can’t even be grown in a greenhouse. The application must designate the exact plot of land where the geographical indicator will exist as well as at least one standard, practice and strain unique to the region, and also prove that the region has already distinguished themselves in the public eye through independent evidence, such as Cannabis Cup awards, media mentions, books, maps and the like.
Some worry that the application process will contribute to a territorialism that could rip at the social fabric of the cannabis cultivator community. “If we slice up [Humboldt] county further based on appellation, I fear competition will increase as various regions market themselves as the preferred spot for sourcing products. Instead of one voice advocating for the benefits of consciously grown cannabis… we will now have a further bifurcated market with multiple regions presumably claiming superiority,” writes Jesse Duncan at Left Coast Outpost. Of course, one could say that this is what a mature market looks like.
Planting the Seeds
In the meantime, California recently awarded $2.6 million to a participatory research project to be run out of Cal State-Humboldt entitled Legacy Cannabis Genetics: People and Their Plants, a Community-Driven Study. This study involved both academic researchers and grassroots organizers to dive deep into the homegrown genetics and to develop workable definitions of legacy genetics that can be used as a model globally. The goal is to create a data-driven foundation to the traditions and customs of legacy farmers as well as the policy prescriptions needed to preserve them. Importantly, it’s coming from the old-schoolers, specifically the Origins Council, a nonprofit public policy and research institute active in the appellations project, and the Cannabis Equity Policy Council.
Perhaps most excitingly for cannabis nerds is a special collection set aside at Canndor, which bills itself as the world’s first cannabis herbarium. While it’s uncertain that the genetics of the strain you smoked decades ago exists today in a pure form, the cannabis history of our time is being attended to with greater care than ever before.