A friend and I recently got into a good-natured discussion about the future of cannabis production — or, to be exact, whether marijuana will continue to be grown indoors in the foreseeable future.
In my mind, indoor cultivation has survived mostly because of the persistent belief — which may be true — by many in the cannabis community that it produces the best marijuana flower. This perception has been fueled by decades of prohibition that forced cultivators to stay hidden from the police. While the relative anonymity of warehouses, garages and basements allowed indoor growers to experiment and perfect their craft in a safe, controlled environment, outdoor growers made do with far-from-ideal locations like Northern California and Southern Oregon, where the climate might have been great, but the forested, mountainous terrain and proximity to resources prevented most farmers from growing a top-shelf product. In other words, the indoor guys were fine-tuning their methods while the outdoor folks were forced to operate in conditions that were nowhere close to an ideal outdoor farm setting.
Fast-forward to 2019: Marijuana can now be legally grown under license in more than half the United States. What this means in practical terms is that for the first time in memory, cannabis can be grown without the fear of prosecution and in a manner that allows for rapid advancements in techniques and technology. Indoors and outdoors.
My friend, whom I respect, referenced the fact that many buyers for retail stores in Washington still prefer indoor-grown cannabis and that some even refuse to carry sun-grown product. Five years after legalization, that might be a surprise to some, but it makes sense because old wives’ tales are still prevalent in cannabis culture. Many buyers at Washington retailers still ask if the roots “have been flushed” (cannabis culture nonsense) or if various types of nutrients and additives have been used in flowering (also nonsense, more often than not).
The truth is that indoor-grown cannabis is usually “better” than outdoor. It’s often more uniform, trimmed better and packaged better. But is it really better quality? Or is it just trimmed and packaged better because it’s perceived as superior, based on historical prejudice that generates higher prices, which in turn affords the product more care? Is this prejudice just an example of a carryover from the days of illegal weed that is slow to go away?
From a sheer quality perspective, it seems the best bud grown outdoors is comparable with the best bud grown indoors, though the low-quality outdoor is typically “worse” than the bottom-shelf indoor. We’ve done small-scale blind taste tests that suggest most consumers can’t differentiate between indoor or outdoor.
As I mentioned, outdoor growers have been able to produce good marijuana in places like the Emerald Triangle, but it was never grown in anything close to ideal conditions or produced by experienced horticulture professionals. Growers in Humboldt County delighted in showing off giant, budding plants that were extremely impressive (and often grown out of necessity, due to legal limitations on plant counts). However, giant plants are to cannabis cultivation what a 30-foot-tall apple tree would be to an orchardist: a huge waste of energy, efficiency and productivity, and a reflection of an amateur/hobbyist mindset trying to make it in a modern business that ultimately will require efficiency and uniformity.
My guess is that once the outdoor cultivators learn how to grow cannabis at the same skill level as modern orchardists who are in the cherry or apple business, there will be a sea change — in both the retail and cultivation sectors.