Because he’s a scientist, not a back-slapping venture capitalist, Mowgli Holmes loathes using the term networking to describe even the portion of his job that entails shaking hands in the cannabis industry. But it was networking that brought the chief scientific officer of Phylos Bioscience in Portland, Oregon, to Las Vegas in November 2014 to attend the Marijuana Business Conference and Expo—and to smoke a massive joint with one of the cannabis movement’s legends, Ohio lawyer Don Wirtshafter.Holmes had it on good information that Wirtshafter was sitting on a collection of hundreds of very old apothecary bottles filled with antique cannabis tinctures—relics from before marijuana prohibition came along in 1937, courtesy of the weed-criminalizing Marihuana Tax Act.
Holmes, a 43-year-old geneticist with a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from Columbia University, desperately wanted those bottles—at least what viable strands of DNA might lie inside of them—for a project that has become his life’s work: an ambitious effort to sequence the DNA of every different kind of cannabis in the world.
It’s a quest that could change almost everything we know about marijuana. At this point, most cannabis is produced in the dark, then sold to recreational consumers and medical patients with catchy labels that are nearly always misleading. When Holmes completes his mission, he’ll be able to take any sample of pot DNA and compare it with the most robust database of cannabis strains ever assembled, bringing unprecedented clarity to the marijuana market, from the grow to the dispensary. Try Newsweek for only $1.25 per week First, though, Holmes needed to do a little more networking. And in the cannabis industry, that can sometimes mean getting very high.
Wirtshafter wanted to know the scientist wasn’t a Monsanto in sheep’s clothing. When the two met in the lobby of the Rio Casino, Wirtshafter had already heard of Holmes and his project. Still, the best way to prove yourself in the marijuana world is age-old and simple—you burn one. So on the last day of the conference, Holmes found himself and his business partner, Nishan Karassik, in Wirtshafter’s hotel room, burnishing their street cred with childhood tales from the hippie mecca that is the Oregon Country Fair and puffing on an enormous joint. Seven weeks later, Holmes packed his lab coat and tweezers, then caught a flight to Columbus, Ohio.Political ExterminationHolmes grew up in Eugene, a small city in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, home to conservative types descended from logging families and ultra-liberals who drape “Free Tibet” rainbow flags on their porches and wear tie-dyed T-shirts to the Saturday market. Holmes went to Vassar College, majored in philosophy and then moved back to Oregon to play the drums in several rock bands in Portland.
After five years of that, he headed to New York once more to study microbiology at Columbia University.In graduate school, his focus was on viruses, specifically HIV research. But when he returned again to Oregon, which in 2013 was a year away from becoming the nation’s fourth state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, he found a new career path staring straight at him: cannabis genomics. “There’s a whole new industry exploding all around it,” he says. Plus, “in every other academic field, you have to find the tiniest little corner of the world to study. It’s almost impossible to find something nobody else has done, and immediately someone is competing with you. Here, we have an entire organism that there’s basically no body of knowledge on…. This doesn’t happen in science, where you have a plant like this that’s been cordoned off from research.”
It was a risk to link his career to the study of marijuana, even with weed legal in Colorado and Washington. Would he still be taken seriously as a scientist, or would he be forever pigeonholed in pot? Plus, there were major roadblocks: Because cannabis is illegal at the federal level, the only way to legally research it is to use cannabis grown by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Mississippi. That pot is “notoriously crappy,” Holmes says, and useless to his project. Researchers are also required to get approval from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration. Federally funded universities are reticent to allow laboratories they host to have anything to do with cannabis.Holmes’s lab and its 10 full-time employees are housed by Oregon Health and Science University, which does rely on federal funding. But he and Karassik, who have been friends since they were 4 years old, have found a clever way to avoid legal trouble: They don’t handle marijuana itself, just its DNA. As for his reputation, Holmes says, “people don’t even giggle anymore,” he says. “They just go, ‘Tell me about the financials.’”
The samples come from all over the world, via often fascinating treasure hunts conducted largely by word-of-mouth research. There are two or three other labs working on cannabis genome projects, but none have collected nearly as many specimens as Phylos, and most of their samples come from marijuana dispensaries, not from original landraces, Holmes says. He has collected nearly 2,000 specimens so far and entered 1,500 of them into a software program that organizes the DNA into clusters, outputting a visual representation that looks like a constellation of stars. Each dot represents a strain, and the distances and lines between the dots show how they’re related to one another.