By the summer of 1999 I knew I would be leaving London for ever, after twenty-five years. Excited to be heading into the countryside, I was determined to squeeze one last jest out of the tragi-comedy of urban life. The south-London council estate where I lived held an oddball collection of ageing hippies and layabouts, most of whom were stoned most of the time. I’d embraced the community in the spirit with which it embraced me, and done my share of self-medication. I’d altered my moods with so many different substances I was nearing saturation point. I was almost too bored to bother getting high. At various times I had been addicted to amphetamines, cocaine and nicotine, but had gone cold-turkey on all three. For a good five years my intoxication had been self-limited to booze and cannabis, and I was now weary of consuming the same old black hash.
I had been spoiled by the drug culture of late seventies London. Back when I started poisoning myself for fun, the variety and quality of available drugs had been phenomenal. I knew friendly west end dope-dealers who could supply both red and soft yellow Lebanese, Paki black, Morrocan brown, thick, dark oil, bushy Columbian weed, Thai sticks, Jamaican dune grass and Indian temple balls with an opium core. Speed came in four main types. There were two kinds of ‘blues’ (pills named for their colour) -speckled and flat, with the speckled being far superior. Sulphate -amphetamine crystals- came in a powder that was too often tinged with a suspicious-looking pink or yellow. Benzedrine tablets came shaped in ominous little tombstones. The speed dealers were not so friendly, probably because they had limitless supplies of stuff that burned right through your nose into your brain and out the other side leaving holes. They were always in a cartoon hurry, usually equal parts paranoia and buzz. Coke was on the menu but heavily over-priced, and opium, morphine and heroin were never far out of reach, if you didn’t mind people who carried guns. LSD could be had in all manner of wildly creative forms that reflected the scrambled minds of the manufacturers, who were usually bug-eyed chemistry graduates from the better British universities.
Such were the fun and games I had learned to play, but within a few short years our carnival was over. You can always rely on the government to ruin a good thing, and the Westminster meanies were quick to spoil that little party. Without warning, hash and grass were re-branded in the eyes of the law, meaning a harmless dope-dealer could get the same sentence as a gun-toting smack pusher. The consequence was as inevitable as it was predictable. All the drug-smugglers moved into heroin and cocaine, and the kaleidoscope of cannabis products all but vanished overnight. It was simply weights and measures. A kilo of coke would fetch two hundred times the price of a kilo of hash. If you were risking the same jail sentence for either, which would you smuggle?
By the mid eighties, the menu had shrunk to bricks of Pakistani black, bags of home-grown grass (invariably weak in those days) and coke or heroin, both of which were often brutally bulked-up with anything a dealer had to hand. Washing powder, salt and talcum powder being among the least toxic. The eighties were hard years for me. In a half-hearted attempt to grow up that almost succeeded, I drifted away from the drug scene and began experimenting with various forms of capitalism instead.
Sadly, the government had never issued leaflets warning young adults not to get involved in scams like office work, sales or shop-keeping. It’s a slippery slope, believe me. You get hooked by that first dopamine hit of a wage-packet, and before you know it you’re up all night filling in income-tax returns and credit card applications. Your friends see you change, your eyes sink into their sockets, you can’t sleep, you eat junk food round the clock and all you ever talk about is making more and more money, because no amount will satisfy your desperate craving. Capitalism? Just say no, is my advice.
The 80’s and nineties passed me by. I wasn’t remotely interested in the acid culture that spread out of the Spanish holiday islands and the London clubs. I had nothing against ecstasy-users, it just seemed to me that the music was so titanically awful that you’d have to be smashed to endure it. By 1999 I had crept a tiny bit closer to mental health, and was planning an idealistic, revolutionary move, to swap concrete, steel and stench for fields, trees and fresh air. But, in the spirit of silliness with which I had already squandered half my life, I prepared for one last hurrah before abandoning the metropolis. My farewell to London would be an act of cheek, indulging the best and worst instincts I possessed. I would grow a room full of dope.
It was a logical move. I knew a lot of local women who like to get stoned. Keen smokers, they disliked the local dealers, quite understandably. The happy/hippie culture of the old days had been erased in Thatcher’s loadsamoney London. The new breed of dealer was hard-nosed, predatory and inclined to angle for more than cash from their female customers. I wasn’t smoking much at all, but I didn’t mind scoring for my friends. There was general agreement in my circle that the skull-numbing skunk everyone was selling had only minor appeal. I was determined to harvest a crop of the highest possible quality, and, having never grown so much as a geranium, began swotting.
I was amazed how much stuff you needed. I bought a large water-tank, a range of nutrients, cleansers, an electronic Ph-measuring device, yards of tubing, long plastic trays, an incubator, two kinds of specialist grow-light fixtures, a spray-bottle, Stanley knives, electric timers, silver foil and gallons of white emulsion paint. Most of it came from a gloomy, windowless shop in North London, which I visited twice in a state of elevated nervous tension. The creepy little owner was so screamingly obviously selling dope-growing gear. Surely the police must be at the very least filming his customers going in and out, If they weren’t actually running the shop in the first place? So I went in disguise, paid cash and wore gloves. When I say disguise, I’m not talking wig and a false beard, but I’ll admit to a hat and some shades. I was, I may add, by no means the only customer in that shop wearing gloves, hat and shades. It was like a bad spy movie in there.
I emptied out the spare bedroom, dragged in a huge dining table, hung blackout curtains on the window and taped a white sheet against the inside. Not a hint of light could escape. Then I painted everything snowy white, including myself, because I’d just smoked a joint. I rigged up the tank under the table, which was now lined with a dozen deep plastic trays, filled with strips of growing material which was a bit like roof insulation. I hung the lights above the table without killing myself or smashing everything. There was just one more big job to do. I was going to Amsterdam to buy seeds.
The Dutch shop was delightful, with attractive, intelligent sales staff and big window displays. After a long and fruitful conversation, I purchased a dozen seeds with the precise pedigree I had chosen after weeks of research. It was nice to be shopping without the hat, the gloves and the shades. I took myself to a nearby cafe and had a cheese and ham toastie and a beer. Then, refelecting on what a wonderfully civilised town Amsterdam was, I ordered a few grammes of the exact weed I was planning to grow from the seeds in my pocket. About four toasties later, I found my way to the door and walked to the station, taking care to distinguish between the pavements and the canals.
When the first tiny green buds appeared in the incubator I almost cried with paternal joy. They grew and sprouted. I took cuttings and multiplied my newborns, finally transplanting forty four-plants into the plastic trays. Now the tank gurgled into action, automatic timers feeding liquid nutrient into the roots at precise intervals. A second timer would switch on the mighty grow-lights for twelve hours at a time. The room itself was like a well-oiled machine. The system I’d built was so magically efficient I went on holiday for a week and left it running, asking a close friend to pop in and check the PH level in the tank every 48 hours. He was a mathematics professor in charge of research at a major London university, and could obviously be trusted.
But he damn near managed to kill the entire crop by fucking up the nutrient levels, so that was a lesson learned. I got back just in time to save my wilting green juveniles, however, and they quickly reared back up to their former glory and began a relentless climb towards the ceiling. The plants were now around five feet tall. I got a phone call from a gardener I knew who was working at the house where Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of the Species. Drop by, he said, cryptically. Taking the hint, I went to visit. The building is a cross between a museum and a tearoom. I found my pal out the back smoking a spliff in Charlie Darwin’s greenhouse. It was punishingly hot inside, maintained to help the tropical flowers. Behind a dense screen of rubber plants, my chum had six magnificent examples of cannibis indica, about the same height as my own. He had reared them in the garden, and brought them in ready for flowering. Mindful of my new enthusiasm for scientific experimentation, he suggested I take one home and do some grafting – garden-speak for creating hybrids of differing plant species. “Yes please,” I replied. He looked at me and frowned. “Aren’t you rather hot in those gloves? And that wooly hat?” he said.
Darwin’s Dope turned out to be my second big mistake. The plant I took home was crawling with spider-mites, having been raised outdoors. The evil pests swarmed onto my crop and multiplied like…well, like spider-mites, and they come in thousands. I had to submerge each plant in turn in warm soapy water, then rinse them in a bath of clear cold water. You can guess what a load of fun that was. I had to disinfect every inch of the spare room and then everything I’d been wearing and then me. But once again, the plants survived and thrived. Flowering time came and they budded. Soon they were glistening with beads of dope-moisture. I spent long winter evenings sat in the fake sunlight, admiring them and getting tanned. When the time came I harvested the crop. I filled two bin-bags with heads and eight with leaves. Dried out, I divided the lot into dozens of small plastic baggies and began selling. It was a superlative smoke.
I sold the last baggie of leaves on Xmas eve 1999. I took the last bin-bag of heads to the countryside when I moved. I smoked it every day (pure-no tobacco) until it ran out in the summer of 2000. I sat back and waited for the withdrawal symptoms. They never came. Turned out the stuff I’d grown -organic, pure, pedigree- wasn’t addictive. I’ve never grown weed again and doubt I ever will. I’ve never bought anyone else’s dope since. Drugs seem so last century, don’t you think? I could give up whisky I suppose, but there’s no hurry. A man’s got to have something to do.