An Open Letter to The Cannabis Cultivation and Breeding Community

takeaways from my time at Open Cannabis Project

Letting go of a parent. Letting go of a friend. Letting go of an organization. One of the hardest things about transitions is that it requires a loss, a letting go. There is a before and a very distinct after. It’s not always an easy space to move through — rather awkward and painful, actually, with mere moments of relief. If done with some intention and care, though, this experience can lead to profound growth. Growth and healing is something I wish for all of us, particularly at this time of sadness and loss surrounding the fallout from the Phylos controversy.

For me, part of this process involves taking a fearless moral and practical inventory, looking for lessons to carry forward and opportunities for taking accountability and making amends. This post shares some of these reflections. It will certainly help me in my process, and I hope it helps others in the community as well. There are bits of wisdom to be found amid the rubble, and they may be able to help us as we enter this new chapter.

Lessons learned

OCP had some very practical challenges throughout our existence. These were compounded (and likely influenced by) some philosophical differences internally and externally. Is public domain better than open source with ShareAlike conditions and attribution requirements? Is it possible to patent plants ethically? How does open source apply in situations where communities are trying to establish rights to landraces? Are patents really wrong, or just some patents? Where does open source fit in a cutthroat business environment? As you can imagine, and especially given the brainpower on our board, we went deep on many of these issues, exploring them from as many angles as we could.

In the end, this is what many of us came to, including me:

  • If the goal is to help breeders and growers to protect their work, the moral line should not be whether or not a plant is proprietary, open source, or public domain. Breeders and growers have a right to protect their work using the same tools as anybody else; however, there’s no reason to be overbroad or hostile about it. At the same time, the jury is still out on just how much patents or new variety registrations are really worth it if you’re not in the big ag game. There is still space to imagine a better alternative to patents — perhaps one that involves Appellations of Originand a community-led (and owned!) registry and herbaria and network of seed banks. There are also tremendous opportunities to more strategically utilize open source. For example, how can we use open source soil and water sensing technology to help cultivators better understand their work and look for opportunities to innovate or improve their environmental practices?
  • Growers and breeders need informed agency over how their information and genetics are shared. Whatever tools we build next need to support this and be built with the community they’re designed for.
  • All of the genetics in cannabis came from somewhere, and everyone is likely using pieces of somebody else’s work. Everyone breeding is standing on the shoulders of giants, including the shoulders of traditional communities who have tended to these plants for centuries. As we fight about who-owns-what in the regulated market, perhaps we ought to consider all of the parties we owe.

For many years, I have been trying to answer another question: is it possible for businesses, nonprofits, and government organizations to work together to solve society’s problems? Given an economic landscape in the US that’s increasingly consolidated and corporate — both in and outside of the cannabis industry — the answer seems to be, unfortunately, not without some major policy shifts. While we push for these, we must operate from a place of realism about the environment we are in so that we can make effective and smart decisions within it. Here are some things to remember about that environment:

  • Businesses are businesses. They are designed to make a profit first and foremost. We ought not be surprised when businesses make choices in favor of this primary function.
  • Nonprofits need to be built by, as well as for, community stakeholders. While we need for-profit partners to be able to fund these efforts, if these organizations and projects are not built from the community out, and with the input of all stakeholders, then they likely will not work. Going forward, I will do my best to shy away from non-community-built nonprofits.
  • Community work absolutely needs funding — which is tricky. The changes in standard deductions from the 2018 Tax Bill make it harder for individuals to take a deduction for a charitable donation. On top of that, cannabis businesses cannot write off any expenses, including charitable donations. This puts the onus to fund community efforts on large donors, foundations, and corporations. If we want for community projects to survive, which often requires that they have some kind of funding, we need clear guidelines for how to create those checks and balances so that the power dynamic remains healthy while the work gets done.

Navigating these business realities without killing our souls will not be easy, and is all the more reason why a statement of ethics and code of conduct are critical — and why some of us are working on one right now (sign up here for more info). We need to know the answers to questions like: Where do we draw ethical lines? How do we stay within them? How do we handle breaches of ethics?

Meanwhile, we have to acknowledge some of the broader truths at play, which — along with the ever-challenging regulatory framework — make the nature of working with this subject matter all the more nuanced and complicated:

  • Information is like genetics: there’s very little actual control that anyone can have over where it goes and what it does. Your friend shares something publicly that you shared in private.You walk out of your facility with a seed on your shoe. Pollen blows from one field to another. We can try to control for this, but nature wins in the end. Human nature comes in at a close second.
  • Sharing information is key to finding the truth and supporting collective wisdom, though you may not like its content or how it gets used. Mapping the public domain both prevents similar things from being patented, while also highlighting areas of patentable subject matter. However, hiding information contributes to its own skewing of a collective understanding. I, along with many of my former colleagues at OCP, would rather support access to information than sequestering it, but we acknowledge the need to keep things private sometimes, and that it’s always ok for some information — particularly personal information — to remain private or anonymous.
  • There is a light and shadow side to everything — including but not limited to the truth. Mapping the public domain also creates a roadmap for people who want to do proprietary genetics. Open data — particularly data in the public domain — makes that information available for all…including people you may consider to be your adversaries. Many in the cannabis community have experienced fallout following the Phylos controversy, and yet, because of it, we are finally having some hard conversations and facing some hard realities that will allow us to rebuild on a more solid foundation. There’s no way out of the dual nature of all things; it’s a reality that must be accepted and planned around, rather than resisted.

Taking Accountability

Acknowledging our own part of a conflict, or our own wrongdoing or mistakes, is something that people typically do not do in this culture. In business, we are basically told never to apologize, and certainly not in writing. I think this approach is malarkey. We’ve just seen how damaging a lack of transparency and accountability can be. I think we can ask for better from our leaders, including myself. With this in mind, here are some places where I acknowledge I could have done better as the Executive Director of OCP, and where I plan to do better going forward.

  • I wish I had done better due diligence and research before taking on a leadership role with Open Cannabis Project. I plunged into the deep end of an incredibly challenging subject matter, bringing only my idealism and love for information and data and learning as floatation devices. This was not a sufficient strategy — particularly with regards to our inherently intertwined relationship with Phylos. Lesson learned.
  • I wish we had done more work with the breeder and grower community from the outset. Though I proposed it early on, many on my board pushed against the idea, potentially foreseeing the same explosive cultural cocktail that brought us to this moment. In hindsight, it still would have been the right process. In the future, community engagement from the outset is not a nice-to-have: it’s a must, and to be fought for if necessary.
  • I wish I had acknowledged, accepted, and spoken up publicly about our impossible position between Phylos and the community sooner.We were in between two groups of people who were not talking to one another. We tried to solve these complex issues in private conversations and board meetings.This did not solve the problem, and in the end, contributed in its own way to the fallout we’ve all just experienced. It also was not the best example of upholding our own value of transparency. In the future, I hope to do a better job upholding that value, particularly when it comes to having hard conversations. I also hope to do a better job of accepting that neither I or anyone can please everyone all the time, and to avoid or remove myself from being between two quarreling parties. It’s not a productive or healthy space to be in.
  • I wish I had better understood the power of my words. For example, not fully understanding the nature of OCP cofounder Jeremy Plumb’s involvement with Phylos, I once stated that I thought he was part of Conception, their tissue culture lab. He let me know I was wrong, and I posted a correction, but the ripple of that stone continues to affect his life in a negative way. Jeremy, as you know, I’m very sorry about this. As another example, back in February, I woke up to attacks from a group of trolls accusing me of being a corporate shill. Before coffee, I responded — and said some things that, in context, read as though they confirmed much of the pseudoscience and other false claims that were being made in the thread. I deleted and corrected my comment and apologized, but again — the ripples have spread. They have also had their own role to play in this fallout. Going forward, I will shy away from dialogue on Instagram and in other hostile environments, instead focusing more effort into posts like these, where I can more carefully choose and review (and re-review) my words. I apologize to anyone and everyone who has been hurt or confused as a result of these kind of mistakes.

Drawing clear boundaries

I think we can all agree that what we’ve witnessed, particularly on Instagram, has shown some of the worst sides of our community, both from positions of power and from the little guys. And yes, it was mostly guys. Dick Fitts, in his op-ed for High Times, describes this situation perfectly:

Between the low-level emoji trolls, loud-mouthed blowhards, cannabis influencers and well-meaning, erudite responders who clearly had a much more solid grasp of genetics and science than the company was giving them credit for: it was an unmitigated shitshow. There were the most horrible names, from “Corporate fucking chads” to the worst you can imagine. There were ignorant pitchfork-wielding yokels spouting pseudoscientific nonsense, there were numerous physical threats.

On the occasion that somebody would ask for clarification or a more complete picture of what might be happening with the data they submitted, the slightest optimism in their sentiment was met with some of the heaviest ridicule I’ve witnessed anywhere, anytime. Everybody took their piece of the big bad scientists and their reputation.

Death threats. Fake science. Memes with penises drawn over faces. Silencing of dialogue. Personal attacks. Guilt by association (which, by the way, is a fallacy, along with the ever-relentless slippery slope argument). Many of these came from people I know, and are part of the community I’d been tasked to represent as the ED of OCP.

My tolerance for this kind of behavior ends today. While I appreciate that the outcry from the community has brought some important facts to light, it’s clear to me that this type of communication has crossed a line from anger into cruelty. Going forward, I am unwilling to engage in any project or dialogue where this kind of behavior is accepted. Period. Aggressive messages to any account that I manage will be met with dialogue once and then blocked. Hateful messages or messages with name calling will be blocked immediately.

To the people who I know who run businesses and are seen as role models, and who still engage in this behavior: I know y’all know better. It’s absolutely possible to call people and organizations out without crossing these kinds of lines.

I know some people are going to read this and say something like, “well if you don’t like this culture, then you don’t stand for breeders and growers!” This is false. I know and get to talk with plenty of people who do that kind of work, some of whom stood up and took a strong stance in this situation, who have not engaged in that behavior.

At the same time, I know that much of this anger comes from a place of fear and hurt, and for good reason: many of the people who pushed for legalization of cannabis, maybe even tending to this plant despite its illogical illegality, have been left or pushed out of the regulated market. The result is that we are seeing the corporatization of cannabis come more swiftly than any of us thought. It is cutthroat. I recognize that much of the screams on the internet are also the death rattle of the illicit market and the high-priced cannabis that came with it. This is devastating, and we must acknowledge it. We do not, however, have to put up with cruelty, even if it comes from real pain.

This experience has also reinforced the need for another boundary, which has been many years in the making and now has more grounds than ever to take hold: I refuse to engage in dialogue or projects with people who are unwilling to acknowledge, take accountability for, or truly amend their own mistakes. These actions are all symptoms of a deeper corporate or personal problem, and unless it’s happening in my body or at my own organization, it’s not a problem that’s mine to fix. I call for all of us to look inward and find the spots where we have messed up and own up to them. When we can be honest and compassionate with ourselves, we can do the same for other people. We must do this if we are going to work together, and we must work together if we are going to survive and thrive.

Healing and compassion: a lesson from the new She-Ra

As a child of the 80s, one of my favorite cartoons was She-Ra, Princess of Power.Though it was just a TV show designed to make me beg my parents to buy me toys (it worked), the show holds a place dear to my heart, along with other cartoons that had powerful females. (Scarlett from G.I. Joe, I’m looking at you — knowing is half the battle!)

Last year, Netflix and Dreamworks came out with a new version of She-Ra, speaking to her origin story as a member of the (Evil) Horde. Of course I watched it. In the first few episodes, we learn that the Horde took in She-Ra (named Adora) as an infant, and they trained her to rise in the ranks. Just as she is about to graduate into combat, Adora witnesses them attack the peaceful village of Thaymor, which she had been told was a fortified fortress. She realizes that everything she had been taught about the “enemy” was false. She spends the next few episodes coming to terms with that reality as she begins her transition to fight for the other side.

There’s an important lesson here, which we can see everywhere if we look around: “bad guys” don’t actually think they are bad. They think they are doing the right thing. Even if they cheat or steal or lie or seek revenge or say the meanest, most hateful, and too often untrue or scientifically impossible things, they are doing it because, somewhere inside of them, they think it’s the right move. There’s justice they hope to serve, a mouth they hope to feed. Maybe it’s a pocket to line, payback for a childhood of poverty. Maybe it’s just that they don’t have the right information.

Emotions and the internet

A group of people on the internet —influenced in no small part by Trevor Wittke (@sungrownmidz) and Matt at Riot Seed Co.— unleashed their wrath upon Phylos and everyone associated with them because they were angry and wanted accountability and answers. That is a reasonable request, especially considering the situation. Thanks to a complex cocktail of business, regulatory, and economic realities — rooted in cannabis’ Schedule 1 classification and an economic framework wherein only deep pockets can play — cultivators everywhere are suffering. People have lost their farms. They have lost their life savings. They have lost friends. Many of them carried a movement to this moment, and now they are getting left behind. All that they have left are their genetics. That’s it. To learn that a company they trusted (or really didn’t) is now positioning to sell to big ag, based on a breeding program that in any way involved their genetics, is a hard truth to bear and a worst fear come true.

When we are hit with grief like this, it can bring all kinds of emotional reactions — anger, sadness, fear, denial. As we try to make sense of it all, we put together pieces to figure out what happened. It’s hard not to start looking for reasons and people to blame. In this case, corporatization, consolidation, and regulations benefitting the big companies that do those kinds of things each play their own key role in this experiment whose current outcome is that small-scale cultivators are suffering. Individuals and organizations within that system are the pieces that make up these larger trends.

Phylos and the larger context

Phylos, in this context, is between two worlds. So was OCP. And these worlds, as Autumn Karcey, CEO of Cultivo, Inc pointed out in a recent article in Forbes, do not want to talk to one another:

We are currently seeing a very clear and deliberate disconnect between the cannabis industry’s veteran breeders and cultivators and the scientific community hoping to learn from their experience. […] Unfortunately, they refuse to talk to one another, much like a bureaucratic government, and perhaps for good reason.

I would love to see this change, for scientists and cultivators to actually talk. I would love to see growers and breeders win financially. I would love to see marker-assisted breeding available to all. I would love to see science and research truly for the public interest. I would love to see laws and regulations that make this kind of thing possible.

To me, the real culprit here is this system, which thwarts this kind of work at the outset. The pursuit of knowledge in the public interest is vitally important, if not one of the highest goods, and yet our country refuses to give that kind of support to the study of a plant that has been with us for thousands of years. May these policies change swiftly, as a Federal court has recently ordered, so that we may put an end this injustice and so many others.

Practicing Compassion, especially when it’s hard

We have all been thrust into this system and forced to make it work. This includes Dr. Mowgli Holmes.

Through this lens, here is how I see Dr. Holmes’ narrative:

Here is a curious, smart, funny man, from a commune in the woods of Oregon, who really wanted to do some cool science, who wanted to visualize the genealogy of an epically understudied plant. He wanted to help the community by getting them to document their work. He wanted to make a good living. He wanted to bring the Oregon ethic into the great big Capitalism machine, see if he could change it for the better. But his testing lab wasn’t making enough to cover the cost of a rapidly growing company. His initial numbers weren’t as promising as initially calculated, in part because the craft market collapsed, and in part because there’s only so much genetic analysis and sex testing that small farmers really need. So he borrowed more money to keep his staff paid and to keep the project going. But then the choices he could make to generate profit became fewer and fewer. The ability to do amazing science was contingent upon paying his investors back.

As a CEO, particularly one that’s beholden to a board, Mowgli’s job is to put profit first. What other choice was he going to make? Unfortunately, many of the same ideals upheld by the brave community who tended to this plant during prohibition do not hold up well in business, especially when the power of those ideals shrinks as new funders and board members arrive. He wanted to do it all, to do right by everyone. He tried his damnedest to do it, to make everyone happy. Even me.

When I needed a hug, he gave it. When I needed a drink, he bought it. When I was scared shitless because we had run out of money, he raised $8,000. In the end, it wasn’t enough to fix our problems, but he tried. He frustrated the hell out of me at times (obviously) but he tried his best. I could always see it, even amid the weight of the many things he was carrying and the pressure it all put him under.

This is not some kind of evil, nefarious man. This is a human who made a very large, but very human mistake.

I could be wrong about this assessment. But I don’t think that I am. A lifetime of actions make up our character. We have the rest of our lives to evolve it and express new traits.

The same is true for the trolls out there. I see you. I don’t like everything you have to say or how you say it, and some of your tactics are, in my humble opinion, philosophically flawed (e.g. a moral argument alongside a death threat). But I know you’re hurting, for many real reasons, and that that’s where these words and actions are coming from.

Though we are in a dark moment, I hope that Dr. Holmes and the rest of the team at Phylos make good on the words they shared in their last statement. I hope that they actually use contracts that give killer royalties to the cultivators who decide to work with them, ideally contracts that are community vetted and peer reviewed. I hope they influence big ag to be less of an environmental disaster and to get some carbon back into the soil on a large scale. I hope that they actually make scientific tools available to the public. On that note, in case anyone from Phylos is reading, it would be amazing to see a public marker analysis of everything in the Galaxy. That would both be helpful to growers, and also helpful for people to understand precisely how useful (or unuseful) it is to the breeding project.

I also have hope for the craft cannabis community — though we have be realistic, swallow some ego, mend some wounds, and get ready to play the long game. Export will happen. Appellations will happen. Bank accounts will happen. In the meantime, we have some advocacy work to do it we want any shot for this all not to go further sideways.

Some people may think I’m crazy to still have hope. Or think that I’m insane for standing up for Dr. Holmes, despite his actions. I’ll hold until I die, though — a bad action, in and of itself, does not make a bad person. We all are made of up of good and bad parts, have done good and bad things. We all make mistakes. I certainly have. What matters is what you do with them — including not making them again.

There’s a light and a dark side of everything and everyone. What matters is our ability to acknowledge and understand them both.

May we take these lessons with us as we move into this new era. May our eyes and hearts and minds remain open in our ongoing search for truth. May we recognize that we might not always like what we see or find. May we acknowledge the power in our words and use them wisely. May we continue to push one another to become our best selves. May we continue to fight for the plant and the planet. May we continue to fight for justice. May we continue to fight for love.