To get to Hempfest this year, you started in downtown Seattle on a humid, cloudless Saturday. You walked toward the waterfront until there were buskers on every street corner and the foot traffic thickened and you could smell sweat and weed smoke on clothes and skin. Police were everywhere, directing traffic. Men and women with their backs to the cops guarded portable coolers and hawked brownies in low voices. Up ahead, a man was shouting through a crappy amplifier. Something religious. Hellfire.
You got closer. You began to pass little encampments on the side of the road, rawboned kids with face piercings and red sticky eyes and loose tan clothes that hung from their limbs like the jowls of senators. One held a jagged piece of cardboard with a note that read I’VE GOT A HOLE IN MY BOWL AND NEED A NUGGET TO PLUG IT. The noise from the amp grew louder and more distorted, and as you approached, you saw him, the evangelist, planted in the middle of the sidewalk with a microphone. A man with a six-foot wooden cross offered you a flyer. Someone had spray-painted READ BIBLE on a large rock. Someone else had crossed out BIBLE and written BOOKS.
But then the police blew a whistle and waved you across a set of train tracks and you came through the gate of the public park where Hempfest happens and it was like swimming through the muck at the shore of a lake into clear water beyond. It’s illegal, of course, to grow or sell cannabis under federal law, but the citizens of Washington state (and Colorado) voted last year to allow the sale of pot in recreational quantities, making this the first Hempfest in the 22-year history of the event to sprawl out under the pale sun of quasi-legalization. In the park, in patches of grass between tented booths that sold sausages and hemp burgers and bongs, people were lighting bowls with the impunity of U.N. diplomats. Weed funk came down like a Broadway curtain. Cops with perplexed smiles rode around in golf carts, handing out free bags of Doritos along with stickers advising festival attendees that, yes, smoking pot in public is an infraction, but no, the police weren’t here to write tickets and would “rather give you a warning.” Everyone seemed to understand that the world was different now, even if no one was quite sure where the new lines were, or how long it would be until they shifted.
Meanwhile, inside a large white tent, an influential and semi-anonymous figure was getting ready to speak about his work.
He looked to be in his early fifties. Plain black shirt, jeans, sandals, dark sunglasses. The hair that poked out from under his fedora was light gray. He sat at a dais on a makeshift stage next to three other men, all gathered here for a discussion panel titled “Growing Your Own Medicine: Tips From the Pros.” A hand-lettered card in front of his microphone said DJ SHORT. He gazed out at 120 people in folding chairs, nodding.
There are no pictures of him online1. There are no videos. Unlike several prominent cultivators, DJ Short, arguably the most skillful and creative American cannabis breeder of the last 40 years, has never embedded himself with a film crew from Vice magazine.2 He does teach the occasional class at the Medical Cannabis Caregivers Institute in Pasadena, and he appears sometimes at cannabis rallies and festivals, but you really have to know what you’re looking for to catch a glimpse of DJ Short. He doesn’t have a website. His Internet presence consists of a handful of long comments on the weed-culture site International Cannagraphic, where he drops in from time to time to tell stories about his decades in the trade and to interact with fans who’ve smoked his stuff: Blueberry, a ubiquitous, lavender-tinted strain of weed that actually does smell like fresh blueberries; Flo; Blue Velvet; Koko Kush; Azure Haze; Whitaker Blues; Vanilluna. These are specialty plants, the weed equivalent of high-end wines, bred not for volume production or elevated THC content but instead for rich aromas and interesting highs. The entry for Blueberry in the Urban Dictionary reads: “The most wonderful form of marijuana to date. … Although it is not the most powerful, it will still knock you on your ass.” According to High Times, which has honored Short with a spot in its Seed Bank Hall of Fame, Blueberry and the rest represent an “arsenal of great ganja genetics.”
As of Hempfest, anyway. Three weeks later, in early September, he allowed himself to be photographed at the High Times Seattle Cannabis Cup.
Vice recently filmed a Dutch entrepreneur named Arjan Roskam in his travels across Colombia; Roskam was visiting large outdoor plantations in search of new strains of cannabis to market. Roskam calls himself the “King of Cannabis,” but according to Short, “The stuff that Arjan finds, that’s B-grade pot. Field pot.” What you ought to be looking for, he says, is some family that’s been growing pot in secret for generations. Find some withered old grandmother with a garden patch in a village and you might really have something. Short says there’s no animosity between him and Roskam, but he does tease the Dutchman: “He’s got his little saying: ‘Go big or go home.’ And I jest and say, ‘Arjan, you went big, I went home.’”
A few brave Internet commenters like to ask Short for growing tips, but most seem to keep a respectful and reverent distance. “I think many of us can agree DJ Short is quite iconic,” one commenter wrote at thcfarmer.com in 2012. “But who the heck is this guy? Where does he live and what makes him tick? … Has he ever been interviewed? Is he still alive?” Another wrote in 2010, “As for who he is, I’ve looked everywhere. … I dare not ask because I know better. From my research, he is to weed as Willy Wonka is to candy. Like Willy Wonka, he is hiding in his factory.”
Short did publish a book in 2003, Cultivating Exceptional Cannabis: An Expert Breeder Shares His Secrets. It’s now out of print. I found a used copy on Amazon for $40 and read it before I came to Hempfest. Slim and irritatingly well-written, Cultivating Exceptional Cannabis seemed to confirm the Wonka analogy, giving the impression of a man chasing the wondrous — half scientist, half seeker. There were meticulous descriptions of lights and soils and fertilizers and cloning techniques and the differences between female and male plants (females produce the buds), as well as quick definitions of genotype (a plant’s genetic makeup) and phenotype (the expression of those genes) — genetics for stoners. At the same time, Short offered guidance on how to enhance the cannabis high by mixing it with psychedelic drugs, and he warned that “many of the more subtle and subjective aspects of the fine cannabis experience fall outside of the boundaries of current conventional (and allowed) science. … A recommended read concerning this subject is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”
He also seemed really interested in the taste and smell of weed. Hydrocarbons called terpenes can make weed smell like celery or roses or licorice or limes or a dead mouse. A two-page color spread titled “DJ Short’s Flavor & Olfaction Chart” split weed aromas into “chemical astringent,” “sweet,” “spicy,” “putrid,” and “musky” categories. Under “musky,” there were four subheads, including “earthy,” which Short had subdivided into “loam-moist,” “dirt-mixed,” “musty-stale,” and “dusty-dry.” He wrote: “The range of flavors and aromas expressed by the genus cannabis3 is extraordinary. … Any creative closet or backyard cultivator can use his or her palate to do groundbreaking and innovative research.”
Short doesn’t like the word marijuana. “I don’t deal marijuana. What’s that? That’s what the guy on the street corner sells. You’re entitled to use the Linnaean term”: cannabis.
For all its botanical detail, the book was cagey on the specifics of the author’s life — where he was from, where he lived, his plans for the future. “Discretion is, after all, the better part of valor,” Short wrote. “Absolute rule number one is: Never Tell (Show) Anyone.” I kept picturing the guy from Sideways who refuses to drink any fucking merlot; then I tried to picture him during the last days of Prohibition, clipping vines in his hidden vineyard and wondering when it would be safe to let the world know what he’d been up to.
DJ Short’s here!” said a large man in a tie-dyed tank top. He was sitting next to Short on the dais at Hempfest. His name card said STINKBUD. “I was growin’ his Blueberry back in the ’80s,”4 Stinkbud said. “One of the most famous guys in the entire world! DJ Short! This guy’s a legend.”
I caught up with Stinkbud after the panel and asked him about Short. He said a single Blueberry cutting made its way to Oregon in the ’80s and got “passed on and on and on. Legendary. He put Oregon on the map.”
The panel’s moderator, a Canadian researcher, said, “I’ve been moderating this panel for seven or eight years. I’ve never seen Stinkbud so humbled.”
The crowd laughed, and Short leaned into his mic: “Well, thank you, Hempfest. Thank you, Washington.” His voice was a shock: deep, clear, commanding. A voice that could sway a boardroom or kill at TED. “I’ve been at this for about 40 years now. I predicted a long time ago, decades ago: Legalization would happen if I just drew breath long enough, and when it unfolded it would unfold in a way nobody could predict.” He referred to the rumors that several states were looking to follow Colorado and Washington in 2014 with legalization bills of their own: “Nobody knows what’s going to happen come January, February, and that’s kind of good. Let’s work it out.”
The moderator kicked off the discussion with a question to the panel about the chemistry of cannabis. Everyone knows about THC, the chemical that gets you high, but the plant contains as many as 80 unique compounds, or “cannabinoids,” including one that’s been shown to have potent medicinal effects but doesn’t get you high at all: cannabidiol, or CBD. American scientists can’t work with cannabis because the government punishes anyone who tries, but researchers in Israel have been able to breed high-CBD strains and investigate their qualities. Are high-CBD strains the future?
“It’s really funny how versatile the plant is,” said panelist Jorge Cervantes, a breeder with long white hair. Thirty years ago, “We couldn’t throw that pot away fast enough. It was no-high pot. We were ignorant.”
Short jumped in. He said he’d recently made a high-CBD tincture to give to his ill mother, who suffered a stroke last year and was now in a hospice. She took the tincture in her orange juice. “It’s the only thing that stops the moaning and groaning.” He said he was just beginning to explore the world of high-CBD strains, and more research was needed. He could imagine an experiment that took 10 clones from a mother plant and grew them in 10 different environments. “Let’s test those,” he said. “What are the differences?”
A few minutes later, the moderator turned to the audience and invited them to ask questions. A lanky guy taking notes on a yellow legal pad stood and said he wanted to know how many hours per day you should keep a plant in the light and how many hours in darkness. Twelve and twelve? “Hear me now, thank me later,” Short said, and slowed down his voice: “For your bud cycle: eleven hours on, thirteen off. Okay? What will happen first and foremost is that you will see phenotypic expressions that you will never see with the twelve/twelve.” The lanky guy scribbled on his pad.
There were more questions: about the benefits of growing outdoors versus indoors, about controlling diseases, about how to clone a plant without degrading its quality, about which crops to plant alongside cannabis (Short: “Basil, tomatoes — I have great luck with onions”). After the last question, the moderator wrapped up: “I hope you’ll all join me in bowing down to these amazing growers and cannabis experts.” The crowd applauded. Short stood, took a bow, and removed his hat. He climbed down from the stage, carrying a small canvas bag on his shoulder, and I could see for the first time how tall he was — six-foot-three. A man stopped him and asked for an autograph. He signed the man’s Hempfest program and exited the tent. Short hadn’t gotten ten yards before several more men clustered around him, firing technical questions and nodding gravely. I heard him say, “I never got rich.” He laughed. “A lot of other people got rich off my strains.” He knelt on the ground, opened his bag, and pulled out a rubberbanded stack of seed packets, each a little larger than a business card. One of the men handed him some cash, and he gave the man a packet.
A middle-aged woman with fine gray hair was waiting to speak with Short. I asked her if she was a DJ Short fan. She said yes &mdahs; she grew his plants to help her manage pain from several open-heart surgeries. If she didn’t smoke, she had to take huge quantities of Vicodin, and the Vicodin scared her. She pointed to the heart scar on her chest and started to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said, wiping away tears.
Another woman, a goth-looking blonde, was trying to get a picture. “When the master is ready,” she told me. After a few moments, she got Short’s attention and gestured to a friend who was holding a camera. “It’s just for a private scrapbook,” she said — she wouldn’t be posting it publicly. Short said it was no problem. She ambled up next to him, and they both smiled and made the “hang loose” sign at the lens.
A common misconception is that the DJ in DJ Short stands for “disc jockey.” It doesn’t. D and J are initials. His real first and middle names are Daniel and John; Short is a pen name. He lives in Oregon, is divorced, and has three grown sons.5 He didn’t seem to mind telling me any of this when we sat down in the shade of a tall tree after the panel.
When his sons were young, he told me, they used to mimic their father by rolling “joints” out of pencil shavings. Short was open with them about his occupation. Then one day he got a call from the school principal, who explained that one of his sons had told his class during career day that Daddy sold marijuana for a living. After that, Short moved all his equipment out to the garage and put it under lock and key.
I’d spoken to Short several days earlier and arranged to meet him at Hempfest. Figuring out how to reach him had been a challenge. After I heard a brief interview he gave to a High Times podcast called “Free Weed,” I emailed the podcast host, Danny Danko, asking if he could put me in touch. I never heard back from Danko, but a week later, an email arrived from Short — subject line “Howdy from DJ Short.” He gave me a phone number with an Oregon area code. I called and explained that I wanted to write about his life and work. He seemed a bit wary — “There are people who for whatever reason do want to speak, mostly ego, and I don’t want to steal their thunder” &mdahs; but flattered at the same time. “I’m always working on notes, memoirs and things,” he said. “Hindsight is 20/20 of course.”
Now, sitting on the grass, I asked him where he’d learned about genetics. He pulled an old-fashioned tobacco pipe from his bag, lit it, and took a heroic puff. He said that in the ’80s, he’d studied biology for a time at the University of Oregon, along with cognitive psychology, but he never ended up working in either field: “I’ve always been a lone wolf.”
He grew up, he said, in a lower-middle-class family in Inkster, Michigan, hometown of the woman who inspired the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” poster. Inkster was close enough to Detroit that when he was a kid he could hear gunshots during the race riots of 1967; he could see the horizon on fire at night. His father was a World War II veteran of Polish lineage who worked in a factory connected to the Big Three automakers. His mother, a devout Catholic, worked at a dentist’s office. One of his great-grandmothers had been a Romanian Gypsy herbalist; she used to grow pot, opium, tobacco, sage, and lavender in a backyard garden. The curtains in his grandmother’s house were made of hemp. His family used to joke, “If the house catches on fire, stay in for a little while and breathe.”
Short himself didn’t try pot until he was 12 or 13, a few years after his parents divorced. He’d become clinically depressed, not eating, losing weight. Then he smoked for the first time. It took him six tries before he actually experienced a high, but when he finally did, he was seized with the overwhelming urge to eat an omelette. “It was a pivot point in my life.” After that, he smoked daily, hiding joints from his mother. Weed helped him gain weight; weed took him away from the cold and the blight of Detroit6. Most of the weed available back then was ditch weed, low-quality product of Mexican origin, but Short used his nose for quality to climb the ladder: When he ran into good weed, he always saved a little bit, and if he needed to impress someone, he’d pull out his stash. He gradually found suppliers of better and better bud, wonders from “sweet spots” around the globe. This was all Sativa weed, adapted to thrive outdoors: Colombian Gold (“The smell was that of sandalwood incense, almost frankincense,” he later wrote in his book, “and the flavor was that of a peppery incense cedar … truly psychedelic, powerful and long lasting”), Oaxaca Highland Gold (“super-spicy cedar incense with a slight fermented berry taste”); Highland Thai (“purely cerebral, mentally devastating”); Chocolate Thai (“deep, rich, chocolate, nutty, woody/spicy”); Jamaican (“Too damned strong and speedy! … It is a heart-lifting herb and I have a sensitive heart. So I am careful with the samples of the commercial J-ganga that I try”); Black Magic African (“Truly the most devastating and consciously inebriating herb I have ever smoked”).
Short also says smoking weed has made him a feminist. From his book: “One of the most profound aspects of the cannabis experience for me is its ability to act as a counterbalance to my personal male dominance syndrome. That is, cannabis allows me a reprieve from the otherwise distracting male-conditioned response of attempting to dominate my environment.”
At 21 he moved to Oregon, “an Oz-like land to the west” where the decriminalization efforts of a progressive governor had formed “hippy-magnet vortices” throughout the state. He found work as a doorman at a rock club in Eugene, lived in a series of houses with punk rockers, and introduced the punks to his pothead friends. He read a lot of Pynchon and Castaneda and Douglas Adams and Jonathan Swift (“Jesus, he pegged it all, in the 1700s“), dropped acid, and molted his Catholic-school guilt: Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not for his. He took classes at the University of Oregon in the fall and the spring, and in the summers, when the weather was hot and dry, he worked on a crew that fought forest fires while smoking astonishing amounts of bud7.
He sent me a chapter outline from his unpublished memoir about the experience, Zero Fire. There’s a lot in the outline about water pumps and making camp and digging trails — the gruntwork of stomping out fires — as well as the rough beauty of the Oregon mountains. In Chapter 21, Short describes tripping on mescaline at night in the woods: “The futility and necessity of the head-lamp. Panic buttons. Coming to grips. Wonder drives my being. Down to the lake of fire. Why the woods don’t burn there. Wander curiously … Question the significance of evil and greed. Demons and Angels … The power of the powder takes control. Finding freedom in The Moment. Peaking. Hats (and clothes!) off to the chemist. Naked.”
One day in 1973, Short bought a box of cereal that came with a plastic seed sprouter. Out of simple curiosity, he moistened the chamber, inserted a bud from his stash of Hawaiian, and watched with delight as it grew roots and a sprout. Over the next several years, as the Vietnam War ended and Richard Nixon left the White House, most of Short’s peace-activist friends moved onto other passions, other lives. “All of a sudden,” Short recalled, “I was alone.” So he plunged into a solitary project.
By now, High Times was publishing monthly. The first instructional books on how to grow the plant came along in ’76 or ’77. Short bought some fluorescent shop lights and began experimenting. He grew indoors to avoid getting caught. His plants were all Sativa at first. Sativa takes 16 weeks to grow and is notoriously difficult to maintain; Short’s grow rooms teemed with hundreds of pain-in-the-ass plants. A solution seemed to come along in the late ’70s, when American indoor growers started circulating Indicas, a breed of plant imported from Afghanistan; around the same time, the first High Intensity Discharge lights became available — first metal halide lights, then even more powerful sodium lights. Blasted by these indoor suns, the Indicas grew faster and were easier to maintain than the Sativas, but they produced a stupefying, narcotic high. Short grew Indicas, smoked them, and decided he didn’t like how they made him feel. He was after bliss. He wanted pot that would light up his neural pathways and whip him back to the sweet aromas and epiphanies of the old Oaxacans and Thais.
The answer, he thought, was to create some kind of hybrid — a plant with sweet-spot traits that would be easier to grow indoors. He started crossing various Sativas and Indicas. The size of his operation actually diminished as he got better. Part of it was fear, a need to stay below the radar — then-President Ronald Reagan was a zealous drug warrior — and part of it was just that Short didn’t need much equipment to make great pot: only a 16-square-foot closet, some bags of powdered bat guano for fertilizer, and his palate. After the plants flowered, he would scratch the stems or the half-developed leaves and sniff them8. Sometimes he’d get floral or fruit notes, sometimes gear oil and gasoline. One batch smelled of pine needles, cigarettes, alcohol, and cologne, a mix that transported him back to childhood Christmases in Detroit: “I’d squeeze the bud and there’s Tata in the chair, smoking his pipe. There’s Grandma making her pierogies.” He called it “Ethnic Holiday.”9
A Penn State English professor, Richard Doyle, once called attention to Short’s “scratch & sniff” technique in a paper about “a non-semiotic notion of communication as the sharing of genetic material across traditional species barriers.” Doyle quoted a passage from Short’s book, then wrote, “The transformation and combination of cannabis genetic information — that is, cannabis sex — takes place here through a veritable mixing of bodily fluids, as DJ Short and a cannabis plant momentarily but undeniably share a territory. The question of where the plant ends and DJ Short begins momentarily, but unmistakably, means nothing.”
A story he tells about his Romanian grandmother: When Short grew his first significant crop, in 1979 — about four pounds of bud — he stored the bud in glass jars and took them to his grandmother’s house in Eugene, hoping to impress her. She opened the jar with the greenest buds, smelled them, and put the jar aside, discouraged. Then she saw that Short had also brought some Thai from his dealer. She grabbed the Thai out of his hand, lunged toward the sliding door of her living room where the light was coming in, and poked her nose in the illuminated bud. “That’s what Moisu smoked,” she said — Short’s great-grandfather.
Trial and error taught him which smells boded well and which ones meant danger; a skunk smell wasn’t necessarily bad, cinnamon wasn’t necessarily good. (It was only recently that he began sending samples to The Werc Shop, a cannabis testing facility in California, which gives him data about the plants’ terpenes.) He selected the plants he liked, grew them to maturity, cured the buds, and smoked them for as long as six months before releasing them, to ensure quality. He was constantly comparing his own product to the A-grade stuff in his stash, and by 1981, he thought he’d created something special — a series of Sativa-Indica crosses that smelled of honey and berries. One was his soon-to-be-famous Blueberry, which produced “a seriously narcotic and euphoric body high.” After Blueberry came Flo, a psychedelic, motivational herb. “I still don’t understand her fully,” Short told me. “She’s a one-in-a-million plant. Very long come-on, very long high, but it’s done in seven weeks indoors. She’s bizarre. … If I smoke Flo, and there’s dirty dishes, I do the dirty dishes.” He circulated some clones, and the plants spread quickly, taking root in Oregon, California, Europe, and beyond. Today, most any strain with “blue” or “berry” in the name is either a clone or an ancestor of something that Short first nurtured in his closet in Oregon.10 Sitting on the grass with me at Hempfest, he guessed that his plants are grown in 60 countries now. “Every breath I take,” he said, “there’s someone on the planet, right now, taking a hit of something that passed through my hands. That’s a trip. I can understand how Jerry Garcia might feel.”
Short has continued to tinker with his original stock. In 2004, in a hotel room in Canada, he smoked a particularly beguiling plant in the Flo line. “You just look at the jar and say: You are special. As the minutes are going by, the seconds, you’re just like: Whoa, who are you?” He called it F-13.
As a businessman he has been markedly less successful. He used to make money almost exclusively by selling bud; he was a pot dealer, if an exalted one. Since 1995 or 1996, though, Short has mostly sold seeds, which is less risky but still illegal. For a time he provided seeds to the Canadian pot advocate and entrepreneur Marc Emery, who is now serving a five-year sentence in an American prison for selling seeds over the Internet. Now Short works mainly with companies that cater to the European market. He’s a small-time vendor and has little control over what happens to his seeds once they leave his hands. You can’t patent a cannabis seed like you can a potato seed. He told me he doesn’t mind when individuals experiment with his plants, but when people spread misinformation and try to make “too much” money from his inventions, he takes action to protect what he’s built. During our conversation in the grass at Hempfest, Short complained about competitors who were selling “improved”11 versions of his strains. He tapped on his iPad to email me links to a couple of his posts on International Cannagraphic. In the first, “Regarding the ‘Uniqueness & Originality’ of My Work,” Short stated in general terms that “My integrity means very much to me” and that his permission was required for “anyone who chooses to use my work for commercial purposes.” The second post, “On Various Unethical Opportunists,” was more specific. Also angrier:
Improved as in more potent from a strict THC perspective, which Short couldn’t care less about.
For the record: ‘DJ Short’ and ‘DJ Short’s Delta-Nine Collection’ is the sole owner of the names, descriptions, ancestral and parental breeding stock and intellectual development rights to the strains; “Blueberry,” “flo” (“Flo,” “Flow,” “Floe,” “Original Flo,” etc.), “Blue Moonshine” (“Original Blue Moonshine”), “Blue Velvet,” “Blue Heaven,” “Purple Passion,” “Blueberry Sativa” (aka “Blue Satellite”), “Blueberry Kush,” “Blueberry Kind,” “Cocoa Kush,” “Vanilluna,” “Moonshine Rocket Fuel,” “F-13,” “Grape Krush,” “Rosebud,” “Original Blueberry,” “Blueberry Bud,” “True Blueberry,” “Old Time Moonshine,” “The Cross,” “Double Cross,” etc., etc., among others, and there exists verifiable and documented proof to back these claims of ownership. Unauthorized reproduction, distribution or commercial marketing of any of these strains, in seed, clone, or ‘other’ form, or the unauthorized use of these strain names or descriptions is strictly prohibited. Violators will, eventually, be held liable to the full extent of the law.
Posting a sour letter on the Internet probably qualifies as the “full extent of the law” for Short. Suing is complicated, since he’s operating in a gray market. Besides, he told me, he’s satisfied with the living he makes. In an average year, he grosses $50,000. “I’ve always been working-class,” he said. He pays his taxes, doesn’t deduct. “It kind of sucks, because what am I doing? I’m paying [the government] to come bust me?” He mentioned in an offhand way that he’d been to jail a couple times in his teens for “stupid drug stuff.” He didn’t sound bitter about it. Cops, he said, “need healing too.”
A dude interrupted our conversation:
“Did you say you have some hash?”
He was sitting next to us on the grass with a couple of friends. He looked to be in his early twenties. His eyes were the color of a McDonald’s tomato slice. He said he could trade us some weed for a bit of hash. Short dug into his bag and used a knife to cut a flake from a dark brown nubbin and passed the flake to the guy on the edge of the knife. “That’s wax,” he said. “Pure Blueberry. Enjoy.”
“We will,” the guy said, and handed Short a small quantity of weed. “What is it?” Short asked, meaning what strain. I didn’t hear the muttered response, but Short replied, “Okay, I’m familiar with that.” He said it was a mellow strain and packed it into a bowl and lit up. We both took a hit. He exhaled.
“These kids right now, with butane,” he said, switching subjects to the current fad for “dabs,” super-concentrated pastes of hash oil made by soaking herb in butane. Light the dab with a blowtorch, inhale the vapor, get fucked up fast — a quintessential black-market high. The black market values THC at the expense of all else: complexity, mystery, longevity. Dabs are 70 to 90 percent THC. One popular strain of contemporary pot called Girl Scout Cookies is 21 percent THC. Short said, “The herbs I’m trying to replicate, which I don’t think I’ve done yet — I don’t know if I ever will — they were just head and shoulders above what we’re smoking now. Very clear-headed, no burnout to them whatsoever. They were 7 percent THC. So something else was going on.”
Short still hopes to figure it out, which is part of why he wants pot to be legal. When I asked him how his life would change if cannabis were legalized tomorrow, he answered without pause: “R&D. A small building, a small piece of land. I have some investors lined up. And then I’d start cracking seeds.” He could finally tinker with his extensive heirloom seed stock without having to look over his shoulder at competitors and the law. He could ask questions and get answers.
There’s another reason Short longs for legalization. Until now, “We’ve had to do all of this on our own,” he said. But 40 years is a long time to spend in isolation. Even Willy Wonka eventually got sick of making chocolate alone. If pot is legal, Short said, “We can do research that can be peer-reviewed by the general public.” He can let others examine his work at a level of detail well beyond what he risked in his book. He can join something like a legitimate scientific community.
Short gathered his things from the grass and stood up. I offered to buy him dinner later; he recommended a bistro downtown. Around 6, we reconnected there. He sat at one of the bistro’s dark wooden tables, ordered a glass of wine, and took off his hat and sunglasses. His eyes were cobalt blue, and his ponytail was held together in the back by two rubber bands. He wore a bracelet on his left hand inscribed with Navajo designs: rain clouds, the sun, corn, lightning, mountains (“for healing”), a broken arrow (“for peace”). There was a brace around his shoulder; he explained that he’d torn his rotator cuff recently while lifting a suitcase out of the back of his car. He put his elbows on the table and leaned forward and smiled, and suddenly DJ Short seemed like somebody’s quirky grandfather, aging and vulnerable. I asked if he was sure he wanted to do this. To be profiled. I was starting to worry about exposing him to police scrutiny, prosecution, or worse. He waved me off. “It’s a low priority,” he said. “Honestly, I’m a lot more concerned about my competition.” He said he’d decided that participating in this story was “my dharma.”
As we ate, we somehow got to talking about South Park. Short is a huge fan. He asked if I’d ever seen the three-part episode “Imaginationland,” in which Muslim terrorists invade our collective imagination while government agents in the real world prepare to attack the terrorists using a magic portal. In the finale, a button is pressed and a nuclear bomb whistles through the portal, turning everything white. “That was extremely fucking poignant,” Short said. “You know how many times I’ve been there before? As far as I’m concerned, they already pushed the button.”
After dessert, I paid the check and we walked outside and sat for a while on a park bench. Short smoked his tobacco pipe. “Put it out there, “he said. “Go for it, man. If they come after me, and the jig is up, fuck it, I don’t have to hide anymore. Here’s my story, here you go.” I didn’t detect any bravado, only the basic human desire to explain and to be understood. There are no Fresh Air interviews for pot breeders, no award dinners at the Rotary. “If my life ends right now, fuck it,” he said. “I had a good ride.”
We arranged to meet the next day at a Hempfest booth operated by Project CBD, a group promoting the development of new medicinal strains. I went back to my hotel, slept late, and returned to Hempfest a little before noon. When I stopped by the appointed booth, though, there was no sign of Short. I walked around for an hour and didn’t see him.
To kill time, I wandered into the big white tent and listened to a discussion panel called “The Business of Cannabis: Expert Advice Before You Take the Plunge.” Two of the panelists ran dispensaries in medical-marijuana states, and two were lawyers specializing in cannabis issues. Together they painted a grim picture of what it’s like to operate a transparent, above-board cannabis company: Banks won’t lend to you, neighbors complain, town officials try to zone you into oblivion, the IRS contests your deductions. And at any moment, the DEA could come smashing through the door.
My phone beeped with a text: “Behind you.”
I spun and there he was, alone at a table in the back of the tent, wearing a safari-tan shirt, legs crossed. His hat shielded his face, and sunglasses covered his eyes. He had slipped back into quasi-stealth mode. I remembered something he’d told me on the phone the first time we spoke: “The nature of this plant, she can’t be controlled. If she’s taught us anything, it’s that. She knows how to survive underground. It’s not that big a shift for us to go back to that modus operandi.”
He suggested we head over to the Project CBD booth. I followed him there, and we slumped into a couple of folding chairs behind a table piled with a stack of O’Shaughnessey’s, a newsprint journal of cannabis research. A few minutes later, a young guy stepped up to the table. He had a black shirt, slick black hair, and black jeans. He saw the O’Shaughnessey’s and started talking excitedly about the latest scientific papers by Raphael Mechoulam, a pioneering Israeli researcher. He didn’t seem to know who Short was.
“Daniel Short,” Short said, extending his hand.
“Daniel … Oh.” The young guy took a step backward, then doubled over. He almost giggled. “DJ Short. It’s an honor.” He bowed at Short, then straightened. He pointed to the skin on his left hand. “Goosebumps.”
Short glanced at me, then back at the guy. He didn’t smile or frown. “I’m just happy to be here,” he said.
Jason Fagone (@jfagone) is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of Ingenious, a book about inventors and cars, which will be out in November.