Sensi Seeds had the honour of holding an interview with Robert Connell Clarke - one of the world’s leading experts on the cannabis plant, and author of several highly respected books on the subject. His most recent, co-authored with Mike D. Merlin, is ‘Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany’. This book is the result of over 17 years of research.
Sensi Seeds had the honour of holding an interview with Robert Connell Clarke – one of the world’s leading experts on the cannabis plant, and author of several highly respected books on the subject. His most recent, co-authored with Mark D. Merlin, is ‘Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany’. This book, the result of over 17 years of research, redefines many of the common classifications of cannabis and is already sparking new debates within the community.
Welcome Robert. Can you please briefly introduce yourself to those who don’t know you?
“Greetings, everyone. I am a 60 year old ethnobotanist. Ethnobotany is the study of the interrelations between plants and peoples, and cannabis makes an excellent plant to study in that regard; long history, many uses, and many impacts on our cultures. I also collect textiles; I’ve worked as a plant breeder; and I’m a historian, in a way, as well.”
Do you only study the cannabis plant, or plants in general?
“Cannabis plants. Cannabis is an awfully broad subject, as you can see from our new book; it’s 365,000 words –1000 words a day, every day, for a year – but it’s an immense subject, so it’s enough to keep me busy, certainly.”
Where do most people know you from?
“From my previous books, ‘Marijuana Botany’, ‘Hashish!’, and ‘Hemp Diseases and Pests’ which I co-authored with David Watson and John McPartland. My latest book, ‘Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany’ is the second one I’ve written with a co-author. This time with Mark Merlin, a geographer, botanist and also an ethnobotanist. We belong to The Society for Economic Botany, many of whose members study the ethnobotanical relationships between humans and plants. We met in London during a society meeting, seventeen years ago, and that’s when we started this project.”
Wow, that is a long-reaching project.
“If we knew it was going to take so long, we never would have started!”
What is your relationship to Sensi Seeds, and Ben Dronkers?
“Oh, I’ve known Ben for a long time. We have a very common interest! I met Ben 25 years ago. I believe the first time I saw him, he was holding a cannabis plant in a pot which he was putting into a van. Its life was shortly going to be threatened by outside forces. We had gone to meet him that day, and found him in the act of shuffling plants from A to B. I gave him a hand, and that was that.”
And you’ve been friends ever since?
“Indeed. And what really brought us closer, besides wanting to educate people about cannabis, is the collecting of things. Ben is a fanatical collector. I’m just a junior fanatical collector.”
You both collect hemp materials, I believe you especially collect hemp textiles?
“Yes. Ben is very general in collecting things from the culture on all levels. I especially collect textiles, mostly from one area, but it’s extensive. It ranges from western Nepal all the way across the Himalayan foothills through Bhutan and Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh; the very north east of India. Then through northern Burma, Thailand and Laos into south-west China, primarily Yunnan province. Some things from Japan and Korea as well.”
What inspired you to start the collection?
“Nobody else was doing it so I kind of stumbled on it. The very first pieces I saw were at one of the first Cannabis Cups, and they were Hmong hemp skirts, indigo batik skirts with a spiral pattern, blue and white, pleated. Coincidentally I travelled to south west China the next year, and I saw them there.”
What is your favourite piece in your own collection?
“I never thought about this until now [laughs]. One of the ones I like the best is in the Amsterdam Hemp Gallery, it’s from China, from the Yi people. It’s a cape and skirt. I really like that one, it has nice natural colours, the wool embroidery is nice colours, and the hemp is rough, it’s heavy, but it’s really well woven.”
“We have to remember that everything we know is wrong.”
Would you say that one of your principles as a scientist, is that everything we know is wrong?
“That’s what science is about. Science itself is an evolutionary act, you learn something and then you base the next realizations on top of that, and if it isn’t changing, well then we’re just not looking hard enough. It should be changing.
“In ‘Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany’ we‘ve come up with a whole new system for looking at the taxonomy and organization of the different varieties of cannabis… turning it all on its head. Sorry! And it really is an apology from the heart, because I brought you, with other colleagues, the system that we presently use. And hey, it’s wrong. So now it’s time to think of something that makes more sense. We present one hypothesis here. Somebody will probably prove this wrong. I hope they do before I’m gone, because that will be a really fun debate!”
How are people reacting to that so far?
“So far they’re not taking it very well. People don’t like re-learning things. Of course, what audience have I tested? The audience at the High Times Cannabis Cup was my first, but I expect internet commentary about it soon; I imagine people will be like: “Woah, Clarke’s done it again. He’s gone and changed his mind”. But it makes a lot more sense. If people read it and try to see the context, they’ll see the reason for making a new decision.”
So you were studying science?
“Yeah, I have a Bachelor’s Degree in biology. The real incentive for writing my very first book was, basically, so I could graduate. It’s called ‘The Botany and Ecology of Cannabis’. It was self-published in 1977 – I know, I don’t look that old. I’d been there long enough, and I did have to graduate, plus I was getting to be very well versed in the subject… so I went to the library, and the first thing I found was Mark D. Merlin’s ‘Man and Marijuana’, written for his Master’s dissertation at UC Santa Barbara four years before. I used him as a precedent – hey, if he can do this, I can do this – so I wrote it and ended up publishing it, and that led to the subsequent books like ‘Marijuana Botany’.”
How did your university react to you writing a book on cannabis?
“They thought it was fine. Santa Cruz was an alternative learning university. Which turned out to be really good. I’ve never looked back, I love my career.”
“I’ve never looked back, I love my career.”
How was the atmosphere around cannabis when you were growing up?
“I grew up near Mexico, so it was certainly around. One of my babysitters was arrested for marijuana when I was a kid, and my parents were character witnesses for him. But my parents were dead set against any of this, they never tried it, even after I published all these books. They were die-hard straight people… I came from a very straight background.”
How did they react?
“They were both really proud of what I’ve done, in the longer run of things. My father once told me: ‘Do what you like, because you’ll do it well’. I followed his advice, he just wished I would have liked something else, and done it well. They worried about their kid, you know.”
What was your first experience of Amsterdam, 25 years ago?
“I moved here not long after I first visited, around the same time I met Ben. I thought it was fun and quite fascinating. Dutch culture was really different. I liked the tolerance, that was incredible to me. I used to go home and people would say: “Oh they’re really loose in the Netherlands, they’re really liberal”, and I would say “No, no, no. They’re not. They’re really conservative, it’s like southern California. They’re like our parents, only just more practical. Tolerance is a part of being pragmatic and practical, so that’s the way they do it. And they’re more about people, they have sociologists who study the people, and they don’t want to stigmatize people by making their normal habits illegal”. It was real neat to be able to explain all this.”
And how do you see that compared to today?
“Now I look at the Netherlands and say “oh, I’m glad there’s California”. Things change, but boy, it’s conservative here these days to the point where tolerance has gone out of the window. That’s strange to me on all levels. You don’t really need dogshit all over the streets and people doing heroin in broad daylight; 25 years ago, you had plenty of both. It was not a good public face. That’s all gone. But if that’s what it took to be tolerant about things in general, bring it back!
“Tolerance has gone out of the window”
“I’m a legal resident of the Netherlands. I see the whole world getting more conservative now, so I don’t see any reason the Netherlands should particularly change either. I don’t see any loosening up of things at the moment.”
What is your opinion on the developments in America?
“America told the entire world that marijuana’s really bad and most people went ‘yeah, right’. The US finally badgered Colombia and all these other countries that were primary producers into changing, and blamed it all on them. Now, in the last ten years, America’s gone back the other way. So we have no credibility any more worldwide, which is fine with me. We never should have bothered them anyway.
“America’s in cannabis chaos at the moment. The government ignored what was going on, and it snuck up behind them and bit them. Now you’ve got over 20 states that have approved medicinal, two states with recreational; it’s almost half the country, population wise. So it’s a done deal. The question is, how fast? The federal government is not going to give up easily. That’s what people forget. People in America now think that [the Government] has been beaten, but they are restructuring their next approach.”
It seems to those watching in the Netherlands that the US federal government has pretty much said that they will leave individual states alone. But you think they’re preparing their next step?
“I think that they’re not going to lie down easily. For example, the federal government busted people in Colorado a couple of weeks ago. They sound like pretty unsavoury characters. They’re not the kind of people who attend the Cannabis Cup. They’re in it strictly for the money, they’re the criminal side coming to cannabis rather than cannabis aficionados being stigmatised as criminals. These are the gun-toters, the speed freaks. They get this kind of people to achieve two things. One, a body count, they’re busting people. Two, they get to say to the public: “look what cannabis growers are like”. So they’ve gotten tricky there.”
Basically they’re keeping the bad image, the stigma, alive?
“Yes, they don’t want everybody to know that it’s basically a bunch of compassionate young people that are really cool. Not everyone from the cannabis side has heart and soul, they fight with each other over businesses all the time, but they’re still coming from the same place, pretty much. The opportunists have really jumped into the cannabis world in America.”
“The opportunists have really jumped into the cannabis world in America.”
What part of America do you think is leading?
“I think everyone in America is looking at Colorado. If it works for them, then other states are going to go ‘Fine!’ What they don’t want to do is be like California. California didn’t control anything, it’s the Wild West. Many more opportunists are going in there, it’s wide open; it varies by county rather than by a coherent state policy. There are still many jurisdictions where you cannot grow medical cannabis although the state says you can, because the county says you can’t. It’s a mess.
“I think people are not quite so leery as they should be of the American federal government. But change is coming. We just have to remember that the government needs something to make them feel better. Money! Tax it and let them use that money for drug education. If soft drugs are supporting it, why not use it to educate about hard drugs and drug use in general? Good social mores?”
Let’s talk more about ‘Cannabis – Evolution and Ethnobotany’. What were some of your most remarkable discoveries while writing it?
“Learning more about the evolutionary interrelationships between the different groups of cannabis. That was very satisfying to me because that’s the kind of thing I’ve studied for years. But probably the most interesting thing was realizing the entire Eurasian ritual use of cannabis, mostly for life-cycle ceremonies, at birthings, weddings, funerals particularly, and healing. These rituals are quite similar all the way from England to Japan, and really ancient. That commonality is the thing that fascinated me most… it’s nearly the longest chapter in the book, if not the longest.”
Which aspect of the cannabis plant fascinates you the most?
“There are many plants that are psychoactive. But this one requires no processing other than drying and heating it. It’s direct instant gratification, not having to grow something and then ferment it. That’s the unique thing about it, I guess, so that’s the most fascinating.
“That’s not really what turns my crank so much these days though, it’s finding these old hemp cultures and finding out the things they were doing for hundreds of years, before it’s too late. And then writing it down so that other people can realise that this was happening.”
That sounds like another interesting book. But first, back to ‘Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany’. Why should people buy and read the book?
“I would suggest this book to people who really have a deep interest in cannabis. I mean, it’s got some nice pictures in it, but that will do you for about an hour. It’s a great gift for a cannabis aficionado, because there is no book with more information about the cannabis plant. And it is well researched; we may have left a few things out, but I don’t believe we’ve conveyed any misinformation. That’s its main strength. It’s up to date until we come up with other ideas. It’s a reference book.
“There is no book with more information about the cannabis plant”
“You don’t have to read it all – if you want to know about seeds, or about fibre history, you can just go to that. We’ve also tried to introduce all the scientific terminology in each chapter, so that the scientific words are defined each time they first appear. And there are over 700 citations, so if you want to go beyond what we talk about and look at the original citations, they’re there.”
What’s the main thing keeping you busy at the moment?
“I’m really happy that this book is finished because it was incredibly time-consuming, especially towards the end of finishing it. I’ve recently been enjoying the Cup, just relaxing. There’s some book promoting to do. Promotion’s valuable to us because we want to get the word out.
What are your plans for the future?
“I want to finish two more books. I want to write about the hemp collection; it’s from at least 15 distinctly different cultures. They all neighbour each other, but they have different languages, different histories, different textiles. It will be a pretty comprehensive book. But first I’m doing one on hemp rugs from Turkey, although I just started it quite recently; I’ll do some more field research in Turkey and then I‘ll write it.”
Sensi Seeds is looking forward to both these upcoming works. Thank you Robert Connell Clarke for this very interesting interview!