It’s close to midday a little south of the 110 freeway in Los Angeles and master grower of Source Cannabis, Ali, is taking a moment to center himself before he speaks. We’re in the office loft of the New Age Care Center dispensary on MLK Boulevard at a conference table and he’s dealing with the myriad of tasks typical of people seated at conference tables. “There’s always high-level stuff I couldn’t possibly imagine coming up,” he explains before typing up some message or mental note on his phone. He’s not flustered, just aware. He also wants to be present for the talk we’re going to have about how he started in cannabis, fell in love with the meditative practice of cultivation and why no matter what baked good you try to emulate with weed, gas is still king.
Marijuana grower interview: Ali
Ali takes a very holistic, almost spiritual, approach to growing marijuana. His love for the plant and its possibilities is evident. It informs his methods and has led to a stable of vibrant, clean and powerful strains in their lineup. Source Cannabis has become a rising force in Los Angeles’ craft cannabis market, largely due to Ali’s care and attention. Over the course of our half-hour together, he hints at elements of this growing process. Obviously, he doesn’t give specifics, but that doesn’t matter because whatever vagueness drowned out by the passion he shares with you in conversation and his grasp of the plant’s subtleties. Quotes like “You have to know the strain you like, from the garden you like, from the grower you like to get the full subjective experience of cannabis,” challenge the simple notions of average smokers like me and open you up to expanding your view of the green we all love to smoke.
We’re stoked on this marijuana grower interview because Ali’s the real deal. Check out his history, approach and favourite strains below and let us know what you think.
So you’re from California?
Yes, I’m from California. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I lived there pretty much my whole life until my mid-thirties. At the time, in Oakland, the cannabis culture was very strong and I was a heavy user at the time. I’m still a user but very heavy fifteen or twenty years ago. I wanted to take a stab at home growing. Over the years it became a passion and I developed a Midas Touch for it. Almost seven years ago I moved down to Los Angeles to do this more commercially on a larger scale.
What prompted you to start growing after presumably smoking cannabis for a while?
Yeah, I had been using it a while and I started to adopt this philosophy that organically-grown food that’s been well tended to produce more flavorful and nutritious products. Fruits, vegetables, even meats. So at some point in my mid-twenties, I switched to an all organic diet and I love to cook and eat. The same philosophy applied to my cannabis consumption, I wanted to use well-grown craft cannabis that was grown in soil, with all natural pesticides and fertilizers, and tended to by a grower who cared for his or her crop. I knew that person. I went to high school with him and was buying a lot of product at the time. One day I’m with him and we’re smoking a joint together when he tells me he really likes my perspective on food and life and he felt guilty that I spent so much money with him each month. Then he goes, “I’ve never taken anyone up on their offer, but how would you like me to teach you to grow?” I thought about it, I got over the discomfort with it. It was such a small amount for personal use that there were no legal worries and it was relatively inexpensive to set up so I gave it a try. He helped me set up the garden, taught me his method and brought in some plants to jump start it. He fell out of my life shortly after that so I had a lot of ground to make up myself and learn the system of growing craft cannabis in soil with the best products. You’re ingesting the product, so you want it to be clean and as healthy as possible.
How did things progress from there?
I got better and more adept so I started to scale up the garden. Just a little bit though. That left me with some extra product that I began shopping around to medical dispensaries in the area. The feedback from owners and heads of procurement was, “This is some of the best cannabis we see. It sells out quickly. We could take more and think you’re gifted at this trade and you should do it professionally.” Growing the plant was gradual. It started as a hobby and then slowly became my main source of income.
Did you have gardening experience before that?
Not really. There would be extra soil left after the harvest and I felt bad just disposing of it. So my roommate and I built raised garden beds, dumped all the soil in there and I started growing food crops. Lettuces, tomatoes, whatever would grow in the Bay Area’s muggy, low sunlight climate. I grow flowers now at my home too. I don’t get to grow my own plants at this large capacity now—I have wonderful growers doing that—but I do have a green thumb and love working with plants. It’s a very zen thing for me. Plants are a still life form, they’re not like a dog running around, so it’s meditative for me.
When did you first experience that zen feeling tending to plants?
Probably from the very beginning. The very first set of clones I purchased and plants I planted. Especially in the indoor grows. I used to call indoor grows the UFO, it’s like stepping into a different world. There might be music but it’s windowless, the lighting is different, you feel like you’ve entered a separate domain. There’s this sense of still and calmness, almost like a sacred space, that started to surround the plants for me.
Were you drawn to a particular kind of cannabis when you started growing or was it “let’s try everything I can”?
Sure there was some of that experimental mentality. Being from the Bay initially, it was strains that turned purple. At that time, Grandaddy Purple, Purple Urkle and Purple Kush were huge, especially the latter two. They were considered exotic, high end and they were whats considered “elite” strains, which means it was only available in a clone, not a seed. So I gravitated towards the purple cause I’d never seen anything like that. The buds were a deep purple and the trichomes were white silverish shiny crystals. It looked spectacular. As the years went own I gravitated to growing OGs. One because they had the most market value about a decade ago. If you had a nice bag of OG you could shop it to any dispensary. I started liking smoking them and today they’re still my favourite class of strains to smoke. Then I fell in love with growing them because they’re difficult. If the lighting or regimen or feeling is off, the OGs tend to get stressed out and lose their look and quality.
What motivated you to come to Los Angeles?
On a personal level, I’d always liked L.A. It’s sunnier, pretty, more nightlife you know? Since I’ve moved here San Francisco has grown into a hotspot too. I wanted a change of scene but stay in California. As beautiful as the Bay Area is, any place becomes familiar after a certain amount of time being there. I wanted access to more beaches too.
Professionally, I’d been doing business with a dispensary group here in Los Angeles when I moved. The group had several medical shops at the time and what was considered a big grow for that era—it’s no longer considered a big grow. Dispensaries were vertically integrated into L.A. so they could grow their own crops legally. I moved to take part in that and linked up with that group. They offered a job as their master grower and I took it. I wanted to get out of the homegrown model and move into the warehouse model, separate from my home.
Did you always realize you had the potential to grow cannabis at this level?
Oh yeah. I believed craft cannabis could be scaled up at a time when my peers didn’t accept that perspective. I always believed I could do it. I just needed more space and materials. And some hands to help.
Is there a most important element in growing cannabis? Or is that question even valid?
There isn’t one element, but several important aspects. You need the right space, genetics, climate, nutrient and pesticide program that you as a grower believe in and, on this scale to do it right, you need the right staff. Whatever your support team is you need them.
What’s your favourite plant you’ve grown if you have one?
For me, I like smoking the Louis OG we have. For the masses, the Quest is our flagship by leaps and bounds. Nothing comes close to touching it. People love it. I don’t smoke too much of it but I love growing it for our customers. The feedback is great and the sales are amazing. It’s great for the consumer and the grower because it’s not finicky. It’s pretty straightforward, a hardy strain. You don’t need high-level master growers tending on the Quest, whereas the OG takes time to learn to cultivate.
We’ve played with that Quest strain and given some plants a special treatment that might change the cannabinoid profile. The formula we were playing around with removes some of the grogginess, tiredness, paranoia, anxiety—some features that might come with cannabis high—and increases the euphoric climbing sensation.
I’ve noticed a don’t really cough smoking Source Cannabis, why is that?
Yes, so we flush our cannabis thoroughly. These nutrients produce a lot of salts and sugars which build up around the root of the plant. Some growers don’t take sufficient time to flush it out with water at the end of harvest. You really need to do that in order to maximize the taste of the original genetic. Now there are growers who add sugars, molasses, corn syrup, or whatever to increase the stickiness and size, but it impacts the flavour in a way that I don’t personally like as a cannabis purist. I take up to three weeks to flush the plants. One of the side effects is that the smoke is less harsh. If you smoke one of the Tower Pre-Rolls we have, the smoke is “cool”. It doesn’t burn your throat on the way down. That’s a connoisseur feature, one of the tells that you’re dealing with high-quality cannabis. I still call it harshness but, you know, some of my vocabularies is like twenty years old at this point (laughs). It could be the sugars or the plant had pesticides too close to the harvest date and left a residue.
We’re just at the cusp of what we know about cannabinoids and how they interplay to affect health and the “high” experience. What’s some of the latest information you can pass along with respect to that?
I’m not very knowledgeable in that area. For me, cannabis is still a subjective experience. I’ll give you an example. I’m a lover of red wine and just started drinking it a few years back. Before that, it gave me a stomach ache or made me tired. It suddenly changed and now I love it. It’s subjective, right? I could sit here all day and talk about tannins and regions and barrels and grape varietals, but in the end, it’s your subjective experience. It also depends on what you’re going through. If I’m tired or hungry or irritable, I know now that I shouldn’t take a hit of Quest, for example. It’s got 30% THC in it. It’s gonna exaggerate those feelings and make it worse. In the end, I just judge a strain based on my experience of it. Also, cannabis gets stronger weeks after the harvest. So for me, I like to smoke it before it’s fully cured, I like the cannabis a little weaker. I don’t want the derailing, super strong cannabis high. I like younger pot and experiencing each strain on its own. Some cannabis can definitely do that, cannabis we grow can do that. It’s great when you don’t have anything to do or on a day off. I’m in an executive level position now so I can’t afford to be knocked out of my mind high. I’d love to be, but I can’t. That doesn’t really answer your question, but it’s how I approach it.
I will say that whatever terpene is responsible for the gassy smell, I can’t remember right now, that’s my favourite. I love the dessert strains that are really popular and we’re growing them to be released this year, the Gelatos and Wedding Cake and all that, but I always go back to the gas.