High & Mighty: Is the Weed Industry Neocolonial?

A Dutch company travels to South Africa, India and Jamaica, buys exotic strains from rural agriculturalists and sells them in the West at a massive profit. If the Dutch East India Company in the 16th and 17th centuries springs to mind, you’d be easily mistaken. In fact, I am talking about Greenhouse Seeds today- and their lucrative import: weed. Is it uncomfortable to watch? Definitely.  Is it as bad as it sounds? Probably not. Should we expect anything less? Unfortunately, no.

Any weed-smoker is well aware of the ever-more ridiculous strain names they are confronted with, often propositioned through semi-professional broadcast messages on WhatsApp: Lemon Haze, Amnesia Haze, Bubba Kush, OG Kush, even Bob Saget OG. Few are aware of the international power politics that have enabled this proliferation. For legal weed businesses such as Greenhouse Seeds, there is a market incentive to create new products, new strains that can produce yet newer experiences. This is achieved through seeking out ‘landraces’, weed plants from various regions around the globe with genetic expressions previously unseen in the Greenhouse repertoire. Company founder Arjan Roskam saw an additional market incentive in this enterprise and turned it into a YouTube ‘documentary’ series titled ‘Strain Hunters’, clocking up collective views in the hundreds of millions. The show is a perfect storm of playboy hedonism, travel documentary and unchecked privilege as Arjan and his group of wealthy own-merch-wearing Westerners gallivant through weed fields in Global South countries often uninvited, proceeding to tell farmers (who have cultivated cannabis for centuries, mind you) that they have no idea how valuable their crop actually is. The Strain Hunters then cut samples from the plant before squeezing it for every drop of its genetic value in a lab somewhere in the Netherlands, never to be seen again. Even more damning, however, is that an increasing number of these rural farmers are now making the switch from the cultivation of their own native cannabis landraces to Greenhouse Seeds’ strains. In doing so, these farmers are purchasing at an increased price a piece of the agricultural genetic heritage that they themselves help preserve. Sound shit? It’s pretty much the typical capitalist story up to this point.

In many ways, these relations fall under the definition of neocolonialism coined by Kwame Nkrumah, the first democratically elected President of Ghana. In contrast with the directly violent control exerted over countries such as Ghana and Strain Hunters destinations like South Africa during the colonial period, “today we have neo-colonialism… investment, under neo-colonialism, increases, rather than decreases, the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world”. In the case of Strain Hunters and Greenhouse Seeds, this takes the form of rural farmers in Global South countries being inadequately compensated for their landraces, which are sold to great profit in the Global North. In this way, trade with these regions can often act to reinforce rather than break down power hierarchies, realising a global picture of inequality that looks not unlike the colonial era itself. 

However, these uncomfortable parallels go deeper still. Julie Cook’s ‘The Philosophical Colonisation of Ecofeminism’ explores the shared subordinations of women and nature, itself gendered as a caring and ‘life-giving’ mother, in stark contrast to the paternalistic and patriarchal values of capitalism. Cook describes this as a “logic of domination” emerging during the colonial enterprise as the chaotic and irrational (M)other Nature became subordinated to the Western, predominantly male, scientific method, categorising ecology into logical groups almost exclusively viewed in terms of their industrial value. Similarly, according to British historian Philippa Levine, one of the most prominent narratives of European Imperialism was of pioneering and industrious white men “taming wild terrain into productivity and profitability”, celebrating an agency that was denied to both women and natives. This is painfully present in the Strain Hunters series, in which Arjan and his group of wealthy compatriots plunder fields of female bud-producing weed plants for a genetic value apparently unseen to the rural farmers, all the while marvelling at the “huge balls” of the native male plants. Ouch.

Nonetheless, some words must be said in the Strain Hunters’ defence. For one, the most recent episode, filmed in South Africa, makes a point of highlighting the economic and racial inequalities built into cannabis legalisation. Securing a permit to grow cannabis legally can cost in the tens of thousands and, as such, many of the traditional cannabis cultivators (not to mention those who were most harmed under prohibition) are still being targeted today. Speaking up for these grey area weed farmers, Strain Hunter Simon describes his own efforts to help the native South African Mpondo Tribe trademark their own strain and retain control over their natural heritage. An increasing theme in these later episodes is the giving back of knowledge to these native cultivators and each of the Strain Hunters can now often be found giving farmers tips and tricks to increase their yields.

All this discussion begs the question: how bad actually is the show? In a scene that feels directly lifted from ‘Lord of the Rings’, Strain Hunter Franco expresses the simultaneously hubristic yet oblivious mindset that sums up this global scramble for landraces. Cradling a tiny seed of the highly sought-after ‘Punta Roja’ strain, Franco exclaims:

“this… can make genetics that are gonna win cannabis cups, put people in jail, make people rich, that are gonna change destinies and lives and this is why I wake up with a smile every fucking day… this find exemplifies cannabis culture- that is the real treasure”.

Is it uncomfortable viewing at points? Definitely. Is it as bad as it sounds? Probably not, given the small yet increasingly significant moves the Strain Hunters have made to engage in fair(er) business practices with rural farmers (albeit still not at the direct expense of their own multi-million dollar business). Finally, should we have expected any different? Unfortunately, no. 

Racism and inequality is woven into the histories of both cannabis prohibition and Capitalism and little is being done today on either front to address past grievances. For example, while it is indeed legal for weed to be sold in coffee shops across Amsterdam, it is bafflingly still a punishable offence to supply these shops. The unfortunate result of this is that the weed or hash that is available to buy in Dutch coffeeshops is often bought on the black market from countries such as Morocco where judicial punishment remains a very real threat. Rather than remedying the inequalities inherent in the drug trade, cannabis tolerance in Amsterdam has simply outsourced these conflicts elsewhere- again, unsurprisingly, to the direct benefit of wealthy Western businesses. 

 Arjan, his fellow Strain Hunters, and Greenhouse Seeds exist at the intersection of both of these histories and therefore those motivated to avoid such uncomfortable power relations should adopt a two-pronged approach. Firstly, by supporting and encouraging equity cannabis dispensary programs such as this one found in Oakland, California, and, secondly, by striving to call out companies that perpetuate such hierarchical business practices, in whatever industry. Much easier said than done, of course, but the first step is always awareness. So….

Stay woke ppls 420 al day erryday bunitup

Article written by Solomon PM


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