If you want to learn about cannabis, start by forgetting just about everything you've ever heard about indicas and sativas. While you're at it, forget just about everything you've ever read in the likes of Leafly pamphlets, especially this myth that anyone can actually predict how weed will affect you based on the "strain" names. Basically, forget half of what you've ever learned about cannabis. That's a good start.
And thus begins my conversation with Jeremy Plumb, aka the "Wizard of Weed;" head of Newcleus Nurseries; often compared to Bill Nye, The Science Guy; and co-founder of Farma, the award-winning dispensary in Portland, Oregon. So the man knows what he's talking about. And what he's saying is that, basically, we're going about this business all wrong. Even worse, "The under-sophistication in approaching the chemistry of cannabis is one of the great reasons it's stuck in the dark ages," he says.
I have to say, of everything that's been written about him recently, from Portland Monthly to Newsweek, it's strange that no one's mentioned Jeremy's voice. Honestly, the only man who holds a candle to the warm lavender-salt bath of Jeremy Plumb's calm and soothing voice is Mr. Rogers. Combined with the fact that he holds degrees in Cultural Ecology and Psychology? Forget it: listening to him compare the uniqueness of cannabis and their incredibly diverse range of profiles to snowflakes . . . a tiny piece of my heart melts on the inside.
Then again, however soft-spoken, the man doesn't pull any punches: "It's time to update the cannabis culture with horticulture and botany language. It's counterproductive for us to have our own specialized jargon, which came from gestating in the Prohibition Era. That way of talking about cannabis is going to leave us marginalized on the sidelines. Because it's indefensible."
Jeremy Plumb. Some may call him the "The Wizard of Weed," but here, at WeedHorn, he is known simply as Maestro.Photo courtesy The Oregonian
"I didn't know he was in cannabis for a long time after we met."
That's Sam Heywood, Jeremy's partner and one of Farma's co-owners, joining us on the floor. The story goes that Sam and his then fiancée moved next door to Jeremy, arriving in Portland from Miami 4 years ago. First thing Sam does is walk over and introduce himself to Jeremy, informing him they would be friends because Sam didn't know another soul in town. So these new friends went out for beer, got to talking about music, followed by more drinking and more talking about music late into the night, a bond was formed, as these things tend to happen . . . 4 years later, here we are.
"It's been a ton of work. 24/7; 14-hour days, minimum; 7 days a week, for 12 solid months. We don't get paid anything. All our savings are negative now. It's been really stressful, really hard, financially difficult, but also fun—mostly fun," Sam says, matter-of-fact, as he and Jeremy nod in unison.
They make a great team, like Color and Play-by-Play or one of those classic comedy duos—you know, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Sam and Jeremy. Certainly in terms of physical type: Jeremy has black glasses, dark hair, and he's a wire. Whereas Sam has light reddish hair, sports to-beard-or-not-to-beard facial growth, and he's . . . well, Sam's a big guy, what can I tell you. He looks like a bear hug just waiting to happen, which proves true.
The one and only Sam Heywood, and the other one and only Jeremy Plumb.
As for Sam's background, he grew up around art and academia, then went on to get his graduate degree and practiced appellate law. So here he was, new to town but no stranger to cannabis, seeing legalization coming down the pipeline in Oregon, originally, Sam thought he would help Jeremy get a dispensary up and running and return to law. Then, after days turned into months and the enormity of the project became clear, Sam realized that this is the most important thing he could be doing.
"But whatever the work I've put in, I have to say, if it weren't for my wife, I wouldn't be here—she's literally subsidized my being here," Sam says, giving credit where her credit is due. And right on cue, Jeremy seconds that emotion: "If it weren't for Sam's wife, I wouldn't be here either."
You've got to hand it to the woman, Sam's wife definitely puts her money where their mouths are. "One of our mottos is, 'Pretend Prohibition never happened,'" says Sam, posing the question. "How would we talk about it? What would it look like? What would we see if the government hadn't spent the past 50 years branding cannabis for us?"
And talk about making up for lost time, walking into Farma, the first magazine that comes to mind is Wallpaper, not DOPE, inasmuch as their aesthetic owes far more to Charles and Ray than Cheech & Chong.
I don't know about Prohibition, but by the look of things here, you'd think head shops never happened. Gone are the days of dark, cramped, incense-hazy hole-in-the-wall franchises, filled, floor-to-ceiling, with those serpentine glass cases gorging on psychedelic-veined monster bongs. At Farma, there is none of that paraphernalia-induced total sensory overload of weed's well-chronicled past. On the contrary, one has plenty of light to actually see. Plenty of room to actually breathe. Eureka.
As destination-shopping experiences go, in Portland, Farma is right up there with Powell's and Voodoo Doughnuts.Photo by Lincoln Barbour
Before anyone starts fretting about weed getting too slick and "the romance" being over, their shop isn't some paean to minimalism. It's about form following function, inasmuch as Farma's M.O. is therapeutic utility, plain and simple. Or, as they call it, "modern medicine."
At the same time, in addition to providing a clean slate, this design embodies Farma's less-is-more philosophy; a startling modicum of restraint which is carried throughout their entire operation.
Indeed, this shop stands in stark contrast to the long history of excess that, by the curdled look on his face, offends Jeremy personally and professionally. "Right now," he says, "everyone's into this indica/sativa, 'Wow, that's really good shit.' But that's not going to result in somebody building a lifelong relationship that wasn't already in the underground cannabis culture."
Sam puts it this way, "For us, the Bob Marley posters and black lights—that's great, that's just not our message. We see a potential to change the quality of life and culture." Ironic though it may be, you got to believe Bob Marley would appreciate that prerogative better than anyone: because nothing undermines stereotype quite like diversity.
WeedHorn's Lauren Terry included Farma in her list of "10 Visually Stunning Instagram Accounts You Should Be Following." @farma_pdx
Which leads us to the real problem. Systemically, lack of diversity and lack of communication have an uncanny way of working together. And as far as miscommunication goes, Prohibition's done a serious number across the board. In all fairness, ignorance has run rampant on both sides of the legal divide for the last half-century.
Name one single product of which people have asked nothing more, were perfectly satisfied to hear described as "good shit" for 30 years? Oh, good shit? Then enough said. "Primo shit" and a place of origin if you were a more worldly type. Seriously. What other industry could get away with that?
Seeing how Jeremy was trained as a therapist, of course he takes miscommunication to heart, especially when it comes to cannabis. Of course the language of the plant matters to him, and in his view, the more ubiquitous these terms become, the more indica, sativa, and hybrid are used, the more we play right into the general ignorance that's responsible for decades of mass overconsumption, a veritable plague of self-induced pot comas. But the Doritos & Dew stoner typecast isn't the problem. Not by itself at least. Subcultures have always had their own coded rituals and lingo; there's nothing inherently wrong with that.
It's more fundamental. It's the undercurrent of shame, embarrassment, secrecy and hiding that decades of Prohibition so often invokes. It's that stain of stigma, and the relentless shadow it casts, that presents the greatest barrier to progress. In many ways, cannabis culture is the byproduct of the failed Drug War, an improvised language born of oppression.
Farma's aesthetic owes far more to Charles and Ray than Cheech & Chong.Photo by Lincoln Barbour
So. Having begun to reframe the conversation through the design of their shop, Sam and Jeremy went about addressing the issue of how to talk about cannabis in a more accurate and informative manner. What was required is a system that's nuanced, user-friendly and forward-thinking. "It needs to be simple," Jeremy says, "we don't want you to be confused by a huge array of diverse strain names or too many different compounds."
With that in mind, they devised their own taxonomy based on chemotypes—that is, chemical types. Their classification is based on the chemical makeup of that batch of that flower, an algorithm which accounts for cannabinoids, terpenes (the source of cannabis's aroma and a lot of its therapeutics) and the finely-tuned instrument of user experience.
Furthermore, inherent in the idea of breaking down cannabis by its chemical constituents—its ingredients, essentially—is a rejection of the Prohibition-Era nomenclature of sativa/indica/hybrid and all the faulty logic it represents. This is a gram-by-gram reframe of cannabis.
Farma hasn't dispensed with strain names altogether—Girl Scout Cookies and Chemdawg aren't going anywhere. Strain names still provide a reference point, but they're merely frameworks, not the real story. What matters most is the relationship between cannabinoids and and terpenes, which Farma presents in context of a broad spectrum of physical and emotional responses, rather than a binary choice between indica and 24.4.% THC, 1.02% CBD, 6.3%TERP: these numbers are what matters.
24.4% THC, 1.02% CBD, 6.3% TERP: that's what matters, the numbers. Follow the lab analysis. Which, of course, raises the issue of high-quality labs . . Photo by Lydia Barclay
Jeremy repeatedly uses the word "curation" to describe Farma's unique visual presentation: every strain here, beneath the glass, has been painstakingly curated by the Farma team. Although, I confess, I'm dubious of that word—YouTube playlists are "curated" these days, brunch menus are "curated."
Thing is, some people are passionate about cannabis, but Jeremy is in another league. His lanky frame hums like a tuning fork when he gets going about his favorite subject. Not surprisingly, his other great love in life is music, but anyhow. "Working at a cultural level is an entirely different type of therapeutics," Jeremy says, and equally valuable. That's when it finally dawns on me . . . cannabis is Jeremy Plumb's medium. And vice versa.
His knowledge is encyclopedic, but what most impresses me, in particular, is that there are several times when, referring to genetics, Jeremy says the word "patient," and for a split-second there, I don't know if he's referring to plants or people. Then, each time, I catch myself and answer my own question: Both. In Jeremy Plumb's eyes, plants or people, same difference; studying their relationship is his life's work.
Photo by Brenda Rose
"We were the first shop anywhere to classify cannabis based on terpenes," Jeremy says. "We now have a case that is broken down into chemotypes—you won't see 'indica,' 'sativa,' or 'hybrid,' because those categories are bogus. There is no such thing: first off, aside from the rare landrace strain, they've all been hybridized. There's no cannabis you'll find or ever meet in your lifetime, likely, that's not a hybrid of several strains. The question is if it's inbred or out-bred." Like I said, he's not one to mince words, Mr. Jeremy.
If there were any lingering doubts, Sam, who also moonlights as Farma's VP of Marketing, Editor in Chief, Senior Publicist and Junior Copywriter, puts the matter to rest: "What if you walked into a wine store and it was divided by Red or White with no further clarification?"
Sticking with wine for a minute, because I hear that comparison being made more and more. "It's a good analogy in some ways," Sam says: "in terms of the sense of place, the maker, how and who made it, the story, the narrative—that works for cannabis too. But after that, the comparison falls apart. Cannabis is a much more complex product than wine could ever hope to be: in terms of its pharmacological effects; in terms of the compounds present; in terms of its diversity; and in terms of the stakes when you're using it."
There's another secret to their success. The fact that these two take their business dead-seriously, but themselves not-at-all, and at the moment, Big Sam is all business: "It's much more important to be a good sommelier at cannabis because you're dictating that person's reality for the next few hours. And there's no way for them to undo that."
Which leads me to the subject of budtenders/tending, and I turn to ask Jeremy what he thinks about being called "a sommelier of pot"? Lighthearted—kidding, right—then the man looks into my eyes and answers in earnest, disarmingly sincere: "The kind of sommelier I would like to be is one that can lead you into a relationship with the plant that's individual, and intimate."
Granted, the dude had me at delicate snowflakes—oldest trick in the book too, sad—but still. I give up. SOLD.
Amongst the many hats she wears as Farma's Manager, Emma Chasen is responsible for maintaining the most rigorous employee training program in cannabis. And then there's that smile. Photo by Jake Moffet
Here's a thought. Try this analogy on for size:
Best-case scenario, this sativa/indica/hybrid way of thinking and talking about cannabis is a X axis. Which is great, right, because once you get that down, you can move right, move left, move right . . . but that's it, really; 1-D. Whereas Farma sees no way to even begin talking about the depth and dimensions and sheer mindblowingness of cannabis without considering its Y and Z axis, see; the moving parts.
On that note, everyone who walks through Farma's door is treated as a potential patient, and that's not pandering to some touchy-feely New Age-dispensary fluff. Actually, it's not even because of the person, entirely, but rather, because of the plant. As a botanical poly-pharmaceutical, Jeremy believes cannabis has therapeutic benefits, whatever the individual user's intent.
Regardless, Jeremy explains their responsibilities are three-fold. First, their job is to illustrate different compounds and to use sophisticated labs that measure them well. Second, demonstrating how to titrate and dose in small increments, micro-dose. Third, he says, is teaching people how to use different cutting-edge delivery systems; vaporizers, for example. "What's so great is that we're dealing with botanical medicine: it's benign, it's safe, it's effective, and you can experiment."
Which begs the question. If you could tailor a substance to your own specifications and needs, so that you have a consistently effective, efficient and economic experience, why would you do it any other way? Well, let's be honest: "People are impatient," Jeremy says. "They want this effect, they want it now, and they don't want to study it—that's not where cannabis becomes revolutionary."
Racking up the awards but always keeping it real: on behalf of Nucleus Nurseries, Plumb humbly accepts the award for Best CBD cultivar from U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer at the inaugural 2016 Cultivation Classic.Photo by Bridget Baker @Willamette Week
Watching people come and go, it occurred to me that the only time I'm in the same room with seniors, or rather, the time and place where I'm most likely to bump elbows with senior citizens these days, is at dispensaries. Which is probably what the 22-year-olds think when they see me walk in, and that's cool—I'm all for it. Point is, and I mean this as a compliment, whatever their age, Farma's staff are a noticeably mature bunch. More specifically, the people behind the counter come across as highly educated, deeply committed, and completely sober, in no particular order.
"It's endless—oh, we train our people endlessly," Sam says, describing their staff training. Their applicant pool alone—being that it's Portland, you know Farma receives more than its fair share of resumes from embarrassingly over-qualified candidates. Thankfully, Sam and Jeremy use that to everyone's advantage: "We've got weekly meetings with our vendors and producers, where they come in and present to our staff. We've got staff meetings every day, and we just had a company retreat this past Sunday."
A perfect example is Emma Chasen, Farma's Manager, who holds a plant biology degree from Brown University. Which isn't about Ivy League education, but personal choices, values. Whether they hold a degree or not, it's clear that everyone who works at Farma has options: they choose to be here, and, one presumes, many could earn a great deal more money in another line of work.
Likewise, given the principals, you know the Farma team's common denominator is intellectual honesty and curiosity. Simply meaning they approach their role as problem-solving rather than cocktail-delivery. So if easy comparisons must be drawn, think of them less as budtenders and more like the cannabis Geek Squad.
Careful, though. Good humor aside, Sam can turn no-bullshit on a dime. "We want to build a company that we can be proud of and our people can be proud of, and it's not all going to come from economic incentive." Most likely, what makes Sam Heywood so successful at marketing is the fact that he is his own worst consumer.
Detracting Jeremy's praise of his many talents, Sam waves it off, crossing his arms: "I am reminded of the first unwritten rule of marketing, which is, 'Marketing is about convincing you your life sucks—that this product alone can make it better. That's why I hate feeling like I'm being marketed to."
Synthesizing all those late nights of boozy bandtalk, the original Farma graphic design plays on the iconic black-and-white cover design of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures. Oh, wait, I get it! It's their Joint Division line.Photo by Lydia Barclay
Accordingly, Farma merchandises under his extreme prejudice, carrying a select few items, discreetly tucked away. And I couldn't agree more with Sam's disliking of being marketed to, so, all things considered, it felt crass to ask him about the "Farma brand." But not enough to stop me; there's no avoiding the fact they're excellent marketers.
It's not only limited quantities, it's placement; visual discretion. What I'm saying is, merchandize out of sight, merchandize out of mind—in a weed shop, yes—balls. Seriously, that's a ballsy move by any retail standards. In fact, you wouldn't notice any merch at all, if you were standing at the counter, because your back would be turned to the display, behind you.
Listening to all this talk of snowflakes and taxonomy, I finally get it, what he's sharing with me, what's going on here: this is Jeremy's butterfly collection. And, now 39, in one sense or another, Jeremy Plumb been collecting these beauties for most of his life, building his very own living history museum.
When I was still struggling, Sam suggested I think of terpenes as the handling/steering, and THC as the torque. Crude—Sam was the first to so and then repeated himself—it's very crude—but has also proven very helpful.
Which leads to Mr. Jeremy's most lovely and thoughtful explanation of genotypes and phenotypes, the nature/nurture of genetics that we are only just beginning to unlock. "The truth is that the Human Genome Project has not delivered on this panacea of all kinds of genetic-specific curatives. We know very little about the range of genotypes," he says. Far from criticism, he appears delighted, marveling at the mystery and the fact that we have barely scratched the surface, scientifically speaking.
Funny thing is, all this talk of genetics, but in the end, seems it all boils down to the basics, getting hands-on. "Where people's lives change with cannabis is when they grow four plants on the balcony. And they have a relationship with the plant. It's really a remarkable transformation."
On that note, you know the one thing we never talk about?
Inside of 75 minutes, we've touched on federal law, banking policy, clemency, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner and American horticulturist Luther Burbank, none other than the "Plant Wizard," himself, not to mention ISO/IEC 17025 Protocol, the imminent agricultural collapse, and ultimately using cannabis as a vehicle to reform agronomy. It's dizzying, yes.
What we don't talk about, what is never mentioned, not once, is getting high.
Chauncey, aka DJ Chau, voted Portland's Best and Fluffiest Dispensary Dog by Willamette Week two years running. What this canine knows about cannabis could fill a book. But first, he must siesta.Courtesy Farma
Having set out to create a better world through chemistry, laws of physics and forensic profiling, at Farma, an educated cannabis consumer is their best customer. To that end, the real testament to Farma's success is watching, firsthand, as each side of the counter raises the bar for the good of all. Expect more, demand more; it's a win-win strategy, alright.
"The mission was always, 'How do I make a difference in a meaningful way?' That's why we're here," Jeremy says.
Honestly, it was all I could do, trying to keep up with Jeremy Plumb for a solid hour. So I didn't fully appreciate Sam's expertise until our second meeting, weeks later. And I'm the first to admit, I needed to go over all this again—once more from the top, you've got your phyto-cannabinoids, endocannabinoids—I want to use my words, I do, and correctly.
It's just the two of us this time, Sam and I, sitting in a beer garden in July, and thankfully, he's brought me hard copies of color-coded graphs to help me visualize. (Jeremy mentioned Sam does this all the time, that his breakdowns are unlike anything you've ever seen, but I didn't take him seriously until I saw the charts myself.) Comedic talents aside, now I know what truly makes these two such a great team: theirs is a partnership of science and language; the warp and weft of chemistry and communication.
The rigor and accuracy Jeremy demands of chemical compounds, Sam demands of the written word. In person, you can see how Sam's always thinking about the fine print; consequences, ramifications, stakes; precedent. That's why Sam and Jeremy insist on taking the "evidence-based approach" (translation: prove it). That's Farma's Sacred Cow: don't put up or shut up about cannabis, prove it.
With that, a few words of advice from Sam Heywood, Farma's resident wordsmith: "Do it intelligently and do it with some style. Don't be content with mainstream: have a message."
Disruption gets thrown around; it's all the rage these days. Regardless, I'm not opposed to using the word for that reason; I'm opposed because it's not accurate in this case. This is Farma's vision, their own direction, not an obstacle or limitation to anyone else's program. In other words, it's not a question of disruption but discovery; and their shop merely serves as a departure point. Because more than anything, Farma is about the journey.
Back to the Future, the wheels on the Farma bus go round and round . . .
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