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Mark Haskell Smith’s ‘Heart of Dankness’ Strikes at the Center of the Marijuana Debate

The Eagle Rock writer’s latest book is a wickedly entertaining account of the global quest to create the finest cannabis.

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.”

John January 02, 2013 at 05:41 PM
Marijuana stories always make fascinating reading - kind of like how the stripper with a heart of gold always ends up in a crime drama. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll are interesting settings. Amsterdam is a wonderful city, with Van Gogh and Rembrandt everywhere, excellent museums and art galleries, walkability, designer showcases, Irish pubs, Belgian and Irish beer, delectible food. The red light district openly caters to the basist human instincts, with healthy girls dancing in their underwear in storefront picture windows. The canals, the bikeways, the vintage architechture, street cafes, and friendly people provide a very pleasant environment. And it is great fun to stop in a coffee shop, and get some great bud to enjoy while watching the sidewalk society stroll by. It is terrible that the marijuana dispensaries in Eagle Rock were closed, apparently randomly, and not for any particular reason other than that they were successful at providing a service for people who need it. The proposed ordinances winding through the city council are arbitrary, unneccessary regulations for the sake of saying there are regulations. Banks and grocery stores are four times as likely to be robbed as medical marijuana dispensaries, yet they have no restrictions on hours of operation, location near schools, or how much money they can make. Mark's book might be amusing reading, but the reality is that marijuana should be completely legal and unregulated. Let the market decide.
AFG January 02, 2013 at 07:57 PM
Are we still talking about MEDICAL marijuana?
Jerry Langford January 03, 2013 at 04:07 AM
Geez Louise, Ajay, it's not a "so-called specific plan," it's the Colorado Boulevard Specific Plan. It's a real thing, signed by the Mayor and everything, and it doesn't place "stringent conditions on businesses" -- nor does it mention marijuana, medical or otherwise. If you want Patch to be taken seriously as a news organ, do a little homework before you print goofy disinformation like that. Mr. Smith, while he seems like a cheery fellow, obviously has an axe to grind. And is Patch really claiming that "cannabis dispensaries arguably competed with drug dealers" in Eagle Rock? Care to expand on that? Were these drug dealers located in Eagle Rock, or were they perhaps located in the home neighborhoods of all the out-of-town shoppers who came here to buy their drugs, thereby putting their local dealers out of business, and bringing the attendant ills associated with recreational drug sales to our fair city? Considering the poisonous atmosphere generated by Eagle Rock's pot advocates over the last year, you can't publish such an assertion without backing it up with facts -- otherwise you appear to be taking sides.
Tim Ryder January 03, 2013 at 05:09 AM
Hey Jerry, maybe you should read Mark's book, you might learn something. It's an educational as well as entertaining read and considering your ignorant comments concerning the medical marijuana issue and the growing number of millions of Americans who choose cannabis as a safe alternative to corporate chemicals, I recommend it greatly to you and other Prohibitionists of your ilk.
Michael Turmon January 03, 2013 at 07:00 AM
Interestingly, there is contention about the pot shops in Amsterdam and in the rest of Holland. As in Eagle Rock, the situation resists simple summarization -- some of the issues are drug tourism (including unwanted cross border traffic from Belgium and Germany), quality of life problems, tourist dollars, and illegal trade from criminal syndicates. Sound familiar? There was a partial ban instituted in the south part of Holland (closer to the Belgian border) on May 1, that had been slated to extend to the north (which includes Amsterdam) on Jan. 1, but it seems that the national government will continue to let Amsterdam have some autonomy in the matter. This also sounds familiar. One source is: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/02/world/europe/amsterdam-mayor-says-cannabis-coffee-shops-will-remain-open.html Amsterdam is a beautiful and historic city. The red light district (similar to Pigalle in Paris or Reeperbahn in Hamburg, among others) and the pot shops are by far not the most interesting part. "Like a Sunday in TJ, it's cheap but it ain't free."
Anonymous Nimby Crank January 03, 2013 at 07:36 PM
Tim- Why are you such an advocate of allowing a business to open in a residential neighborhood that clearly disrupts peoples lives, (traffic, noise loitering, littering, graffiti,parking) yet you want to help "nonoise" combat her noise situation. Your cause might be better received if you were more in line with zoning than rampant proliferation.
Lightnapper January 06, 2013 at 08:44 PM
Not that Ajay needs my help, but, note the use of quotation marks, as well as the use of specific weasel words-- words such as "alleged," "arguably," and "likely" versus words such as "undeniably." Undeniably you missed that particular word in the context of the sentence. Additionally, undeniably Ajay certainly got you arguing about arguably. That being said, vying for the position of Editor-in-Chief of ER Patch-AOL somehow (weasel word) does not seem to suit you-- "Obviously!" And, I would venture to guess (weasel phrase) that Patch is not the #1 news source for people interested in facts, and most likely (weasel phrase) not any American news source for that matter. Those days are long gone. Thanks for laugh. Oh, and a "shout out" for Tim-- "And the beat goes on!"

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