Green genes 

Growers lament loss of cannabis genetics

Last Friday, an immature cannabis plant appeared at Garden Mother Herbs in Missoula like a baby on the doorstep. Katrina Farnum, the business's owner, said she has no clue where it came from. All that identified the five-inch-tall plant was a white label stuck in the soil with the word "Misty" Sharpied on it.

That was enough for Farnum, a medical marijuana caregiver, to know that she'd been entrusted with a special strain of cannabis—one that someone wants to preserve.

Misty is among the few cannabis strains in Montana found to contain high levels of CBD, or cannabidiol, a non-psychotropic compound scientists have zeroed in on to help treat cancer, diabetes, muscle spasms, nausea, inflammation, and pain, among other conditions.

As the medical marijuana community counts down to July 1, when the industry will be all but outlawed, the anonymous delivery of the Misty clone reflects one of the caregivers' top concerns. "People are feeling so pressured and so stressed to make sure that those genetics are protected, that they're safe," Farnum says. "At this point, it's not even about having business diversity, it's, 'Holy crap, save these plants. Just save them. Everyone, someone, take a cutting or whatever and take care of it the best you can.'"

click to enlarge New restrictions on medical marijuana could force some growers to abandon cannabis varieties they’ve spent years developing. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • New restrictions on medical marijuana could force some growers to abandon cannabis varieties they’ve spent years developing.

When Senate Bill 423 becomes law, the for-profit medical marijuana industry that's exploded over the last two years will be replaced with a grow-your-own model that will shift marijuana production from professional grow-houses to the closets and basements of thousands of patients who probably have never grown marijuana before. What will be lost, caregivers say, is the patients' ability to obtain cannabis strains bred for certain effects and to treat specific ailments.

"I feel terrible for people who are starting from seed, because it's a crapshoot," says one grower and caregiver, whom we'll call Jack. (He asked to remain anonymous in the wake of federal agents raiding 26 medical marijuana businesses across the state in March.) Jack, who's grown cannabis for his patients for nearly five years, speaks passionately about cannabis genetics and things like "multi-gene inheritance, F1s and F2s, and inbreed lines." He likens the genetic variability of cannabis to that of dogs. "The variety that's potentially out there and available is just staggering," he says, adding that "the ability to manipulate that into such a specific direction" is "unique to cannabis."

SB 423 limits caregivers—who, come July 1, will be called "providers"—to three patients. That's too few for providers to develop true breeding programs, Jack contends. "You can forget about having the ability to choose specific strains for specific ailments. In fact, it's going to be a lot more like the black market, where you don't even get to choose between indica and sativa." The effects of indicas tend to be more physical whereas sativas' are more cerebral.

"It's like, 'Here, I brought some marijuana for you,'" Jack continues. "There's no more to it."

In March, when federal agents raided MCM Caregivers, in Belgrade, they seized between 500 and 700 cannabis plants, says owner Randy Leibenguth. Many of the strains contained high levels of CBD, the cannabinoid that makes Misty so unique. Some patients are drawn to CBD-heavy strains because, unlike THC, CBD doesn't make them high, but it still provides therapeutic effects. Leibenguth had found a niche in developing high-CBD strains, including Misty. He hired Montana Botanical Analysis, a Bozeman-based cannabis lab, to quantify the strains' cannabinoid levels.

MCM may be forced to shut down in six weeks, but Leibenguth plans to ensure that his plants' genetics live on. "On July 1, if they come in and they want to take everything, I'm going to have these seeds buried in the yard or something so I don't have to worry about them being taken," Leibenguth says. "They'll take all the plant material and they'll probably get the Misty strain unless somebody can hold onto it. It's a very vital strain to hold onto."

Exacerbating the loss of genetic breeding programs, the Montana Legislature nixed giving legal cover to cannabis labs like Montana Botanical Analysis. Chemist Noel Palmer, the lab's director, says it's a "slap in the face" that the legislature failed to acknowledge the role labs play in developing new strains of marijuana and bringing quality control to the industry. Palmer, like many others employed by the medical marijuana industry, now finds himself looking for another job.

"I think once we realize how powerful of a medicine it really is, we're really going to be wishing that we had done what we could to encourage diversity rather than stamp it out," Jack says.

In the meantime, he says, he's looking to another plant to keep his skills sharp. "I want to start developing tomato varieties, just so I can practice and learn more about how different traits combine. I can apply so much of what I learn doing that to cannabis if and when I ever get an opportunity to [begin] a true breeding program of cannabis—not just some closet, pollen-chucking sort of thing."

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