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Tasting sun-kissed cannabis

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We Bay Area residents tend to be particular about what we consume. We want everything to be local, organic, sustainable, fair trade, small-batch, and artisanal.

But the necessarily secretive nature of the cannabis business has made it impossible to apply the same discerning standards to what we smoke, at least until very recently.

Licensed and taxpaying dispensaries and delivery services abound, but reliable information about their products is in short supply. Medical cannabis patients trust dispensaries to provide quality product, but industry professionals and connoisseurs are well aware that dispensaries and commercial growers often neglect to follow best practices.

Investigations in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon have found pesticide residue and other contaminants in cannabis available at reputable dispensaries. In California, laboratory testing is not required and there are no legal guidelines regulating pesticide use.

As a result, it can be difficult for even the most conscientious connoisseur to consistently avoid purchasing cannabis that has been poorly processed, mishandled, mislabeled, or grown in either grungy warehouses under energy-intensive electric lights or environmentally destructive large-scale outdoor operations.

Those of us who prefer outdoor, organic, lab-tested cannabis have surprisingly limited options. Harborside Health Center has been promoting sun-grown cannabis for the past few years, and SPARC’s Marigold brand highlights outdoor and greenhouse-grown cannabis “cultivated with a conscience.” But even at the Bay Area’s premiere dispensaries, the vast majority of flowers are grown indoors.

Only a few hours north of San Francisco, farmers in the Emerald Triangle have been producing top-shelf outdoor cannabis for decades, all while acting as dedicated stewards of their land. Outrage about water-guzzling “greed grows” often obscures the sincere passion of these once-outlaw farmers, who have been subjected to decades of military-style police raids. They have had to hide in order to survive, leaving outsiders oblivious to a rich heritage of cannabis cultivation that has developed over generations.

Surprisingly little of the Emerald Triangle’s heirloom cannabis makes its way to the Bay Area, where indoor-grown cannabis is the norm. That is beginning to change, thanks in part to a local startup that promises to bring sun-grown, connoisseur-grade cannabis directly from these boutique farms to patients in San Francisco and the East Bay.

More than just a delivery service, Flow Kana aims to become a brand that signifies transparency and accountability, setting the tone for a burgeoning “clean cannabis movement.”

Flow Kana cofounders Michael Steinmetz and Nick Smilgys are adding their voices to a growing chorus calling for consumers to consider how their cannabis was grown and collectively demand that higher standards be met.

Flow Kana takes a smaller margin than most dispensaries, and farmers are paid roughly double the open market rate. Flowers are grown organically, thoughtfully — even lovingly — and are tested by Pure Analytics for cannabinoid content as well as for mold, mildew, and pesticides.

Skeptics have an opportunity to verify the authenticity of Flow Kana’s lofty claims by meeting farmers face-to-face.

At Flow Kana’s occasional “Swami Select Salons,” Mendocino growers Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya share samples of their flowers while educating curious urban-dwelling guests about what exactly goes into those joints being passed around.

The first tasting party, which took place in April at a house in Potrero Hill, featured three strains from Nikki and Swami and another three from HappyDay Farms. In addition to the never-ending supply of joints, guests enjoyed hors d’oeuvres, Mendocino wine and microbrews, spring water from Nikki and Swami’s Turtle Creek Ranch, and small servings of cannabis-infused “Potka Punch.”

At the second salon, on a windy roof deck in the Marina in May, Nikki and Swami were joined by Jude and Lucinda of Hope Springs PermaPharm, who specialize in CBD-rich strains.

And at the third, in a backyard in Cole Valley in June, House of Aficionado and Swami Select provided flowers while special guest Frenchy Cannoli showed off his highly sought-after solventless pressed hash.

A fourth tasting party will be held in Piedmont on Aug. 6.

Each of the salons had its own distinct ambience, influenced by the style and layout of the venue, the makeup of the crowd, and of course, the different strains of cannabis being sampled. At all three events, though, a feeling of momentousness seemed to resonate through the smoky air as a fragmented community began to coalesce.

Everyone from old hippies to young techies seemed to agree on the superiority of outdoor organic cannabis, which many described as more flavorful, with more nuanced effects. There was also a general consensus that cannabis parties are long overdue, and a sense of astonished relief at being able to smoke so openly.

When Mendocino farmers have the opportunity to speak to San Francisco smokers, they emphasize the depth of their relationship with their plants and with the land.

Nikki and Swami tell their guests about the difference between growing from seeds rather than clones, and that Swami puts a drop of sacred Ganges River water on each seed before sprouting.

They defend their water use, pointing out how much more water is required to produce a bottle of wine (over 60 gallons) than an eighth of an ounce of cannabis (less than two gallons).

They explain the entourage effect and how an obsession with THC percentages overlooks the influence of terpenes. They remind us to taste an unlit joint — a “dry hit” — before lighting up, to better appreciate the flavor profile.

They extol the virtues of outdoor organic cannabis, which absorbs the energy of the sun, the moon, and the stars, and the terroir that comes from the soil and the trees and the birds and the bees.

What remains unspoken, but occasionally alluded to, is the suffering inflicted by prohibition.

Cannabis farmers have been demonized by the media, traumatized by law enforcement, and further marginalized by the shift toward indoor-grown cannabis. During the ongoing California drought, Emerald Triangle farmers have also taken undue blame for draining rivers and killing salmon and other wildlife, criticism that somehow escapes the wine industry.

Flow Kana’s tasting salons and similar gatherings offer an opportunity to heal these wounds as those who produce or consume cannabis come together to shrug off the stigma and celebrate this remarkable plant.

People use cannabis for various reasons, but ultimately, we do it because it makes us feel good. And when you know that your cannabis has been grown organically and sustainably by expert cultivators who take pride in their work, it feels even better.

Photo by Caitlin Podiak and Erica Edwards