After attending the opening of Mel Frank's, “When We Were Criminals,” I was eager to learn more. The exhibition is at M+B Photo in Los Angeles and it captures the life and times of cultivators and the development of cannabis across decades, throughout the United States.
Mel Frank is the pen name of James Goodwin, the botanist, photographer, and author renowned for his genetic work with cannabis. I had the opportunity to interview the marijuana legend and inquire about his journey, his pseudonym, and his outlook of cannabis.
Q: When did you start going by Mel Frank?
A: In 1971. I had written an article and when the publisher called me and asked, “Hey, what name do you want to use?” I had three cats at the time, Mellon, Yammy, and Frank. In the moment I first said, “Frank Mellon?” No that doesn't work, how about “Mel Frank?” and I've had it ever since.
Q: What was it like when “Marijuana Grower's Guide Deluxe” began to appear in everyday bookstores?
A: “That was pretty amazing. I was naive enough to not realize how impactful a good New York Times book review could be. Once the New York Times gives a good review, everybody else will give some kind of review and bookstores will begin to carry it. I think Marijuana Growers Deluxe was the first book in stores that had anything to do with growing or producing marijuana.”
Q: Why did it take Ed Rosenthal a year to persuade you to write the book?
A: It took quite a while, yes. He could be [laughs]a pest! He's a very determined guy, but it changed my life. We took the article and fleshed it out then off he went. Ed wound up in San Francisco, California. We split [a]35 cent commission on it, 17.5 cents each.
When “Marijuana Grower's Guide” came out in 1974, I was attending a city college in New York. I just really was determined to write the best book I could with everything: history, chemistry, botany, and how to grow indoors or out. That later became the basis of the Deluxe book. One of the things you learn in college is how to research, and I took all the biology classes I could.
Q: Did you know “Marijuana Grower's Guide” would later become the backbone of cultivation?
A: Not really. I didn't realize what an impact it had on the United States in general. I visited California for a summer in 1975, with that Ed and I extensively started writing the book. We got started but I knew that we needed more research. After the summer I went back to New York to finish out my last semester, graduated in December 1975.
Q: Different states and locations develop a particular reputation surrounding cannabis. Where is the best place to get bud?
A: The United States, easily. When it comes to states — California. California is really where it all comes from.
Amsterdam became the place to go in the late '80s through the 2000s because they were very tolerant of growing and the popularity of their coffee shops. However, the seed industry, the basis of Amsterdam's notoriety in marijuana, all came from California. There were five icon varieties that came from California growers. These seeds were imported to amsterdam around '83 or '84, one of which was Haze. Haze was first developed in the 1960s and '70s in Santa Cruz, California. Another was Skunk #1, and then there was Afganai #1 and Durban Poison, which I developed. Those five varieties started the entire seed industry there What happened due to the tolerance in Amsterdam regarding marijuana growth, is that a lot of the marijuana growers in California came to Amsterdam to do the breeding and the growing and everything else. Once California opened up about marijuana, they all came back.
Last year I was contacted, through my Instagram account, by a guy who asked me if I knew any master growers who'd be interested in moving to amsterdam. I replied, “you're in amsterdam, aren't there dozens of master growers there?” He said, “no they all left and went back to the United States.” California is the heartland.
Another country that is doing pretty well is Spain. Spain develops some really nice stuff, and they have a very active marijuana industry there.
Another thing that has changed is hashish. You can no longer get the quality hashish you normally would from the Middle East because of the political situation. Afghanistan basically destroyed the good hashish industry they had.
Q: The Canadian cannabis market is now a well-oiled machine that trades and invests day in and day out. Will the US ever catch up to Canada?
A: Well it's more of the anti-business policies of our past administrations. Look at how they've handled cannabis in the past. They've done everything they possibly could to stop it, to denigrate it, lie about it, propagandize and they've been doing this ever since the 1920s. And then you still have people like Jeff Sessions who still believe that stuff, and has clearly never read anything scientific about it.
In 2005, Dr. [Donald P.] Tashkin published a paper to the UCLA database of a study on cannabis. For decades, he used to study the harmfulness of the smokestream of marijuana for the DEA. With mechanical devices, Dr. Tashkin analyzed the smoke [produced by cannabis]and the DEA ran all these warnings on the harmfulness of smoking. This 2005 study had four groups: people who smoked cigarettes, smoked marijuana, people who smoked both, and people who smoked nothing at all. The study examined the incidence of lung cancer among the four groups. The group that only smoked marijuana was the group least likely of contracting lung cancer. Smoking marijuana gave a very slight but statistically significant protective aspect to contracting lung cancer.
I know that when he gave the paper, of all the doctors and scientists in the room, only one stood up and asked' “Dr. Tashkin are you saying that marijuana can have a protective effect,” and he said “Yes,” and that was it! Nobody else asked him a single question and the DEA never gave him anymore money to do research.
They only wanted to find out the dire things, and yes, it is the responsibility of the government to do that — but not do that by design. In other words they ignore anything positive they learn about cannabis.
What the public still doesn't realize: Hemp [is]the most nutritious vegetable oil on the planet. No other plant can produce an oil with a perfect balance of essential amino acids like hemp oil. But that's not in the public consciousness yet. The largests hemp farmer in Europe, Ben Dronkers, has found hundreds of different uses for it.
Q: Do you think politicians are seeing the writing on the wall?
A: They don't see the light, they just see the votes. The popularity of it. The only thing motivating them is they see the votes and the money in it for the next campaign. Really, all these changes, the cultural changes that have happened in this country have come because of the impetus of the general population.
Whether it's gay marriage or marijuana, you look any any major movement and that's what motivates it, it's not some great person in Congress who then says we need to go in this direction. They never do. They're always behind the curve. So when the curve reaches a point where the majority of voters are going to go a certain way, that's when they'll go.