Toke Interview: ‘Heart of Dankness’ Author Mark Haskell Smith


Library Foundation of Los Angeles

Editor’s note: Los Angeles writer Mark Haskell Smith’s new book Heart of Dankness sprang from his news coverage of the Cannabis Cup for the L.A. Times. Novelist Smith sampled varieties of marijuana that were unlike anything he’d experienced before, unlike any typical stoner weed. In fact, it didn’t get you “stoned,” as such. This cannabis possessed an ephemeral quality known as “dankness.”

Haskell began a journey into the international underground where super-high-grade marijuana is developed. He tracked down the ragtag community of underground botanists, outlaw farmers, and renegade strain hunters who pursue excellence and genetic diversity in cannabis. The dank journey climaxes at Amsterdam’s Cannabis Cup, which Mark portrays as the Super Bowl/Mardi Gras of the world’s largest cash crop.

Cannabis writer and connoisseur Caitlin Podiak got a chance to chat with Haskell Smith about the book, about good cannabis, and about what, exactly, constitutes a state of dankness. Enjoy!

Discussing Dankness
By Caitlin Podiak
Special to Toke of the Town
Caitlin Podiak: Your quest for the “heart of dankness” centers on the annual High Times Cannabis Cup event in Amsterdam. But how relevant do you think those awards are to cannabis users in California? I know many of the strains we have here come from Dutch seeds, but beyond that, I wonder how much the Amsterdam Cannabis Cup results should matter to us in the United States.
Mark Haskell Smith: Oh, I think they’re very relevant to what goes on in California. The strains that win the Cannabis Cup ultimately become the popular strains you find in medical dispensaries or being sold by dealers. AK-47, Super Silver Haze, Willie Nelson, Lavender, LA Confidential… these are all fairly common strains nowadays, but they were first introduced at the Cannabis Cup. I imagine Kosher Kush, which is originally a SoCal strain, will become huge in the next year or two because it just won the Indica Cup in Amsterdam. It’s sort of like Coachella for cannabis. It’s where the unknowns get their shot at the big time. And that resonates in California. We want those seeds.

Heart of Dankness
“Heart of Dankness” author Mark Haskell Smith in a Brown Cafe in Amsterdam

Keep in mind that there is an established infrastructure for the development and distribution of cannabis seeds in Amsterdam; it’s a multimillion dollar a year business, and the competition between seed companies keeps the Cup relevant.

CP: I’m just not sure how seriously to take any competition in which so many strains are sampled in such a short time frame. I don’t feel comfortable writing a strain review or even a brief menu description for a strain until I have sampled it more than once, and had time to evaluate the effects completely on their own, without the lingering effects of any other strains in my system.
MHS: Yeah, if you were going to judge all the entries in all the categories you’d be smoking something like 17 samples of imported hash, Dutch hash, and cannabis a day. I know I couldn’t do it and be able to put a sentence together, much less judge a winner. But then, that’s how they do wine tastings.  Judges taste literally thousands of wines in a week.
Super Lemon Haze

I talked to a few celebrity judges who took part in the blind tastings for the seed company categories and it was pretty well organized. For sure they’re smoking a lot, but they do it one category at a time. So like, Tuesday is for sativas, Thursday is for indicas, etc. Also, I think they’re able to look at the entries and know which buds are going to be worth smoking and which aren’t.
That said, I think that’s why strains with strong flavors, like Super Lemon Haze, win these prizes. They’ve got a distinct taste and a pretty strong rush, so they can cut through the pack. Personally, I prefer more equatorial strains, like John Sinclair or some of the Jamaican sativas. These strains don’t give you that uplifting head rush–they creep up on you, but they’re more psychedelic.
CP: So how much do you think any single compressed event can have to tell us about ultimate dankness?
MHS: That’s a good question. I mean…I spent the last two years talking to people about what dankness means, and I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what it is, but it may not be what most people think. Obviously plant genetics and the care with which the flowers are grown and cured are crucial, but even the best connoisseur quality cannabis isn’t inherently dank by itself.

NY Daily News
Situational dankness

I’ve come to agree with Jon Foster, the owner of Grey Area coffeeshop in Amsterdam, that dankness is situational. Great weed by itself is cool, but add friends and some groovy music or when you’re having sex or a picnic on a beautiful day or all of that together… and then you’re really taking the sense-enhancing qualities of cannabis and elevating it to something special. 
CP: I certainly see how the Cannabis Cup helps popularize certain strains, but I can’t help but find the emphasis on marketing and campaigning and corporate sponsorships distasteful. In your book, you compare the atmosphere at the Cup to Hollywood studios’ Oscar campaigns. While these awards are obviously very significant from a commercial point of view, all that commercialization seems a bit antithetical to true art, or true dankness.
Is it overly hipsterish of me to suspect that the dankest of the dank is probably too obscure to ever win a Cannabis Cup?
MHS: Well, the competition is divided into two parts. The main Cannabis Cup is for the public. Basically, anyone who buys a judge’s pass gets to pass judgment. I talk about this in great detail in the book, but that competition is definitely affected by free t-shirts, free weed, private parties, etc.

But the seed company competitions are truly blind tastings by a panel of experts, so I think they’re unaffected by corporate influence. Obviously there are some doubts, and as much as I tried, I couldn’t get any of the High Times people to let me observe the judging.
And to answer your hipsterishness question… to a certain degree, yes, absolutely. The dankest cannabis I tried is stuff I can’t get–these equatorial sativas that grow to 22 feet high and take six months to flower. Not many people have the patience or space to grow them, but they are exceptional. To me, strains like that are dank.
CP: Have you concluded that dankness is always inherently subjective, or can there be any objective measure of dankness that sets aside personal preferences and the situational element? Could there ever be something like a certification of dankness, a stamp of approval assuring users that
a certain standard of quality has been met?
MHS: I think it is subjective. Subjective and ephemeral, for the same reason that some people like red wine and others white, some people chocolate and others vanilla. But I think there are qualities that great cannabis shares no matter what: potency, smell, taste, and a strong, clear effect. I think in some ways, all these cup competitions are like a stamp of approval. Maybe that’s what they’re best for.
CP: Have you participated in any of the Medical Cannabis Cup events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Detroit? If so, how did they compare to Amsterdam?

Adamson and Ratta
“The main difference is that in Amsterdam you can walk outside or go to a coffeeshop and smoke”

MHS: I’ve been to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Toronto, which were all fun events.  The main difference is that in Amsterdam you can walk outside or go to a coffeeshop and smoke. You’re not isolated, you’re part of the life of the city, and it’s just a totally different vibe then being packed into the 215 area at one of these other events.    
CP: As much as I enjoyed Heart of Dankness, I did so in spite of feeling vaguely snubbed on behalf of Northern California. (Although I was amused by your description of Bay Area denizens as “a little mossy,” suspiciously earnest, “outwardly intellectual and defiantly atavistic.”) I was surprised, for example, that the only California growers referenced in the book are in the Sequoia National Forest.
I would consider a visit to the Emerald Triangle essential to an exploration of dankness. Was this an oversight, an intentional choice, a result of time constraints, or what?
MHS: I love the Bay Area! My son lives up there. Talking to farmers in the Sierras was an intentional choice. I felt Humboldt and Mendocino were somewhat overexposed, and I wanted to find out what these guys in the mountains were up to. Also, and I suppose it’s subject to debate, but I think the quality of the cannabis from the mountains is a bit better. Of course, it was an easy decision once I met Crockett. He’s like an old school French winemaker, someone who really believes that the terroir of the Sierras is expressed in his cannabis.

CBS News
Coffeeshop Blue Sky in Oakland

CP: Have you visited any dispensaries in the Bay Area other than Berkeley Patients Group?
MHS: I went to Coffeeshop Blue Sky and another one in Oakland… Bulldog? And I visited dozens down in Los Angeles. The one I regret not visiting was in Riverside; they ran it like a farmer’s market. Different growers would bring their plants in and set up tables, and you’d buy directly from them. It’s a fantastic idea, but they got closed down. [Editor’s note: There are still at least three active medical marijuana farmers’ markets in Washington state.]
CP: So you’ve never been to any dispensaries in San Francisco? If you end up doing a book event in San Francisco, can I take you to SPARC or Vapor Room while you’re here?
MHS: Absolutely. Let’s go!
CP: Many hardcore cannabis connoisseurs eventually tire of flowers and develop a strong preference for hash, like Aaron of DNA Genetics in your book. How do you feel about hash?
MHS: The Sleestak dry sift hash I smoked in Holland was a drug on a whole different level than anything I’ve ever tried. It was just fantastic. But that’s Aaron of DNA’s private stash. He grows it and makes it himself for his personal use. So it’s not like you can get that anywhere.
I’ve had some good hash in California, but I worry that people are making bubble hash out of flowers that might’ve gotten mites or mildew, or worse, some kind of pathogen. There’s no way of knowing unless it’s been tested at a lab. With flowers, I can smell them and see. So I guess that’s why I prefer smoking herb.

Medical Marijuana Strains
Above: Casey Jones strain. Haskell Smith: “…I really like the creative, energetic effect of sativas”

CP: I found your dual fascinations with dankness and subtle, refined sativas intriguing, because while I can appreciate a subtle, refined sativa effect, I don’t necessarily associate that sensation with the word “dank.” Have you developed any appreciation for indica-dominant strains, if only for occasional pain or insomnia? Or are you still strictly sativas only?
MHS: For me, dankness is about the experience of and relationship to the plant, so I really like the creative, energetic effect of sativas and, personally, I like a little haze genetics in the mix. But I enjoy hybrids, like Crockett’s OG/Skunk/Haze “Private Reserve,” or Casey Jones.
And I do appreciate the analgesic and muscle relaxing qualities of indicas. But I sometimes react to a strong indica by curling up into a ball and going to sleep on the spot like a narcoleptic. As you can imagine, this causes me some embarrassment at parties or concerts. Franco from Green House thinks it could be some kind of metabolism thing. He told me that in his experience, some people don’t tolerate indicas well, and I may be one of them. That said, other people smoke sativas and it makes them sweat.
CP: Have you tried any CBD-rich strains? Is CBD something you look for in
your cannabis, at all?
MHS: I just recently tried some high-CBD Blueberry. I honestly can’t tell you if I felt any different effect from it. It tasted great.

Spring Gathering
Michael Backes

CP: One of my favorite parts of your book was your conversation with Michael Backes of the Cornerstone Research Collective in L.A. I have talked with scientists at Halent Laboratories, trying to figure out the best way to interpret and present their findings about different cannabinoids and terpenes, but I had never heard anyone mention “chemovars” before.
Do you have any advice as to how I might be able to learn more about the kind of cutting edge scientific developments that Michael describes? If I were to fly down to L.A. for a weekend, do you think I’d have any chance of being able to check out Cornerstone? Are you a member who’d be willing to vouch for me?
MHS: I am a member of Cornerstone and I would certainly vouch for you. But Michael Backes has moved on. He’s in Sacramento working on a “project.” He said, “I’ll call you when I’m ready to reveal what I’m doing.” So I think he’s up to some kind of mad scientist work up there.
I think the folks at Steep Hill are looking at chemovars and the science behind cannabis. That might be a good place to start. Of course, until the federal government reschedules cannabis, it’s illegal (on a federal level) to do any research. This is perhaps the stupidest legacy of prohibition.

Baked Life

The plant has obvious medical properties and scientists aren’t allowed to study it? A report out of Israel and Spain found evidence that cannabis is a neuroprotector, and it can help arrest Alzheimer’s and dementia. It’s ironic that if Ronald Reagan had allowed cannabis research, he might not have died from a degenerative brain disease. 
CP: Now that you know that strains are really varietals, and that all sativas are really indicas, has the way that you mentally categorize various types of cannabis changed?
MHS: No, I try to speak the local lingo. Otherwise it just gets too confusing.
CP: This interview is making me want to create a “certification of dankness” that labs like Halent and Steep Hill could give to the better strains that they test, guaranteeing to the buyer that a particular sample met certain criteria for potency, purity, quality, etc.
What do you think? Would that be something you would like to see displayed at dispensaries? Maybe they could even cross-promote it with Heart of Dankness.
MHS: That would be awesome. But then I’d like to see them certify not only based on THC level, etc., but on the more organoleptic qualities I talk about in the book.

UC Riverside
Mark Haskell Smith: “There is no justifiable reason why adults living in a ‘free society’ shouldn’t be allowed to consume a nontoxic plant in the privacy of their own homes”

CP: By far the dankest cannabis I have ever experienced came from Northstone Organics, which delivered directly from farms in Mendocino. I get depressed almost on a daily basis about the fact that this past October, the DEA raided Northstone, destroyed their plants, and shut them down permanently.
Are you concerned about how recent federal crackdowns on medical cannabis could thwart the development of dankness in the United States?
MHS: This is a big topic but for me, the quick answer is: there is no justifiable reason why adults living in a “free society” shouldn’t be allowed to consume a nontoxic plant in the privacy of their own homes.
Cannabis prohibition began as a racist, anti-immigration policy to deport Mexicans, and our government has continued using it as a means of social control. How else can they threaten and oppress the counterculture?
I think that if the American taxpayer realized that their tax dollars–money that could be spent on education, infrastructure, health care, etc.–is being used to incarcerate people for gardening, they would become outraged and end prohibition.

Caitlin Podiak

Editor’s note: Caitlin Podiak is a writer, editor and cannabis connoisseur living in San Francisco. She publishes strain reviews and other cannabis content on her blog, I don’t know yet.