Superweed: The quest to create the ultimate premium strain

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Probably the best, and certainly the most famous, grower in Canadian weed is a man named Remo Colasanti.

The 51-year-old from Maple Ridge, B.C., has been reading High Times since before he was legal drinking age. But he preferred hash to marijuana until the skunk strains proliferated in the Lower Mainland around 1985. Grown under powerful artificial lights in a hydroponic nutrient solution, they cost a princely $40 for 3.5 grams. They also looked, smelled and smoked better than anything that had come before — the difference between airplane lettuce and farmer’s market greens.

“It had this pungent, earthy skunk flavour that’s sweet and had this overpowering odour that would let everyone in a car know if you had weed on you,” says Colasanti. “I was sold. Skunk weed changed my life.”

At first, he dabbled as a hobbyist, breeding cannabis seeds for himself and his friends in his closet. But when he broke his back in a car crash in 1995, he was not only prescribed painkillers and Ativan, he learned from his doctor about California’s medical marijuana. He began thinking of cannabis as pain relief.

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“Skunk weed changed my life,” says Remo Colasanti, President of Remo Brands, who has been growing legal medical cannabis since 2001. Darryl Dyck for National Post

Colasanti scaled up. His operation now took over his basement, as he built a name as Canada’s premier pheno hunter — someone who selects unique cannabis phenotypes, or strains, from seeds gathered from all over the world.

“Some people collect hockey cards, I collect seeds,” says Colasanti, who by 2006 was sharing growing tips on YouTube as “Urban Remo” and launched Remo Nutrients, a line of mineral-based cannabis fertilizers, with his wife and daughter in 2014.

He’s not alone in that hunt, a pursuit that has brought underground hobbyists together with billion-dollar companies and cutting-edge scientists. Like the quest for the next blockbuster wine or Honeycrisp apple, skilled growers who can select seeds, clone them and finish the product — hand-trimming the cannabis to ensure buds are gently secured — are in high demand.

It’s not just potency that growers are seeking (though 32 per cent THC levels have been produced). Instead, new strains involve amplifying particular cannabinoids to improve and customize medical and recreational products.

Science has evolved to help, especially since Jonathan Page, a botanist with University of British Columbia, mapped the cannabis genome — the plant’s genetic blueprint.

In effect, cultivators can now detangle the plant’s DNA and enhance or decrease cannabinoids, which include THC, CBD and 115 other chemical compounds. Page himself was recently hired by Aurora, a $12-billion medical cannabis producer, to help it develop a super strain.

Canada needs a robust innovation ecosystem for cannabis. Imagine if our agriculture industry had no breeding trials, our pharma companies produced drugs but couldn’t do R&D, or software startups waited months for a licence to code? #freethelabs

— Jonathan Page (@trichomics) April 19, 2019

“If we can understand how the plant makes cannabinoids at a genetic level, we can potentially enhance their levels to offer more tailored cultivars,” says Page, adding that the genome can potentially be altered, for instance, to help children with seizures, parents with depression or patients with Multiple Sclerosis. “I don’t think there’s a holy grail, but a bunch of holy grails. Through a combination of science, and the human nose and palette, breeding custom high-quality cannabis is everybody’s goal right now.”

However, that goal can’t be a singular pursuit. Cannabis legalization has created problems in the market, mostly around shortage of supply. This creates pressure on the licensed producers to focus on volume, throwing resources and greenhouse space toward growing plants at scale to produce high yields. With complicated packaging and shipping guidelines, companies’ R&D budgets are spent figuring out how to make and distribute as much legal weed as quickly as possible.

“Right now in cannabis, to use a comparison with alcohol, most of the cannabis being sold in this country is malt liquor — a product driven for potency and yield,” says John Fowler, president of Supreme Cannabis Company, which last month invested $14 million to launch Cambium Plant Sciences, designed to produce, at volume, new cultivars of premium weed. “We’re investing in plant genetics and research to evolve our germination and cultivation practices and create the three-figure gram.”

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(From left) John Fowler, president of Supreme Cannabis Company and Pete Shearer, head of product development. Peter J Thompson

At Supreme Cannabis, the team grades its product on something called the “Shearer Scale,” named for the company’s head of product development, Pete Shearer, who grew such prized Purple Kush when he was 20 that his future boss smoked some on break during his bar exam.

“Terpenes are the hero of all of our product,” Shearer said during a presentation at Supreme’s headquarters in Toronto, where he compared a range of aromatic, pungent cannabis against a series of dry, odourless strains.

Terpenes are compounds secreted in flower glands, like linalool and myrcine, that express a plant’s genetics. Found in everything from cumin to basil, terpenes add distinction to a cannabis cultivar and give a strain its scent.

“Funky aromas, that’s my interest now,” says Shearer, adding that strains with distinct aromas, such as cookies, deli meat or lemonade, are highly prized. “All of the LPs (licensed producers) have stringent quality control for Health Canada inspection, but sensory evaluation — human capital — is a big part of producing, curing, trimming and distributing really, really good weed.”

Broken Coast, a licensed cannabis producer on Vancouver Island purchased by Aphria for $230 million, arguably sells the best, and highest-priced, cannabis in Canada. It’s almost always sold out on the legal market.

Kevin Anderson is Broken Coast’s head grower and has been searching for the cannabis holy grail for more than 20 years. Currently expanding into a new facility, he wants to expedite pollen tracking — taking two female plants, and turning one male and cross-pollinating them — to produce new cultivar seeds.

His dream, a mix of new science and big business, is to create something highly potent, a strain with good taste and smell, pungent and distinctive, that also produces scalable yield.

“We’re going to push the boundaries of what you see, taste and smell in cannabis — for all we know, the first seed we germinate will be that super seed,” Anderson says.

Colasanti hasn’t given up on his dream of creating a super seed either. He’s pursuing a legal nursery license, and scouting the Lower Mainland for warehouse locations in hopes of using his private collection of seeds to breed new cultivars for the public than can touch other people the way those first skunk weeds touched him.

“A lot of people consider what I’ve grown, what I’m currently smoking, to be the holy grail and it might be the holy grail for many,” he says. “However, I’m looking for something better. We’re always on the search for that holy grail.”

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