It’s notoriously difficult to judge a contemporary writer without the proper historical distance—especially if he happens to be an Eagle Rock novelist who confesses that he smoked marijuana while researching his first book of nonfiction.
Mark Haskell Smith, who led a colorful slate of candidates in last October’s Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council elections, makes no bones about the fact that he smoked weed while reporting a 2009 article from Amsterdam for the Los Angeles Times—an assignment that also helped him write his fifth book.
Titled Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race For the Cannabis Cup, the book is a highly informative and entertaining account of the global subculture of marijuana aficionados that competes fiercely for the Cannabis Cup, a marijuana contest held every year in November in Amsterdam, where it’s legal to consume pot in cafés.
Published last year by Random House, Dankness is the literary successor to Haskell Smith’s most-recent novel, Baked, a 2010 crime caper in which an L.A. underground botanist named Miro wins the Cannabis Cup, "the Olympics of weed, the World Cup of marijuana," according to Haskell Smith.
“If you invent a strain of marijuana and it wins the Cannabis Cup, the seed becomes very valuable,” says Haskell Smith, explaining how Miro, the protagonist of his novel Baked, tries to fend off attempts by organized crime to get his prized seeds.
Producing and profiting from the world’s best pot is a multimillion-dollar business that Haskell Smith brings to life remarkably in Dankness.
The word “dankness,” derived from a Scandinavian dialect that means “moisten,” refers to extremely high-grade marijuana that doesn’t get users stoned. Instead, it produces a momentary and euphoric condition that aficionados call “dankness.” The book’s title is also a hilarious play on words with the classic work by Joseph Conrad, “The Heart of Darkness.” Haskell Smith conceived his title as a joke in which “Conrad went up a river [the Congo] and I was on a canal [in Amsterdam].”
In a chapter titled “Retail Weed,” Haskell Smith outlines how, according to an online source called weedmaps.com, a dozen medical marijuana dispensaries could be found within a two-mile radius of his Eagle Rock house.
His first encounter with any of them, the author writes, was distinctly unpleasant. He chose to visit Eagle Rock Herbal Collective, a store on Eagle Rock Boulevard “stuck between a liquor store and a Laundromat,” which was robbed in 2011. But because he had yet to get a State of California medical marijuana recommendation (from a doctor), Haskell Smith was told by the dispensary’s owner, "a large man with a shaved head and a scraggly Zapata-style mustache," to “get the f**k out of here.”
Haskell Smith does a terrific job of introducing the different pot shops that dotted the Eagle Rock landscape until they were forced to close a few months ago under pressure from the U.S. Attorney’s office.
The American Eagle Collective, a store on Colorado Boulevard that was raided by the Los Angeles Police Department for alleged narcotics-related activities in May 2012, is compared to a “busy trading floor of an exotic tropical fish exchange,” while the Organic Healing Center on the opposite end of Colorado Boulevard is described as “a serene and well-lit yoga studio” where the “budtenders could have worked as extras in a movie of the week about the Mexican mafia, but were friendly and welcoming.”
Although Haskell Smith visited a string of pot clinics in Eagle Rock and beyond, he was unable to find even a single cannabis strain that rivaled what he had savored in Amsterdam. "Californians like their weed strong and sledgehammer heavy," writes the author. "Holland, with its relative tolerance of cannabis consumption, has created a climate for a culture of growers and botanists to experiment with different types of cannabis, to seek out rare and exotic strains, and test-market the results in coffeeshops."
Some of the richest pot growers in Amsterdam are from the west coast of the United States, Haskell Smith told Eagle Rock Patch in a recent interview, adding that they have made millions in pursuit of their passion to create the most pleasant pot in the world.
The author is very curious to see how the recent legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado and Washington state will play out in the New Year, given that production and consumption of marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
“The governors of both states have written to [President] Obama, asking the federal government to stay out of their state’s business,” says Haskell Smith, adding: “If I were the Obama administration, I would sit back and see what happens. I wouldn’t push it."
At the very least, 2013 promises “an interesting debate” about the issue of whether or not marijuana should be made legal for recreational purposes, says Haskell Smith, pointing to last November’s Washington Post-ABC News poll, in which a 52.6-percent majority of respondents aged 18 to 64 years supported legalization.
Meanwhile, Eagle Rock, where cannabis dispensaries arguably competed with drug dealers to cater to an undeniably strong demand for marijuana, is likely to face another spell of empty storefronts after the recent closure of pot clinics in the neighborhood in the face of legal action from the federal government.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have a dozen storefronts sitting empty,” says Haskell Smith, referring particularly to Colorado Boulevard, whose so-called “specific plan” imposes a string of stringent conditions on businesses. “It’s going to be very hard to attract any kind of businesses there.”