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High Times Puts on a White Coat


High Times magazine sponsored the original “Cannabis Cup” in Amsterdam in 1987. The event inspired plant breeders and publicized their strains and their seed companies. It has been held annually ever since —a fine excuse for a trade show and an extended party at harvest time.

The pretext of a cannabis cup is that discerning judges will sample various strains and determine the best (to be announced at the climactic awards ceremony). The truth is, it’s impossible for judges, after sampling strain #1, to then distinguish the effects of sample #2. The body needs an interval of at least three or four hours for a return to baseline cannabinoid levels.  Lester Grinspoon, MD, thinks that evaluating only one sample a day would be preferable.

High Times recently launched a glossy quarterly called HT Medical Marijuana News and Reviews, edited in San Francisco. To celebrate their arrival on the scene, the magazine staff organized the first ever “medical” cannabis cup, It was held last week-end at Terra, an events center —an erstwhile factory with a large side-yard— on Harrison St., kitty corner from the Sailors and Seamen’s Union hall.

The weather was okay on Saturday, perfect on Sunday, and a whompin” good time was had by about 2,000 medical cannabis users each day. Tickets cost $50, vendors paid $1,500 for tables. It was not the standard High Times demographic —there were more middle-aged people and senior citizens. I figured about half the seniors had done time. And all had lived in fear of the cops and endured social contempt. Now they were passing joints in the sunshine, ignoring the “no tobacco smoking” signs, enjoying a sliver of freedom.

Valerie Corral, the leader of WAMM, had been assigned to judge the strains classified as Sativas. She was given 42 samples to evaluate six days prior to the event. I saw her one day that week at a meeting —she was sampling #32 and conscientiously recording her impressions in a notebook.  DJ Short, the renowned plant breeder and seed merchant, had to judge 38 Indica samples. He and Val each managed to select a top five (in consultation with High Times editors), and then Jorge Cervantes, the best-selling author of cultivation guides, made the final call.

Valerie Corral is a very positive woman. She said that every bud she evaluated was “a jewel grown with the best intentions.”  But the chemical residue on some made her cough, and one gave her a headache.  DJ Short, who is not partial to Indicas in general, didn’t find any he especially liked among the cup entrants. But the show must go on, and Cervantes made executive decisions based on appearance and aroma.

And the winners were… Best Sativa: “God’s Pussy,” from GreenBicycles up in Crescent City… Best Indica: “Cali Gold,” from Mr. Natural, Inc…. Best concentrate (chosen by Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris from among 16 entrants): Ingrid, by the Leonard Moore collective, Mendocino… Best edible: biscotti from Greenway in Santa Cruz.

Steep Hill lab in Oakland tested the entrants for THC content. Steep Hill’s David Lampach says that the cannabis cup entrants averaged 15-16% THC, whereas the buds the lab ordinarily tests average 10-12% THC.   “The winners all had high THC levels,” according to Lampach, “but not necessarily the highest.”  God’s Pussy was found to contain 18.2%; Cali Gold 18.4%; and Ingrid hash 45.5% THC.

Lampach points out that Cali Gold, though classified as an Indica by the Cup organizers, might actually be a sativa-dominant strain, based on its lineage. The taxonomy of cannabis is very loose, to put it mildly. Sativas are said to have longer, narrower leaves; to take longer to reach maturity (important for growers); and to have a more cerebral effect (as opposed to sedating Indicas). DJ Short says there is no clear dividing line and cites the example of Flo, a strain he developed that is “a quick finisher but has narrower leaves and a Sativa effect.”

Both Valerie Corral and DJ Short said they were struck by the predominance of cannabis grown indoors and felt impelled to extol the virtues of the sun. So did Jorge Cervantes, who gave a talk on cultivation to a rapt SRO audience. Note that the Amsterdam cannabis cup is held in November, when the outdoor harvest comes in. In California, where most cultivation is indoors, the cup was held in June. Obeying the law of supply and demand requires lots of electricity.

High Times Medical News and Reviews gave an award to Lester Grinspoon, MD, for his enduring service to the cause…  Grinspoon winced when he learned the name of the winning Sativa, and High Times promptly took the offensive term down from its website. Grinspoon has an idea to promote more dignified nomenclature in the future: judges should give weight to the name of a strain when evaluating its worth as a medicinal product.

Some Martin Gardner Trivia

When I worked at Scientific American in the 1960s, mail addressed to Martin Gardner (no relation) sometimes wound up on my desk. The author of the widely read “Mathematical Games” column lived in Hastings-on-Hudson and never came into the office, which was in midtown Manhattan. On a few occasions I brought him his mail. He worked in the attic, which was lined with olive drab file cabinets containing 3”-by-5” index cards. This extensive filing system, he confided, was the key to his seemingly universal knowledge. “I don’t store much up here,” he said, touching his forehead, “but whatever the subject, I know where to look it up.”

He was soft-spoken, his hair was almost white, his complexion was fair, and he wore thick glasses. He would have been 49 or 50 when our paths crossed, but I was in my early 20s and naively considered him… not old exactly, but slightly past his prime. In the previous decade Gardner had written an intellectually militant expose, “In the Name of Science,” debunking Eugenics, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics (Scientology), Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Box, Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision,”  Extra-sensory Perception (ESP),  and other “frauds and fallacies.” (Those blunt words were added to the title when Ballantine Books brought out the paperback in 1957.)

I thought then that for Gardner “Mathematical Games” was a step away from muckraking and active struggle against irrationality, a step in the general direction of the sunset.  Little did I know that he would leave Scientific American in 1981 and resume writing —purposefully and prolifically— for almost three more decades. He also functioned as a political organizer, helping to found the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and its journal, the Skeptical Inquirer.

Gardner died May 22 at age 95. Joe Wisnovsky, an old colleague with whom I reminisced, had stayed in touch with him over the years. In fact, Joe had published Gardner’s last book, “When you Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish” (Hill & Wang, 2009). He recalled that Gardner had started at Scientific American as a freelancer, and even after his column became a regular feature, had remained an independent contractor until Gerard Piel, the publisher, encouraged him to become a regular employee, i.e., entitled to benefits. “The last thing Gerry Piel ever expected was that Martin would reach 65 and retire,” said Joe, “which he could afford to do because of the pension plan.” Piel and managing editor Dennis Flanagan did not want to lose Gardner, whose column was a great asset. “They went into a tizzy,” Joe said. “They told him, ‘Martin, you don’t have to resign.’  But Martin said, ‘I think I’d like to retire and move south and write books.’”

Which is what he did, relocating to Hendersonville, North Carolina, writing columns for the Skeptical Inquirer and other journals, and bringing out numerous anthologies. Joe said Gardner never used an agent but “struck a hard bargain around retaining the rights to republish his material.” A few years ago his wife died and he became very depressed.  He stopped writing, stopped seeing people, stopped corresponding. (His medium of choice had always been the postcard.) After several years of dysfunction, he moved back to Oklahoma, where one of his sons was teaching at the University in Norman.  “And just like that he snapped out of it,” Joe said, “and was his old, productive self. He even learned how to use a computer.”

It was astonishing to learn that Martin Gardner had not been a computer user from early on. Joe said that one of the reasons Gardner gave up his “Mathematical Games” column at the dawn of the 1980s was that he anticipated the field becoming computer-oriented. (His successor renamed the column “Mathematical Recreations.”)  Gardner used the computer only for research, Joe said, and never used email, continuing to correspond by postcard.

A few years ago Joe was publishing a book called “Irreligion” by John Allen Paulos, a mathematician, and asked Gardner to contribute a blurb. “Martin was friends with Paulos and had blurbed one of his books in the past,” Joe said. “I had totally forgotten that Martin was not an atheist but some strange kind of deist. He wrote me a very nice letter declining, pointing out that he remained a deist ‘even though atheists have all the best arguments.’”

FRED GARDNER is editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at:




Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at

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