Sinsemilla: Origins of Modern Cannabis

Sinsemilla: Origins of Modern Cannabis

Binge-watching Netflix seldom yields any level of worthy thought past the chips, couch and beer extravaganza that is my weekend. But in this case, I have to say that the most recent addition to the ‘Narcos’ series has proven to be the exception. ‘Narcos: Mexico’ (which I strongly recommend to all of my fellow weed geeks) got me thinking deeply about a key part of cannabis history…where and when was seedless cannabis, referred to as ‘sinsemilla,’ first grown? In other words: Who was the first to discover that removing the males was key to major improvements in quality (and hence price)? For those who are new to the world of cannabis agriculture, here is a quick 101 crash course on sinsemilla.

Sinsemilla 101

Sinsemilla literally translates to “without seeds” in Spanish. Seedless buds can only be achieved when the male plants are removed from the population. Cannabis, like its closest relative the hops plant, is a dioecious species, meaning that there are male and female members of the species. If the brewer allows their hop plant to become seeded, the hops can no longer be used to make a good brew as it will provide a sour-bitter taste that ruins the flavour. Cannabis is similar in this sense; the males must not be allowed to pollinate the females or seeds will develop, substantially downgrading the smoking experience even if the seeds are later removed.

Here is how it works: Males grow pollen sacks that open like small yellow banana-like leaflets, while females grow the familiar buds that most people identify as ‘cannabis.’ If the female buds never come into contact with male pollen, they grow larger and more resinous buds with little or no seeds. Sinsemilla, then, is not a specific type of cannabis, but rather any female cannabis plant that has been allowed to remain free of pollen and by that extent, free of seeds.

It is well known that by the time Caro Quintero (the tragic hero of the series) got a hold of this technique, small pockets of Americans were already making a killing in places like California and Oregon selling sinsemilla to a ready and waiting public that could not contain themselves after years of smoking the seeded stuff. I guess sour beer is better than no beer. It is very possible that observing the success of these ‘hippie gringos’ spurred Quintero to change his own growing practices in order to charge higher prices. Either way, this article arose out of a desire to contest the claim that Quintero was the first to develop sinsemilla, as he supposedly claims in the series.

But was it truly American hippies who independently discovered sinsemilla? Was the term ‘sinsemilla’ actually coined by anglophones?!

Well, aside from the obvious fact that ‘sinsemilla’ is a Spanish term, keep in mind that Rafa Caro Quintero’s work represents one moment of climax in a long history of Mexican cannabis farming. This narrative then fits within the broader context of the global spread of cannabis genetics and growing techniques which is incredibly complex and difficult to decipher (but dammit is it ever fun). Taking it as a given that these skills were developed by Caro Quintero alone or bestowed onto him by the ‘gringo hippies’ are both concepts that would rub any serious cannabis historian the wrong way. Knowing that I was going home for the holidays, I took the opportunity to dig deeper to see if I could find out more through my local friends about the origins of the simple growing technique that launched the dawn of the modern age of cannabis.

 

Digging For The Roots of a Movement

The flight home provided for an extensive reading time as there was no sleep to be had in my section. Surrounded by crying children and giddy tourists chatting excitedly with their neighbors, I was daydreaming about the long and rich history of cannabis production in my home country. ‘What was it like back when cannabis first arrived here?’ I thought. Yes, clearly I am very dull…but for me, the context of this story is so interesting that it is worth taking a step back.

Starting as early as the 1600s, Spanish conquistadors used hemp for their ropes and sails, while drug-type cannabis was used to pacify slaves—a practice that was common amongst both European and African slave traders. The British did the same with their Black and Indian slaves but their colonies focused primarily on the production of European hemp which grew well in the areas they occupied. Although it was produced in some quantities, European hemp never grew very well in Mexico. But by the 1800s drug-type cannabis was widely grown and consumed in a multitude of ways by rural Mexicans who, at the time, constituted the bulk of the Mexican population. Meanwhile, drug-type cannabis use did not reach mainstream popularity in the US until the 1960s.

The genetics used in the early days of cannabis production in California and Oregon were obtained primarily through Mexico. If the term itself is Spanish and the original seeds were from Mexico, logic dictates that the method to make sinsemilla may have been an independent Mexican or Spanish development, or perhaps handed down by the Moors who occupied Spain and other parts of Europe for a period of 800 years.

Yeah, I know what you are thinking: great story bro. In order to know if my suspicions of pre-Quintero sinsemilla had any bearing in reality, I needed to find out more.  

 

Oral traditions of the elder stoners    

My evening flight arrived in Mexico City, piercing a thick layer of smog to give me the first look at the grey, smokey landscape jokingly referred to as ‘El defectuoso’ or ‘the defective city’ by the warm and often hilarious locals. Folks growing up in Mexico during the postwar era truly experienced a golden age—and Mexican cannabis, as I was about to find out, was apparently no exception.

A table of four grey-haired Mexicanos (who will remain nameless) awaited inside the black-gated home. The rich smell of low-grade Mexican cannabis filled the air and I immediately felt right at home. Eager to share their stories, my hosts started recounting their memories of cannabis in the time before Quintero. As I asked questions, the group debated, rumbled and laughed at the beguiling stories of times long past.

It was not long before the group consensus was made clear: back in the 60s, there was a lot of different types of cannabis going around Mexico; good, bad, mostly seeded and yes, some that was, in fact, seedless. “It was hard to get,” recounts one elder, “but you could get it and were always on the hunt for something better.” Another went on to explain how it was only the best seedless cannabis that he would take on long trips abroad, as it would last longer; “I was so popular in Europe,” he said with clear gleam of joy in his eyes, “not because I was funny or good looking but because I was the only one in town with actual herb. It was impossible to come by and the French went crazy when they tried it. Everyone wanted a piece of my delicious buds because all they had was low-grade hash.”

As I went around the room—and even as I spoke to more cannabis aficionados of ripe age in Mexico City and in other states and towns that I visited as part of my travels—it became clear that essentially all of the elders agreed: good quality sinsemilla existed in Mexico far before Rafa Caro Quintero ever came around. It is funny how the stories of these old timers mirror the stories of my elder mentors in Canada who rejoice at the stories of the high-quality varieties that, “you just can’t get anymore,” as the story invariably goes.

‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘that was easy.’ While small pockets of weed geeks across the world argued the point tirelessly, there seemed to be no debate about the matter here.

Naturally, this led me to the next logical question: So, where did this pre-Quintero sinsemilla come from? The answer given was equally as unanimous amongst most of my Mexican interviewees…and the response did not surprise me at all.

 

Oaxaca

Even as late as the mid-90s, when I started scoring my own stash as a young man, the legend of Oaxacan bud was still alive and well. I only had a few chances to experience the superior product from this region and most times I have to say I was completely blown away. Anyone who has smoked true Oaxacan knows just how good it can get down there. While the rest of the nation has mostly descended back into producing bricks of rubbish seeded Mexi-schwag, many of Oaxaca’s small and mid-sized farmers have stayed true to their tradition of producing only the highest quality outdoor ganja even to this day.

Not much sinsemilla is grown in Mexico because it is hard to control large areas of clandestine farmland where cannabis pollen fills the air. The few farmers who can produce high-quality bud and are tucked away in the mountains hidden from neighboring pollen, sell their seedless product without effort and at a premium. This incentive has likely kept the secret technique to sinsemilla passing from generation to generation of small secluded farming communities who quietly supply a limited number of lucky, mostly Mexican, consumers.  

Oaxacan farming communities are often of native descent and still speak their traditional language, eat their traditional foods and maintain other traditional practices like communal farming and redistribution of community-owned goods. They have an in-depth knowledge of plants, how to grow them and how to use them for a variety of purposes. Psychedelic mushrooms and a variety of other intoxicating and/or medicinal plants are widely used by these groups. If you ask some members of these native communal farming groups how long they have been growing cannabis, they will often claim a legacy of a few hundred years. Some of the Oaxacan mountainous highlands reach over 2000 meters in elevation and provide ideal secluded microclimates for cannabis production. It is of no surprise that these groups were, and still are, responsible for growing some of the best outdoor Mexican ganja.

 

So…who was first?

We will likely never know if traveling hippies learned the sinsemilla technique down south or if they developed it independently. Ultimately, the same goes for Rafa. This technique is simple enough that anyone with an eye for detail or a basic understanding of botany could figure it out at any point in history. As we discussed, this technique has been used on hop plants by brewmasters since at least the 11th century. This illustrates how the sinsemilla technique is actually quite ancient and is relevant to more than one crop. Pollination, in itself, is a key concept that would have been understood by several ancient human cultures who were involved in early agriculture and plant breeding.      

The question of who created the first sinsemilla plant is not dissimilar to asking who invented pottery or who discovered fire. The answer is almost certainly that sinsemilla was discovered and rediscovered at many points on earth and in history until it slowly became a staple of all human culture. Like fire, we would not look to Europe or the Americas as the earliest place for the discovery of such an essential tool; rather we would look to Africa, where humans originated. Likewise, there is almost no question that the earliest people to discover sinsemilla were not likely from Mexico or Spain but rather from somewhere in central Asia where cannabis originated. Making sinsemilla, like making fire, can be discovered by anyone with a keen eye for detail. Anyone working closely with this plant for prolonged periods of time could have discovered this technique at one point or another, and yes, that includes you, Rafa.

by Adolfo Gonzalez.

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