Behind the Smoke

Proposition 64 passed in November, legalizing recreational marijuana use in California. When it goes into full effect on Jan. 1, 2018, anyone 21 or older, including UCLA students, will be able to buy marijuana from stores with retail licenses. Currently, students 21 and over can possess up to 28.5 grams of marijuana and grow up to six plants.

The Daily Bruin traveled to Northern California to document its flourishing cannabis industry, which has produced a majority of the nation’s cannabis for several years. Here, we investigate how marijuana has affected the UCLA community and highlight students’ experiences with the plant.

Stirring the Pot

Rodrigo Aranda was cleaning out the trash in his car when he found the bag of marijuana.

Aranda had always refrained from doing drugs, even though his friends did, because he had been too busy with schoolwork. However, he was going through a tough breakup the summer after his senior year of high school and did not have school to preoccupy him.

“I grabbed an apple, poked a hole through it, packed it and took a hit,” Aranda said. “That’s when I started to slowly pick up smoking recreationally.”

In marijuana, though, Aranda saw a business opportunity. He said he was tired of the endless cycle of work, school and studying, so he started to calculate how much money he could earn by growing marijuana.

“I grew up in poverty,” he said. “Seeing how much money one can potentially make from growing a plant just made me so energetic and hopeful, like a get-rich-quick scheme – how hard can it be to grow a plant and harvest it?”

Behind the Smoke: Rodrigo Aranda
Rodrigo Aranda was a UCLA student who left university to pursue a career in recreational marijuana distribution. He tells his story and what inspired him to enter the business.

After studying at UCLA for two years, Aranda left the university in the middle of fall 2016 to pursue business in the cannabis industry. At first, he and his friends attempted to grow marijuana in their apartment but failed several times because they were inexperienced in the cultivation of such a light-sensitive plant.

Although he did eventually produce a successful grow, Aranda said he did not find his niche until experiencing a different aspect of cannabis production: distribution. He was hired by a company called Nanofarms to distribute marijuana, where he received a 10-percent commission for every pound sold.

“I got so money-hungry because I was making so much money so fast with these packs,” he said. “I would break them up on the streets because I would make more money … on the streets than I would selling them to shops.”

He said he was making $1,000 to $2,000 every day for a month before things took a turn for the worse.

On Christmas Eve, Aranda was robbed in East Los Angeles.

Aranda holds a jar of high-quality marijuana, worth several hundred dollars. He earned high profits when he first dealt cannabis in the black market, but was robbed last Christmas Eve. He plans to return to UCLA next fall. (Jintak Han/Assistant Photo editor)

“It was a bad drug deal, really,” Aranda said. “In total, (I lost about) $12,000. I know exactly who it was, I know exactly where they live and that’s the crazy thing.”

He said he has been trying to rebound from the loss since then. Although he does not plan to leave the cannabis industry, he wants to return to UCLA next fall to finish his undergraduate education. He said after dealing with police officers who often mistreat people on the streets, he is inspired to focus on school, get good grades and go to law school to help people who are uninformed with the law.

“The only bad thing that marijuana’s brought to me is just the debt from getting around and being in this hole because of (the robbery),” Aranda said. “That’s why I want to come back to school so bad, because UCLA was such a nice bubble.”

But he said he does not regret taking the past two quarters off to explore the cannabis industry.

“I’ve learned more in the last four months about life than I have ever in my 21 years of being on the planet,” he said. “People just need to go out and experience real life, because I feel that what I’ve been through has really shaped me as a person.”

Taking the Hit

Three years ago, Christian Kramme got out of another 12-hour scalding shower in his freshman dorm and felt freezing cold. He knew he only had a couple moments before he started vomiting again.

Kramme, a third-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student, self-diagnosed that he was suffering from cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, the first and only known condition associated with cannabis use.

The disorder, which has become more prominent in correlation with marijuana’s increasing popularity, is characterized by chronic cannabis use and involves frequent hot bathing and cycles of vomiting.

Kramme had a large tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, metabolite buildup in his brain, caused by four years of daily cannabis use. The excessive residual THC molecules in his brain caused the dysregulation of homeostatic functions in his body.

“I trained my stomach to think that I (could not) be hungry without cannabis,” Kramme said. “I didn’t eat without smoking first, and that, over four years, led to a serious problem.”

He said the debilitating condition caused him to lose 20 pounds and induced much of his anxiety.

“I would get out (of the shower and) hear extremely loud ringing in my ears,” Kramme said. “My head is hot and my feet are ice cold. I’m vomiting, and it’s like that for hours – and every time I get into the shower, I’m perfectly fine.”

It’s a bell curve, he said. At first, THC is a great anti-nausea medicine until you hit a peak and keep smoking – then it causes nausea. Similarly, cannabidiol, or CBD, can eliminate a lot of anxieties, but if people smoke just CBD, they will experience some of the worst panic attacks.

The key is moderation – people need to have a little bit of everything, not just THC. People who have cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome are often associated with dabbing, or smoking marijuana wax with a 97 percent THC content, Kramme said.

“This problem is really (messed) up because the better weed you have – (with) more THC – the worst this condition gets,” Kramme said. “I either had to go smoke really crappy weed or just don’t smoke at all.”

It’s amazing how quickly it turned around, he said.

Christian Kramme, a third-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student, medicates himself with a one-to-one strain of cannabis. He has used cannabis for several years to treat issues like lack of appetite under the medical marijuana program in California. (Jintak Han/Assistant Photo editor)

After starting to smoke robust and terpene-rich marijuana that he grew outdoors with a one-to-one THC to CBD ratio, Kramme said he stopped experiencing symptoms. The quality and content of the product he consumes now has not debilitated him at all, despite smoking even more marijuana.

“What has changed my life more than anything in the last year has been CBD,” he said. “It is the best cannabinoid. Every problem that there is with THC – the stoner effect, the fatigue, the buildup, the lethargy, loss of appetite, loss of ambition – all can be avoided with CBD.”

Now that Proposition 64 has legalized marijuana in California, Kramme said he is excited to go to a dispensary and see a test result of what is in his marijuana, then make the decision to buy and consume it. Previously, lab testing was not reliable and consumers had no way of verifying exactly what was in their marijuana before smoking it.

After experiencing cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, Kramme is careful to smoke in moderation, with equal ratios of THC and CBD.

He said he hopes to finish the rest of his UCLA education as soon as possible, so he can pursue a doctorate and conduct more research about cannabis, especially because of its rising prominence in California.

As owners of a medical marijuana company, he and his brother Connor Kramme, a recent University of California, Berkeley alumnus, make it a point to test their products and ensure high-level CBD flower for smoking at their family-owned cannabis farm in Siskiyou County.

Although Proposition 64 allows individuals to grow their own marijuana for personal use, Connor said he thinks the differentiation between recreational and medical marijuana remains a very gray area.

“There’s going to be a marriage of recreational and medical that I think is going to occur,” Connor said. “Everything needs to be done in moderation and for a specific reason.”

After Christian’s experience with cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome three years ago, the brothers agree that people who smoke recreationally and medically should be cognizant of the contents of their marijuana.

Regulation is a good thing because consumers deserve transparency, Connor said. Consumers should always look for lab testing and understand where their products come from and how they are grown.

Connor added he is working with local legislators to ensure that growers do not have to compete for resources, time and management with Humboldt County, Los Angeles and San Francisco, other locations in California where the cannabis market is centralized.

“I’m representing the commercial growers … and that we would like to be able to take everyone’s product and show them what Northern California cannabis is,” he said. “It’s really about pooling everyone together, creating a big voting bloc.”

He said he wants to reinspire farmers who have been used and abused by the system to start thinking bigger in a way that allows them to impact the state.

“In this transition, I’m really trying to stay up to date,” Connor said. “It’s really about local activism.”

A Higher Calling

When they are not meeting with local legislators and community leaders, Connor and Christian Kramme go fishing in the nearby river hugging their 64-acre land and smoke marijuana together to relax.

They are recuperating from a long day of manual work at the farm.

“I would be able to actually recover quickly (because of smoking),” Connor said. “The next day, (I would) wake up refreshed, ready to go and do it again.”

Located at the tip of what is commonly known as the Emerald Triangle, Hornbrook in Siskiyou County is home to a population of just 111 people, of whom more than 100 are growers who make their livelihood by cultivating cannabis.

As young entrepreneurs and members of this largely cannabis-dependent community, the Krammes suit up in their work clothes every morning to carefully inspect rows of their large, flowering 200-plant garden.

After singing and playing music to their plants under the blazing hot sun during growing season, the brothers spend about four hours watering the garden and take samples of every cannabis plant to analyze under a microscope for any flaws.

Christian Kramme, current UCLA student and co-operator of Greenbox Inc., places marijuana into his grinder for a bowl. Kramme prefers one-to-one strains for their high CBD content, which minimizes the psychoactive responses while retaining the therapeutic effects. (Jintak Han/Assistant Photo editor)

With the passage of Proposition 64, the Krammes are quickly turning their nonprofit corporation into a commercial company.

“We have an opportunity here to take what (farmers have) been fighting for to the next level, and to bring (cannabis) to a wider audience,” Connor said.

He said he thinks cannabis can start helping patients get off opiates and benzodiazepines, potentially even treating cancers. After years of using cannabis to treat their pain, anxiety and appetite, the Kramme brothers are inspired to produce quality marijuana to help patients treat their conditions.

But everyday presents a new challenge, Connor said.

Last year, the brothers spent the growing season living in a trailer and painstakingly tending to their plants everyday. They said they started growing late, so their plants were small compared to other farmers in the area.

Regardless, the brothers said they are eager to grow an even more successful harvest this year because they have learned from last year’s mistakes.

“I really feel like we’ve perfected our craft and it’s really meaningful to me,” Connor said. “To care for something so deeply was absolutely amazing. That was every day -- we were blessed to have that.”

Contact Chiu at [email protected] or tweet @k4456395.

Weed the People

I own a black shirt with a red-eyed banana slug holding a joint, courtesy of my best friend from UC Santa Cruz. There’s a weed culture in Northern California, after all.

One in eight adults smoke marijuana in the United States – including University of California students. But in my journalistic experience, it has been easier for me to talk more openly about marijuana with students in Northern California than here at UCLA.

(Jesse Wang/Daily Bruin)

There are marijuana enthusiasts on this campus who are aspiring artists, scientists, entrepreneurs and everyday activists. These individuals need to come out as cannabis consumers to contest the stigma around it. Smoking weed has no bearing on people’s ability to do great things. Even if you don’t use marijuana, you should at least take the time to seek hard facts and information on the drug before publicly claiming it should be illegal.

Stigma haunts marijuana’s reputation and the lives of many underprivileged individuals: “Reefer Madness” author Larry Sloman claimed that states mostly banned marijuana during the early 1900s “when faced with significant numbers of Mexicans or Negroes utilizing the drug.”

Richard Nixon codified these beliefs during his presidency. He spoke about the drug in a recorded conversation in 1971. “You know it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish,” Nixon said on tape. “What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? … By God we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss.”

And he did with the Controlled Substances Act, signed in 1970, which classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the highest rating, on par with drugs like heroin. Schedule II drugs, which are considered less severe, include cocaine and methamphetamine.

The fear these beliefs and policies have instilled prevents any level-headed federal action to this day. The people most likely to suffer from the fallout are people of color – African-Americans are four times more likely than white adults to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Paired with the current president’s unpredictable nature, conservative values in today’s administration makes marijuana’s place as a state’s rights issue uncertain.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions condemned the drug during a Senate hearing in April of 2016, before he joined the current presidential administration.

“This drug is dangerous, it’s not funny, it’s not something to laugh about. … (I am) trying to send that message with clarity that good people don’t smoke marijuana,” Sessions said.

That’s just wrong. In fact, progress towards acceptance is slow but sure. According to Time, 16 percent of Americans were in favor of legalizing marijuana in 1973. The number rose to 34 percent in 2003 and 60 percent in 2016.

“I think people are really reacting to that right now. It’s a paradigm shift – they’re reacting to that and saying "you know what, I should be able to choose what I consume and put into my body, just like alcohol,'” said Connor Kramme, co-founder of Green Box Dispenser Inc., a cannabis farm. Kramme graduated from UC Berkeley in 2016 and now works on perfecting agricultural techniques for Green Box Dispenser Inc. in Northern California.

“If I’m a 21-year-old adult, I’m of legal age to be responsibly consuming something that either acts as a relaxant, enhances fun, enhances the taste of food, movies and entertainment,” Kramme said. “So I think people using (marijuana) in that fashion are really just saying ‘OK, this is a consumer choice, a liberty choice.'”

Cannabis Kingdom: What does being high feel like?
A visual representation of what being high feels like.

But cannabis culture at Northern California campuses is far more widespread than in Southern California. During my senior year of high school, in 2013, I spent some time visiting college campuses, including UC Berkeley. That year, Cal Day was held on 4/20.

On the eve of 4/20, my host’s roommate left her apartment to celebrate with friends. The next morning, I remember walking from one student panel to the next and getting a whiff of the herb burning behind buildings.

Four years later, things are still the same. UC Berkeley student Maddy Ponzio said campus administration sends out emails leading up to 4/20 to remind students that Berkeley is a “smoke-free campus."

“You should see it on 4/20,” said Shiyann Cole, a student at UC Berkeley. “I work at the library and a lot of the times on 4/20, for security, we have extra workers because there’s always this huge cloud of smoke right outside.”

Memorial Glade is a popular hangout for the University of California, Berkeley students, located in the middle of the campus. On 4/20, students gather at the open field in front of their college library to smoke marijuana together. (Jintak Han/Assistant Photo editor)

And this is not a unique occurrence for a college campus. At UC Santa Cruz, students set up picnics and festivals in Porter Meadow, outside one of its residential colleges, to celebrate the day. They play music and sing, form smoke circles and sell T-shirts like the one my friend gave me from when she attended.

And the social normalization spills into academia. UC Davis School of Medicine offers students a course on marijuana, Human Physiology 115: “Physiology of Cannabis,” the first of its type in the UC system. The class aims to educate its students on how cannabinoids affect the body.

“We felt that it was imperative that we train our students and eventually offer courses to the general public,” said Luis Fernando-Santana, the chair of the Department of Physiology and Membrane Biology at the UC Davis School of Medicine.

UC San Diego houses the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research on campus. UCLA does not have an official marijuana research center, but there are organizations like the UCLA Cannabinoid Affinity Group that work to learn more about and reduce the stigma of cannabis consumption.

In their efforts to contributing expertise toward legal changes, these facilities need the support of people who smoke marijuana – and those who do not – because the information is significant on a community level.

Coming out as a cannabis consumer, supporting these organizations or demanding classes about the presence and effects of cannabis in our society is important. Not only will it help future economic gain or academic research, but it can also help the people who have been affected by the drug from a legal or medical standpoint.

Most people argue that using marijuana can make a person dependent on it and diminish their chances of doing well in life, but there is not enough research on the drug. Posing it as so harmful that it needs to be criminalized is irresponsible.

This joint is from the Berkeley Patients Care Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary near the University of California, Berkeley campus. It contains “Tangie,” a popular hybrid strain. Joints are usually rolled with rice paper and smaller than blunts, which are rolled with tobacco leaves. (Jintak Han/Assistant Photo editor)

Smokers of marijuana vary beyond these stereotypes – they need to come out of the woodwork and actively fight the stigma against it.

I am a marijuana user – and a graduating senior at UCLA. I spent my last four years, and years before then, lending my hand on campaigns and projects that promote college-readiness, feminist efforts and environmental awareness. I have also smoked weed to better my near non-existent appetite and to relax after a stressful week.

Being a good person and being a marijuana user are two orthogonal concepts – being a smoker has no bearing on your performance as a student or employee.

I'm for sure intending to smoke a celebratory blunt after walking across the graduation stage this June.

Contact Aquino at [email protected] or tweet @aquinojasmineee.