Interview with Cannabis Cultivator and Chemist Edward Rupert
Unlike most cannabis growers, Ed Rupert, creator of the renowned Flying Dutchman hybrid strain, isn't looking for high numbers; he's looking for accurate ones.
Despite having worked in the marijuana industry decades before it was fashionable (or partially domestically legal), you would be hard pressed to find an individual more antithetical to the old-school stoner stereotype than California chemist Edward Rupert.
Rupert is a marijuana grower by trade, but his chemistry degree and extensive background in toxicology and medical research make him a de facto pharmacologist by intent, if not by title. Rupert's aim, as he describes it, is to apply bare objective science and medical-grade analysis to the cultivation of cannabis. To that end, he forgoes 'pop-weed' publications in favor of textbooks on plant physiology; similarly, his medical marijuana laboratory sacrifices high annual yields for the sake of only ten pounds of cannabis - high quality, pharmaceutical grade, THC-saturated medical cannabis.Potent spoke to Rupert about his marijuana cultivation lab, his Flying Dutchman hybrid (with a THC concentration of 30.74 percent, it's one of the most potent strains in the world), and his relentless adherence to the numbers.
Potent: What first sparked your interest in medicinal plants and, eventually, cannabis?
Edward Rupert: My parents were both medical professionals. My father was a dentist, and my mother was a registered nurse. So I was raised in a medical/scientific home where pharmacology and scientific related subjects were discussed frequently, and I was encouraged to study these subjects outside of school.
My first recollection of making the connection between pharmacology and pharmacognosy, the study of therapeutic agents derived from natural sources, was when I noticed a bottle of pills my grandmother was taking. I was maybe 12 or 13 years old at the time. I noticed the name of the medication was Digitalis. I asked my mother what this medication was for, and she handed me her PDR (Physician's Desk Reference) and said, “Look it up. That way you will remember it.” I did, and realized it was a cardiac medication. I wanted to know more about it, so I did what we used to do before Google. I looked it up in our volumes of World Book Encyclopedia. This is when I learned that this drug is a synthetic derivative of digitoxin, which comes from the Fox Glove plant. I found this fascinating; a plant could produce a medication.
Of course, as I continued reading I became curious as to whether other drugs originated in this way, and to my surprise I found that most medications were not just derived from plants, but were also derived from animals, molds and fungi. The Poppy gave us opiates, the Deadly Nightshade gave us atropine, Tobacco produced nicotine, and the West African Calabar bean produces physostigmine, but insulin was first discovered in the dog's pancreas, estrogens are still derived from equine fetal tissue, and cyclosporine A (which revolutionized organ transplantation) is derived from a fungus in soil. So pharmacognosy is actually much more than just drugs derived from plants. It includes all drugs derived from nature, and it is the basis of all of our pharmacology today.
My interest in cannabis as a therapeutic agent began in college. As a freshman I was asked to participate in an attempt to synthesize a new cannabinoid based upon the molecular structure of Nabilone, another synthetic cannabinoid that has adverse cardiac effects in some cases. The idea was to modify the molecule to keep the therapeutic effect while minimizing the adverse side-effect. Unfortunately our project was denied funding, as the war on drugs was crippling such research, but it opened my eyes to the possibilities of cannabis being more than just a treatment for glaucoma, the only known therapeutic effect at the time. It was at this time that I decided to learn how to cultivate the plant indoors so that no one would ever be able to deny me the right to smoke it, or to study it.
What's the focus of your medical marijuana cooperative? Is it a research lab, growing facility, patient treatment center, or some combination of the three?
Pharmacognosy Services of San Diego is a full service, private membership, medical cooperative that operates under Proposition 215. I receive referrals from physicians, pharmacists, and active members of the medical marijuana legalization movement. PSSD is involved in propagation of new strains, cultivation, distribution, and basic horticultural research. I also have long range plans for a clinical study involving the use of Cannabis in the treatment of symptoms of MS. I am also interested in partnering with a cardiologist to investigate the use of THC to reduce reperfusion injury post infarction, for which there is already a significant amount of research to suggest its effectiveness. There are currently no medications available that reduce reperfusion injury to the heart after angioplasty, and this accounts for almost half the scar tissue that results from a myocardial infarction after angioplasty and stenting.
PSSD primarily focuses on patients suffering from very serious medical conditions such as cancer, and neuromuscular disorders. We lost four of our members this last year, and three of them to cancer. Our members who are in hospice, or who have less than six months to live, receive their medication at no charge. Our tiered system has patients with less severe diseases subsidizing those who are dying, or disabled.
Finally, and most importantly, PSSD does not support the use of medical cannabis for diseases for which there is not published research which provides empirical evidence of its effectiveness. It is not a cure-all, and while we do provide it for patients undergoing the ravages of cancer chemotherapy, and cachexia related to the disease, we do not in any way suggest it is effective in treating the underlying disease. It is not.
Do you personally use cannabis and, if so, what is your favorite strain and why?
Yes I do. My favorite strain is my own, Flying Dutchman. I rarely smoke other products, and I have a glass jar at home with about a dozen buds wrapped in aluminum foil that other growers have given me to get my opinion, and I feel bad that I haven't been able to get around to them, but I really do prefer my own. There is an Afghani Kush out there that is pretty good, and pre-98 Bubba Kush was a fun and easy plant to grow, with a very sweet aroma and taste that I liked. The Afghani Kush produced a 27 percent THC flower. Some of those genes are now in the Flying Dutchman 3.8 (3rd breeding, 8th sequential cloning).
Do you get to name strains/hybrids that your lab creates? What are some of your favorite names?
The problem with these strain names is that they are virtually worthless. If I would go to three different cloners and ask each one to give me a particular strain, I would most likely end up with three completely different, genetically unrelated strains. This has actually happened to me, and morphologically it was obvious to me that these were not the same strain, so I no longer bother with names. A strain I am interested in will be sent to an analytical laboratory for a seven, or eight cannabinoid profile by LCMSMS, and this is the information I use to classify and document a strain. I have heard of others using the name I choose for my product. PSSD only produces about 10 pounds annually, and the name is always followed by a breeding and sequence number, as well as our logo, and each portion distributed is accompanied by a laboratory certificate of analysis.
What constitutes ‘pharmaceutical grade’ cannabis? How are their medicinal effects different from that of run-of-the-mill (i.e. dealer or dispensary) product?
Pharmaceutical grade refers to the laboratory conditions, protocols, documentation, aseptic and sterile conditions utilized for various protocols, and our quality control program. Just to give a few examples, our main laboratory is under positive pressure. Incoming ventilation is filtered as is the outflow. Laboratory coats, exam gloves, booties, and hair nets are required attire to enter the main laboratory, and only my trained staff is allowed to enter the laboratory. We do every protocol exactly as described in our standard operating procedure manual. We have a daily collection of data that is entered into our laboratory notebook, and raw data is entered into our computer in a spreadsheet for statistical analysis. We keep records on everything, from daily temperature and humidity readings to watering and feedings, wet weights and dry weights of each individual plant at harvest, and our quality control samples are sent out to Anresco Laboratories in San Francisco for analysis by a PhD chemist using an LCMSMS. As a chemist myself, with a decade running a toxicology laboratory doing GCMS (gas chromatography–mass spectrometry), I am very aware of all the illegitimate labs that are not run by a chemist. These laboratories produce imprecise and frequently incorrect results, but because the labs are inclined to give the cultivator high numbers, they stay in business. I am not looking for high numbers. I'm looking for accurate numbers.
Dispensaries are money making machines. They talk a lot and say nothing. The names they put on the products are meaningless, and the numbers they put on their products are completely made up nonsense. They are just dealers pretending to be pharmacists. I used to be a vendor, so I've seen these businesses from the inside. They will sell you a crappy, insect infested, moldy weed, grown outdoors for top dollar. I would trust a dealer more. Are they all this way? Probably not, but 80 percent are just in it for the money, and the prices they charge are obscene. Give my strain to a dispensary and they would charge double what I do. I have nothing nice to say about them. Their scummy ways are going to lead to government regulation because they can not be trusted. Patients need to learn to demand a certificate of analysis from a reputable analytical laboratory, run by a PhD chemist, and that uses mass spectral analysis. Without this you have no idea what you are getting.
What is your critique of ‘pop weed’ publications and writers?
This is a mixed bag. Some authors like Rosenthal and Cervantes provide valuable information, but inevitably it is co-mingled with pseudoscience and in some cases incorrect information. My biggest criticism is the degree to which they overcomplicate the process, making it seem to the novice that this is a complicated thing requiring expensive equipment and lots of chemicals. It isn't. I get a chuckle every time I read an article on hydroponic growing. I suppose if you are planning on growing weed on Mars it might be necessary. The truly important information, like how to properly leach a plant, is almost never covered in such a way as to make it understandable to a novice. I took on a 21 year old apprentice about a year ago. The first thing I told him was to not read any books by pop-weed authors and to not view any of the nonsense on YouTube. I don't want to have to spend my time un-teaching bad horticultural techniques and pseudoscience.
The big secret is that cannabis cultivation is simple and easy, and you can purchase 90 percent of what you will need at Home Depot. Learning good, basic cloning technique, how to effectively transplant, when and how to leach a plant, and what constitutes adequate nutrition is more important than buying $1000 worth of chemicals to kill your plants with. The Flying Dutchman lineage includes FD1 that was analyzed at 29 percent in 2013, FD2 analyzed at 27 percent in 2016, and now FD3 analyzed at 31 percent in February of 2017. With the exception of only one product, all my potting media, and fertilizers were purchased at Home Depot. This is a very simple, minimalistic approach that relies on good gardening fundamentals your grandmother could probable teach you. Pop-weed authors seem to be preparing you to grow on another planet, and they emphasize products and chemicals without adequately teaching you some very fundamental things that are in actuality the most important things a novice grower needs to know.
Then there are the exaggerations and absurdities that after 30 years in the business I have grown tired of, and they creep into these books like a fungus. I think this discourages the young, novice cultivator who may be prone to believe this BS. I can't count the times I see a guy standing next to a nice 6 ounce outdoor plant claiming it is two pounds of weed, or the beautiful purple flower, highlighted as the ideal flower, that clearly is suffering from a phosphorus deficiency. These books are loaded with photographs, but of flowers, grow rooms, and exotic equipment, but I have never seen a photograph of a guy working under a plant up on leaching rails collecting the effluent during leaching to measure dissolved solids and pH. I've never seen a photograph of someone cutting clones submerged to prevent an air embolism, and I have yet to see a photograph of someone doing a proper transplant. It is the boring, mundane, uninteresting things that don't photograph well, or as impressively as a well developed flower, that are missing, and frequently just brushed over. There is of course some very valuable information, but it is buried under a heap of extraneous material, so that an experienced cultivator can fish out the meaningful material, while the novice will be confused and left with the impression that expensive, high tech equipment, and lots of chemicals in brightly colored packages are the key to success.
I have considered expanding upon our standard operating procedure manual, adding some illustrations and photographs, and looking for a publisher. It would not be half as interesting as looking at the photographs of all that expensive, space age technology, grow rooms and flowers, but it would instruct a novice in all the boring, mundane things involved in my minimalistic approach to cannabis cultivation, and I would give them realistic expectations. It probably would not sell.
What is unique about your Flying Dutchmen strain?
A number of things: first would be the name. Half of the genetics for this strain originates in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and it was first acclimated in Lancaster county, P.A. in 1969 by a mentor of mine. This is Pennsylvania Dutch country, and I am of Pennsylvania Dutch descent. But the name itself is in honor of my alma mater, Lebanon Valley College, whose mascot is the Flying Dutchman. Second is its morphology. It is a naturally branching plant which attains a height of 40 inches from the time it is transplanted into five gallon buckets within 20 days. Third is its consistency in yield. Each 1000 watts will consistently produce 18-22 ounces of dry flower in an 84 day cycle. Fourth is it's high THC to CBD ratio. Flying Dutchman is 31 percent THC by weight, and has only 800 ppm (0.08 percent) CBD. Some high CBD strains are in excess of 5 percent. I know of no other strain with documentation that exceeds 30 percent THC. To answer the question succinctly, Flying Dutchman is very potent.
What’s the most common assumption (or misconception) people have about you when they hear you’ve ‘been growing weed since the 80s’?
That's a somewhat difficult question since I do not tell many people outside of my business what I do. However, I have friends back home in Pennsylvania who do, and when I'm introduced, people seem surprised. I'm not Tommy Chong. Also, some of my customers have been with me since the 1980's, and a lot of my high school friends and college friends still smoke weed. All of us were good students. We all graduated from college and most of us entered professions with advanced degrees. Take a look at marijuana usage rates among high school seniors who self-reported marijuana use in the past 12 months. It peaked around 1980 at 52 percent. It was 48 percent in 1979 and 1981. Those are record years. After 1981 it tails off into the mid-30's where it remains today. People who are 55 years old now were a part of those peak years, and this is why you see marijuana laws changing now. It was NOT the 60's generation that popularized the use of marijuana. In 1969 less than 5 percent of high school seniors reported use in the past year. It was the generation a decade later where you find use at near, and above, 50 percent. Well, we kept smoking, so people are very accepting of what I do, and I do not see my age as being a factor, except I have gained valuable experience. I also have a staff of people mostly in their 20's and 30's, and this gives me insight into what is going on in the general marijuana market place. Last year, after suffering a heart attack, I took on a 21 year old apprentice. I'm preparing him to eventually take over running the cooperative. That is really the best I can do with that question. Every day I look in the mirror and I see a 25 year old staring back. I told my brother this and he told me to call 911, an intruder had broken into my home.
What projects are you currently working on?
We have two projects currently under development. The first is almost ready to begin, and it is a clinical study that will be looking at the effectiveness of cannabis in treating the symptoms of MS, and we will be particularly interested in seeing if it can lessen the frequency, duration, or intensity of trigeminal neuralgia, a very painful condition of the trigeminal nerve that mimics the pain of a severe tooth ache. Trigeminal neuralgia is frequently the cause of suicide in patients with MS because of the severity of the pain which is intractable, and refractory to treatment with opiates. The protocols have been written, and we are currently recruiting candidates for the study.
The second one is still in the literature research stage, and will be studying the ability of cannabis to prevent reperfusion injury. This will be an animal study, and will require the assistance of a cardiologist who is familiar with the current animal model used in similar studies. 50 percent of the resulting scar tissue that damages the ability of the heart to pump efficiently and thus can lead to congestive heart failure is the direct result of reperfusion injury following a myocardial infarction, and angioplasty to reperfuse the ischemic tissue. We have known about reperfusion injury since the 1980's, but there currently no treatment available. cannabinoids have already been proven to reduce this scarring significantly at very low doses, and I want to repeat one of the studies using a cannabis extract. Past studies have only looked at THC and CBD isolates.
How do you approach cultivating a new hybrid, and how many tries does it take to get it ‘right’?
Three. I actually have data to back that up.
Do you have any association with the recreational marijuana industry?
No. However, I fully support complete legalization of marijuana. PSSD is strictly a medical marijuana cooperative operating under the conditions of Prop. 215.
Which marijuana strain best represents your personality?
Flying Dutchman, of course.