Inside the Long Strange Trip to Make (Legal) Jerry Garcia-Branded Weed
The family of the Grateful Dead legend has spent years traveling across the country and sampling countless strains to find a cannabis worthy of Jerry's name. I went along for the ride.
This article by me originally appeared in Esquire, Nov 20, 2020
On a crisp February night inside a rambling old house in Oakland, a half dozen Deadheads pass a pipe and ponder the question: If Jerry Garcia were a kind of weed, what would the high feel like? After a pull from a tall glass bong, a bearded young guy to my right says a buzz evoking the late singer of the Grateful Dead “would be one where you're getting very giggly and, like, definitely not one where you're, like, a caveman sitting in a chair.”
The group nods. Jazz plays from a nearby Bluetooth speaker. Thai takeout steams from our plates. A life-size replica of Han Solo frozen in a carbonite block from The Empire Strikes Back leans in the corner. Across the table, a woman with long gray hair agrees. “My ideal strain for the Jerry Garcia vibe,” she says, “would be an uplifting, creative one that helps you get in the zone and find your groove.” Then the pipe makes the rounds again.
This is no ordinary group of Deadheads. The man with the beard is Jerry’s nephew, Reuben Garcia, a weed grower himself. The gray-haired woman, who bears a striking resemblance to Jerry, is his 45-year-old daughter, Trixie. And this is no ordinary late-night, East Bay, marijuana mind game. Trixie and her reclusive family are coming out of the shadows to make a Jerry Garcia cannabis collection arriving November 20th.
It comes as the legal cannabis industry is booming in the U.S., projected to reach $80 billion by 2030. In November, voters in four states cast their ballots to legalize recreational marijuana, bringing the total number of states with legal weed to twelve. And the Garcia family is entering an increasingly crowded arena of celebrity weed brands: Willie Nelson, Martha Stewart, Snoop Dogg, Seth Rogen, Francis Ford Coppola, Hunter S. Thompson. The difference is Jerry, a cultural icon who built one of the most successful and longest-running musical acts in American history—a band whose fanbase is synonymous with hippy culture and, by extension, smoking pot. Generations of Talmudic fans have filled their ears and eyes and brains with the music and face and folklore of Jerry and the Dead for more than half a century.
When I met with them in February—before the onset of the pandemic—the Garcias had finally found a cannabis producer they liked, but had only nine months to create the brand, breed the genetics, grow the weed, and set up distribution, all without alienating generations of diehard fans. They wanted to launch the brand this year, which would have been the twenty-fifth anniversary of Jerry's death. The pressure is not insignificant. But no one is more cognizant of this than his family. “We've always wanted to do this,” Annabelle Garcia, Trixie’s older sister tells me, “but we kind of felt like we needed to let the industry go through its changes and legal system to come around.” Trixie, who serves as the president of the Jerry Garcia estate, says it’s fulfilling her dad’s dream. “This is exactly the kind of thing he would want to be behind,” she says, taking a puff, “cannabis as a connection to reality, the real reality and not the fake reality that we are all part of, just like his music.”
The seed of the Garcias’ long strange trip into the weed business sits on four wheels inside a barn off a country road in Eugene, Oregon. “Oh God,” Trixie groans, as we step inside the barn later in February, “it smells.”
The earthy odor she’s referring to is rust and grime, which is caked on the psychedelically-painted sides of the most famous school bus in history. This is the 1939 International Harvester that the late One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and his self-described band of Merry Pranksters drove from California to the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s seminal book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the adventure defined the ethos of the nascent hippie generation—the colors, the LSD, and the music, provided by the then up-and-coming Grateful Dead. “The bus came by and I got on,” as the Dead song “The Other One” goes, “that's when it all began.”
Nicknamed Furthur (for the misspelled missive painted above the windshield), it rests here now, alongside a younger, more brightly skinned bus, on the cattle farm the Keseys and Garcias have rambled on since the seventies. Trixie’s here on Super Bowl Sunday for the birthday of her older sister, Annabelle, along with their mother Carolyn Garcia, a.k.a. Mountain Girl, or M.G., and the daughter she had with Kesey, Sunshine. They’re celebrating the creation of the family weed brand, too. “I’m just thrilled by how Trixie is taking hold of this stuff,” says M.G., a spry 73-year-old, with short gray hair and a long-sleeve blue Superman t-shirt. “I think Jerry would be pretty pleased.”
The Garcias’ roots with pot run deep. In 1972 while Jerry was on the road, M.G. was living in their home on Stinson Beach near San Francisco, raising the girls and quietly becoming one of the pioneering growers of the wild west days. “We stayed below the radar as much as possible,” she says with a laugh. It started after a pilot who worked with the family gave M.G. four seeds from Thailand. She was not merely some itinerant smoker. Growing up on a farm in Hyde Park, New York, her father worked for the Department of Agriculture as an entomologist, and her mother was a botanical illustrator. “Whenever we went anywhere it was always about the plants,” she says.
Her green thumb paid off. Her weed was too strong for her to smoke—but not the Grateful Dead roadies, who crowned her the cannabis queen. Her phone started ringing off the hook with heads wanting her botanical secrets. “Suddenly, I was like the hotline,” she recalls, “so I decided I’d better write a book. It was my tiny little gift back to the group.” Drawing from her skills and extensive research, Primo Plant became the go-to manual for growing organic weed outdoors. “That’s part of our story,” Trixie says, “It’s a great legacy of hers.”
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“Considering that our mom wrote one of the first books in the world on how to grow home-based marijuana,” Annabelle says, “it's just been part of our society and our culture and our family.”
After paying our respects to Furthur, the family retires around the kitchen table in the main farmhouse to sample some buds that Trixie has been growing herself. The home hasn’t changed much since the 1970s: bright red and orange walls, musty book stacks (Vonnegut, de Beauvoir, Mailer), swirled flowers painted on the floor. Outside the window, cows moo along the wet, green hills. “Passing around the joint after dinners was pretty normal in our family,” Trixie says, “I used to roll joints for my parents.” She hands the pipe to Sunshine, who recalls waking and baking in the Stinson living room. “My favorite thing about that room,” she says, “was the way the smoke would make these incredible sculptures right in the morning sun.”
For Trixie, there are plenty of happy—if not hazy—memories of the many weed-infused private times with Jerry: playing video games (Pong was an early favorite), reading R. Crumb comics, doodling Deadhead faces, watching Frankenstein movies. She was less keen on her dad’s day job, which she likened to being the chief of some strange tribe. “For a long time, it was so oppressive and embarrassing,” she says. “It wasn't like everyone was saying, ‘Oh, that's the rock star family.’ No, we were just dirty fucking hippies in Marin County as far as I could tell.”
There were soon greater challenges with which to contend: her father’s heroin use. Though he’d schooled her in the past that “white drugs are bad,” he didn’t hide his own habit—smoking heroin openly around the house. Trixie thinks the trauma of Jerry having lost his father to drowning at a young age, and pressure around the “whole machine,” she says, of the Dead, became too much. When he died in 1995 at fifty-three from a heart attack, after years of drug abuse and other complications, she blamed the heroin, not him. “That must be a really fucking strong drug that someone with so much to live for would let themselves die,” she says.
The experience of losing Jerry is a motivation for creating a cannabis brand in his name. While it's still unclear whether legal cannabis leads to the reduction of overdose deaths from other drugs, the family hopes it might help those who grapple with opioid addiction, like Jerry. “Watching Jerry suffer through a drug addiction was incredibly traumatic for me and all his fans,” Trixie says, “it's our responsibility to offer better choices in the future and help people get away from that.” Annabelle agrees. “My dad died really young and alone in rehab after giving so many incredible gifts to the world,” she says. “It would be nice if there's just more options and that we could put our voice towards the same purpose, which is, ‘forget the opioids, man! They don't work.’”
It’s a wintry January morning in suburban Maryland, with shoppers milling around a bland, highway strip-mall. Inside a sprawling warehouse with jet-black windows, thousands of sweetly pungent pot plants glisten. This is the grow site for Holistic Industries, one of the largest, multi-state cannabis operators in the country. Their role is to spearhead the Jerry Garcia cannabis brand—from coming up with the strains, to growing, packaging, and distributing the product in a variety of forms. After five years of searching, the Garcias chose them because they understand both the legacy and challenges of the cause. “I've certainly done my bit of research,” Trixie says, “I’ve met a lot of growers, and smoked a lot of weed.”
Strolling around the 100,000-square foot facility feels like being in a Willy Wonka weed factory. Botanists in blue scrubs, white hairnets, and white booties tend to every stage of plant production. In one brightly lit white walled room, they walk down rows of new plants. The tiny green stalks rise from large metal trays, modified from indoor tulip manufacturers, checking the bar-coded yellow tags, used for mandated tracking by the states.
Down the way in what’s called the “vegetative growth” section, more mature plants reach toward the ceiling, the glistening sticky buds sweetening the air, as succulent nutrients get digitally injected into the soil. There are three types of cannabis: sativas, which produce a more cerebral high; indicas, which is more full body; and varying hybrids of the two. Within these categories, there are dozens of strains. At Holistic, there are around fifty: White Widow, Grandpa’s Stash, Snow Monster, to name a few. But as founder and CEO Josh Genderson, a bearded and gregarious 36-year-old who grew up on the Dead, says, developing the perfect Jerry Garcia strain is the ultimate challenge. “Jerry has an aura,” he says. “The fear is diluting that, or making that gimmicky.”
One way they’re trying to avoid this trap is by staying true to the most legendary strains of weed in Jerry lore: Chemdog. Holistic facilities manager Garen Stephens hands me a bud of it to let me take a whiff. It smells almost like sugary diesel gas. “That originally came from a bag of seeds at a Dead show,” he says with a note of reverence.
In Dead culture, the parking lot of each show gets transformed into a pop-up, fan-run, bazaar (nicknamed “Shakedown,” after the band’s song “Shakedown Street”) of homemade shirts, sandwiches, and weed. According to legend, Sour Diesel goes back to June 1991 outside the Deer Creek Amphitheater in Deer Creek, Indiana, where the Dead were set to play. A Deadhead nicknamed Chem was truckin’ through Shakedown when a couple of dudes, Joe Brand and P-Bud, sold him a bag of pot, called Dogbud, for $500. It was, in technical terms, “good shit,” creative and uplifting like Jerry’s serpentine guitar. Supposedly, Chem planted some of the seeds when he got home to Massachusetts, and, just like that, the legendary strain was born: Chem + Dog = Chemdog.
Trixie speaks warmly of Chemdog as “a community strain,” one that conjures the spirit of the scene. But not all Chemdogs are created the same. And for the Jerry Garcia version, they want to engineer the very best—organic, hydroponic. In other words, really good shit. This starts with the genetics, the code that determines the strain’s specific properties. Holistic breeds their own genetics in what Genderson calls “the old-fashioned way.” They take shipping containers filled with male seeds, called a “frat house,” and introduce specific female genetics so that they can cross-pollinate into a beloved descendant of the Chemdog strain, called Sour Diesel.
“Jerry has an aura. The fear is diluting that, or making that gimmicky.”
The hard truth, however, is that no matter how faithful the team is to creating their pot in the spirit of Captain Trips, as Jerry was nicknamed, some fans will cry foul. When I ask how hard this is given the earnest possessiveness of Garcia fans, a knowing smile spreads across his face. “Everyone has an opinion with the internet,” he says. “Someone’s going to call us a sellout or his family a sellout.” Not surprisingly, some already are. “It really feels like we should just let Jerry rest in peace now,” as one fan wrote on Reddit.
Trixie is well aware of how complicated the fans’ relationship with her father can be. She spent her childhood watching from backstage as the fans swooned for her dad. She heard her father struggle with the near religious fervor for him. “He hated any of the Deadheads trying to deify him,” she says. “He’s just wanted to be like any other guy. The whole trip of people fixating on him made him really uncomfortable. And it made it hard for him to just enjoy the scene that he had created.”
But, at the same time, the fans are a living extension of the family. As such, she’s taking great pains to serve both them and, most importantly, the spirit of her father. During the several days I spent with Trixie and her team, they debated the most picayune details of the cannabis they’re creating (from the terpenes, the compounds that give the weed its scent and flavor, to the paper feel of the pre-rolled joints). “The problem with Jerry is how much he means to so many people, that’s my number one concern,” she says. Then again, this isn’t the first time that Jerry’s name has been on the market. One of the most popular brands of ice cream around, after all, is Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, a fan favorite since it debuted in 1987.
For Trixie, it all comes down to fulfilling what her father had long seen as the promise of the herb. “When it starts to feel like I'm just exploiting Jerry, I remind myself that cannabis is like uplifting humanity, just like the music opened all those minds in the sixties,” she says. “Humans need to be connected to nature. We need to have meaning in our lives. We need to slow down and cherish what is important. And that's what marijuana is all about.”
If Jerry Garcia had a hangout for smoking weed, what would it look like?
That’s the question Trixie, Sunshine, and M.G. are pondering around the kitchen table at Kesey’s farm. The pipe passes hand to hand, streaming smoke sculptures in the light. “There’d be red leather couches,” M.G. says, “a coffee table to put your stuff on, and probably a refrigerator close by.”
“What’s in the fridge?” Trixie says.
“Water, orange juice, probably some ice cream.”
“And Sara Lee,” Sunshine adds, referring to the pastries, “Jerry liked Sara Lee.”
As part of the Jerry Garcia cannabis brand, the family is planning a Jerry-themed weed smoking lounge inside a dispensary in San Francisco. It’s an integral part of the experience, they say, bringing people together to share weed, conversation, music, and … maybe, drones? “Jerry always had gadgets,” Sunshine suggests to the group, “videogames, drones, whatever’s new.”
During the meeting at Holistic in Maryland, the team went to work, dreaming up the ultimate Jerry pot pad. It’s the sort of conversation that would be like science fiction when he was alive: Deadheads legally smoking weed in a Garcia-themed lounge. They settle, for the moment, on what one executive calls “the darker, more library vibe” with comfy vintage furniture and shelves of his favorite books: Vonnegut, Dracula, Kerouac, and such. There could be plants, maybe a living plant wall in the shape of his face, stained glass.
Trixie tells the group of an idea her dad had long ago that never came to fruition, but, perhaps, could in a way now. He imagined creating a sort of secret lounge where they’d only serve coffee, beer, and wine (he didn’t like hard liquor). “It was his own little scene,” she says. “He wanted to call it Casa Garcia. It’d just be a place where he could go and noodle around. I love that subtlety. No one would ever guess that Casa Garcia was Jerry’s thing. It’s one of those ideas that was my dad’s that we can work with.”
There’s one thing Casa Garcia wouldn’t have, they all agree: a checkpoint. But, this being a legal industry, every dispensary needs one, which means considering what a Jerry version might be. “We were trying to think of ways to make that feel warmer and more interesting and exciting,” says one marketing executive, “That's where the Furthur bus came in.”
Given the cultural relevance of the bus to Jerry’s scene, perhaps some version of it could be built inside the dispensary when customers first pass through. “Maybe that's where the security guard is taking your ID before you walk in,” the exec continues, “and it's like a weird kind of Instagrammable moment.”
This is, of course, one of the full circular stories that likely would made Jerry giggle: how the Furthur bus carried his spirit from the age of Aquarius to the social media age of legal Jerry Garcia weed. “He’d be really stoked,” Annabelle says with a laugh. He’d probably have his own name for the pot that bears his name, M.G. jokes: “Not Bad,” she says, “that’s what he’d say when he smoked something, ‘Not Bad.’”
“We thought about Garcia’s Groove,” Trixie says.
“Oh, I like that,” M.G. says. “It’s groovy.”
“Or Garcia Grown,” Trixie says.
M.G. suggests they need to sample a bit more for inspiration. “I’m not stoned enough yet,” she says, “let’s get another doobie.” As a flame sparks up more bud, Sunshine comes up with one other possible name. “Garcia Later!” she says.
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