Franco bullwhips a 25-foot-long plastic bag through the air, snapping it behind him, sending the tail sailing over his head. The bag looks like a balloon-animal anaconda and he's the half-magician / half-matador who makes it dance. He's certainly got the crowd's attention. They watch as the plastic snake grows in length, slowly filling with smoky mist, the freshly vaporized essence of the 2008 and current Cannabis Cup winner, Super Lemon Haze.
Franco is one of the legendary Strain Hunters, an A-team of globe-trotting cannabis breeders who seek out rare landrace strains of marijuana. They've made expeditions to Malawi and India searching for pure plant genetics, marijuana strains unaffected by hybridization or cross-pollination. If it was a tomato, we'd call it heirloom.
When Franco swings the bag in my direction I don't refuse. Smoking a Cup winner with Franco is like playing catch with Manny Ramirez or kicking a soccer ball with David Beckham. It's an experience.
You wouldn't know it to look at me but I'm not just hanging out here in Amsterdam. I'm writing.
It's a common mistake non-writers make, confusing the physical act of typing with writing, and writers do sometimes sit at the keyboard, but that's just a small part of the job. Think about it. An athlete trains and practices before he or she competes, a chef will shop for the freshest items before deciding what to cook, an architect will study building sites before beginning a design. Writers write about people, and to understand what makes people tick, to get inside their emotional lives -- to write, really -- writers need to engage with the world.
Kerouac hit the road, Hemingway hit the bottle and Dorothy Parker hit the mattress. Me? I'm hitting the Super Lemon Haze.
For the last three years, I've wrestled with my fourth novel, a story set in the world of high-grade marijuana cultivation. It's a unique subculture of underground botanists, farmers, ganjaficionados and seed geneticists who endeavor to discover, develop and refine distinctive strains. The gap between excellent and mediocre is wide, and the stakes are high. The very best marijuana gets entered in the Cannabis Cup -- an event that takes place in this city every November. If you are good enough or lucky enough to win, you have the most valuable pot in the world. The seeds of a Cup winner are worth millions, the marijuana is worth even more. It is the Super Bowl of the marijuana world.
I find this culture utterly compelling, not just because of the science but because it is still, for the most part, an illegal pursuit about which people feel passionately engaged. This passion is similar to what you'd find in a vineyard in Napa or in the kitchen of a top restaurant. The Cannabis Cup, though, is more than a competition; it's also a celebration of a mostly underground, counterculture lifestyle.
In my novel "Baked," I tell the story of a young underground botanist from Los Angeles -- a man inspired by Floyd Zaiger, inventor of the pluot -- and what happens when he wins the Cup and returns home to find himself caught in a tug of war between medical marijuana dispensaries who want an exclusive on his strain.
I was able to do a lot of my research in Los Angeles. I spoke to growers, got thrown out of my neighborhood medical marijuana dispensary and watched hours of videos on YouTube of the Cannabis Cup ceremonies. But like Marvin Gaye sang, "Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby," and for me that's key. I need my readers to trust me. If I can earn their trust, they'll believe the world in the novel is real, and the emotional journey of my character will have a stronger effect.
That means I can't just sit around staring at the blank screen, I have to do a kind of full immersion writing. I want those tiny details, the textures and nuance, that can energize a story and make a novel come alive. It's the unknown unknowns that interest me, the things I don't know I don't know. That means I have to go out into the world with my eyes wide open. Which is why I'm at the Cannabis Cup.
I wheel away from the giant pulsating tube of Super Lemon Haze and take in the expo floor. Despite a large crowd in a relatively small space, the vibe is friendly and easygoing. Everyone is chilled out. Perhaps that's the Haze talking.
The big seed companies have fancy booths where they give away T-shirts and dispense advice to would-be growers. There are some smaller seed dealers, representatives from the Berkeley Patients Group and some guys with a laser bong.
But it's the people who fascinate me; they've come from all over the world. I talk to stoners from Japan, potheads from Germany, folks from Denver, Fresno, Washington D.C., Oklahoma, Sacramento, Oakland and San Diego, and a French man who tells every woman in the hall that she is "very beautiful."
Los Angeles is well represented. I meet Swerve, a lanky strain developer from the Valley whose company, the Cali Connection, is something of an upstart competing against big guns like Greenhouse Seeds and Sensi Seeds.
Still, the big Los Angeles success story has to be Don and Aaron from DNA Genetics, two guys who came to the Cup years ago as fans, then returned to L.A., started experimenting and have ended up developing numerous award-winning strains. They have since relocated to Amsterdam where they are "two stoners living the dream."
Swerve and Don and Aaron throw me a little. Are they that different from the protagonist of my novel? Did I just meet a character I've had in my head for years? For a writer, to experience something you've only imagined, or to find out that there's some parallel reality to your imaginings . . . it can either reassure you or freak you out. Full immersion writing has its risks.
The Cup was founded by Steven Hager, editor of High Times magazine, and its signature event is the Coffeeshop Crawl. This is where the judges -- and any fan can purchase a judge's pass -- go from coffee shop to coffee shop, sampling the entries in the competition. This year there are 26 coffee shops entered.
My protagonist doesn't take part in the crawl, but he does visit several coffee shops, so I retrace his steps and end up in the new Dampkring Coffeeshop on Haarlemmerstraat. Along with Barney's, Green House and Kadinsky, it is in the vanguard of contemporary coffee shops, with a clean, modern design, large sunny windows and a world-class selection of marijuana and hashish.
This is what legalized marijuana would look like in Los Angeles -- and with a statewide legalization initiative potentially on the ballot next November, we may be closer than we think to a soft drug policy such as Holland's.
I purchase a sample of the Dampkring's competition entry, a strain they call "John Sinclair" after the former manager of the MC5. I act like I know what I'm doing -- the protagonist in my novel would know what to do -- so I follow the guidelines for judging that are included in the judge's handbook. I sniff the bud and inspect the leaves.
Then, I roll a joint that looks more like a hangnail than a fancy Dutch spliff and light up.
I exhale and think about my protagonist. Like Franco the Strain Hunter, or Don and Aaron from DNA Genetics, he has an obsessive devotion to his work. I too have an obsession, only mine is for finding the emotional and psychological truth in small moments and strange details, in taking the energy of the world and filtering it through my imagination into something to put down on paper, using words and sentences to control it, to send that wallop of truth into a reader's mind.
Smith's fourth novel, "Baked," is forthcoming in August 2010.