Portland is booming with cannabusinesses, including a new US seed company, Stoney Girl Gardens.
By Elise McDonough
Originally published in High Times Medical Marijuana #6, Summer 2011
Demurely dressed in a tasteful gray suit with her trademark red lipstick, Jenifer Valley is one tough lady, even though she doesn’t look it. The survivor of an abusive upbringing—including parents who routinely beat her for failing to clean her dinner plate or getting sick after eating—Jen tried marijuana for the first time as a teenager and immediately noticed that it revived her normally nonexistent appetite and helped her keep food down. She knew then that Cannabis sativa was a powerful medicine, but she wouldn’t learn the reason why she was so frequently ill until 1993, when she was 25 years old and the doctors at Oregon Health Sciences University diagnosed her with the most advanced case of thyroid cancer ever seen in a living patient. They suspected she’d been suffering from the disease since she was 10.
After escaping her dysfunctional family, Jen’s fight against her illness began. One doctor refused to refer her to an oncologist after she honestly admitted to smoking pot occasionally to relieve her symptoms. But with the help of a new doctor and many specialists, she eventually underwent the first modified radical throat dissection ever performed, followed by numerous major experimental radiation treatments.
“I was generating literally millions of dollars in health-care costs,” Jen recalls—and that didn’t include her 10 visits to the emergency room that year or her daily diet of 25 to 30 pharmaceutical pills. Her weight dropped to a fragile 92 pounds, and the experts estimated her prospects of surviving another six months at about 50/50. Drained physically, emotionally and financially by her illnesses and the treatments meant to cure them, she also had to struggle to find a supply of high-potency, low-cost, medicinal-quality cannabis on the black market—a frustrating and often fruitless use of her limited time and resources.
In 1999, after being arrested for possession, she decided to investigate the then brand-new Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP). Despite some confusion surrounding the initial implementation of the statewide program, Jen’s doctor told her: “You are a Stage IV cancer patient—exactly who this law was intended to help.” He subsequently stood by her decision to use cannabis throughout her treatment. After six months in the program, Jen was able to reduce her pharmaceutical intake to just two pills a day. Defying the doctors’ grim predictions, she not only stubbornly stayed alive but began to gain weight. Today, she’s regained 30 percent of her body mass, and a recent CT scan revealed a truly joyous outcome: Jen is cancer-free for the first time in 17 years. Thrilled by her second lease on life, this “stoney girl” has dedicated herself to taking care of others in similar need.
First, Jen wanted to become self-reliant when it came to securing safe access to the highest-quality cannabis imaginable, which meant learning to grow her lifesaving medicine for herself. Emboldened by her new legal status, she set up a small growroom in her Portland apartment, but didn’t like the results.
“It tasted like shit,” she recalls—and those were the plants lucky enough to survive until harvest. With little room for error, she realized it was time to find a mentor. Taking an unconventional approach, Jen started showing her medical-marijuana card to patrons at a seedy bar where she occasionally worked called the Beaver Inn, looking for an experienced cannabis cultivator willing to show her the ropes.
“Jesus, lady, somebody’s going to kill you!” was Mike Mullins’s initial response. Then they struck up a conversation that would blossom into a friendship, a partnership and finally a marriage. Down-to-earth and mild-mannered, Mike turned out to have an impressive résumé that included management positions at multinational corporations as well as a stint on a Hawaiian pineapple plantation, where he gained expertise in plant science and genetics. He was also no stranger to growing high-quality cannabis, though he’d never done it legally before meeting the woman he would serve first as a caregiver and later as a husband.
The high-minded cannabis couple started small, growing enough to meet Jen’s medical needs while experimenting with a host of top genetic strains, including White Rhino, a Chocolate Thai variety, Blueberry from DJ Short and a mysterious strain dubbed Berkeley (reputedly the “science project” of a University of California student stricken with bone cancer).
With each new crop, as both love and ganja bloomed, the couple grew closer and Jen grew stronger. After overcoming so much adversity in her own life, she was determined to fight back against the War on Marijuana, a quest that brought her together with local and national medical-cannabis activists and led her to attend countless meetings with government officials in Oregon. Each time, she patiently educated the bureaucrats on the benefits of medical marijuana, including her amazing true-life saga, and helped them crunch the numbers—and not just in terms of tax revenue lost to the black market or the cost of law enforcement.
“I talk to them in terms of ‘cost containment,’ because 10 percent of Oregonians generate 69 percent of our health-care costs,” Jen says. “I was one of those people, and I reduced my health-care costs by 85 percent by using medical marijuana.”
The cannabis couple continued to breed their own cannabis strains, including Sugar Plum, Purpit and Wrex, with both husband and wife showing a real talent for cross-pollination. Together, they also developed a synergistic cannabusiness conglomerate, with a seed company, a cannabis college and a community-outreach center in Southeast Portland all operating in sync with their ongoing political activism.
Their flagship seed company has made their unique genetics available to legal medical-cannabis patients in Oregon since 2000, while the newly christened Portlandsterdam University offers classes on cannabis horticulture, history, business, law, cooking and more. Through a partnership with Portland’s Northwest Resource Center, the Stoney Girl team also helps with homeless outreach and neighborhood rehabilitation.
“NWRC started many businesses in this neighborhood to employ and rejuvenate an otherwise forgotten part of town,” Mike says. “At Stoney Girl, we know that our growth depends on getting the community involved and being involved ourselves in building our local neighborhoods. Community outreach provides us with the opportunity to educate the public and bring awareness to medical marijuana as a professional industry.”
The two have learned a great deal about cannabis since their first breeding project, but that one remains among their favorites. In fact, they shared their first kiss while dusting the pollen of a plant they dubbed the Crippler—a Thai Big Bud with an exotic taste—onto an elite White Rhino female. The resulting indica-dominant Crippled Rhino proved to be “deeply flowery and strongly perfumed” without skimping on potency. Since then, Stoney Girl Gardens’ line of unique offerings has grown enough to fill an entire seed catalog with strains, including a pure sativa, the aforementioned Berkeley, and a hybrid August West, recommended for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. An entire line of strains has been designated as “morphine replacement,” and a new breeding project called the Indigo line will aim to provide appetite stimulation for AIDS and anorexia patients.
As part of their ongoing research, every breeding experiment is finished, dried, cured and tested for its unique medicinal qualities. In an effort to quantify the specific effects of their strains, Stoney Girl has partnered with M-Research out of nearby Corvallis, OR, including adopting the M-Scale system of analysis. (See the sidebar for more info.)
When selecting plants for breeding purposes, Mike and Jen look for quick finishers capable of adequately supplying patients through frequent, heavy harvests while also providing powerful medicinal potency. A strong, hearty stalk and lush foliage also indicate healthy potential parent plants. Breeding with a South American landrace sativa from a high altitude allows some strains to finish astonishingly quickly. Berkeley is the fastest to harvest, with a remarkable 28 days of bloom cycle for a sativa—Mike often has to stress that he doesn’t use ruderalis crosses to achieve these results.
In 2003, Stoney Girl captured a first-place prize at the Oregon Medical Cannabis Awards with its Sugar Plum strain, a Berkeley Blues x Hawaiian Haze Plum with dense colas, complex flavors and copious resin that wowed a panel of expert judges. Stoney Girl’s other notable strains include the skunky, grape-flavored Oregon Pinot Noir, so named because it was grown alongside wine grapes in a Willamette Valley vineyard. The Oregon Pinot Noir is a Hawaiian Purple Kush x Pit Bull, acclimated to the Pacific Northwest for solid outdoor production.
Since it’s impossible to remain compliant with the OMMP’s plant limits and keep all their strains alive while continuing to undertake new breeding experiments, Stoney Girl Gardens now encompasses not just Mike and Jen, but an entire network of patients, caregivers and associate gardeners. With an eye towards a bright future, a new high-tech garden facility has just been completed, along with renovations on the office space and educational facilities at North Lombard Street in Portland. These days, Stoney Girl Gardens is experiencing its own form of cross-pollination, as these interdependent business and activist projects continue to grow and support one other.
Jen’s activism was instrumental in the campaign for Oregon’s Regulated Medical Marijuana Supply System Act (Measure 74), which appeared on the November 2010 ballot and would have established a system in which the state would license cultivators to grow medical marijuana for sanctioned dispensaries, while tasking the Oregon Department of Health and Human Services to develop quality-control standards. Although Measure 74 failed to pass, it did garner 44 percent of the vote. Naturally, everyone at Stoney Girl was deeply disappointed in the outcome, but they remain in this movement for the long haul, with no plans to back down or stop fighting.
“As long as marijuana isn’t legal for everyone, patients will always be under constant attack,” Jen points out. “They say we’re faking it, that we’re not sick enough.”
And these budding cannabis entrepreneurs are just getting started. Mike has become increasingly excited by the prospect that lab testing will enable breeders to work scientifically within quantifiable cannabinoid profiles, rather than just making educated guesses based on phenotypes. His dream is to establish a Stoney Girl Gardens foundation in each medical-marijuana state, which would eliminate concerns about seeds crossing state lines while providing genetics specifically acclimated to each unique location.
Meanwhile, Jen and the Stoney Girl team are already hard at work on a new initiative for the 2012 ballot, as well as establishing research partnerships with local universities to study cannabinoid profiles and patient outcomes. Ultimately, they dream not just of bringing medicinal cannabis and green jobs to the city of Portland, but of making the state of Oregon the center for a thriving industry in cannabis-based research and development.
Someday soon, Jen says, “we’d like to see our farmers be permitted to grow this medicine and generate tax revenue to fund health care and education with what is already the top cash crop in the state. We need the innovations that will come from competition and new small businesses with creative solutions for meeting patients’ needs. The benefits of a regulated medical-marijuana industry would include much-needed jobs and new sources of revenue for our lagging economy.”