How Cannabis Cultivation Has Changed Over the Last 40 Years

by | Dec 8, 2021

Written by Amanda Stern

Amanda Stern got her start in the Colorado cannabis industry and transitioned to New Mexico in 2021. She has a passion for natural, plant-based alternatives, herbs, and psychedelics.

When considering the many chapters within the unfinished story of the cannabis plant, from its various uses; to methods of cultivation; and even its storied legal issues, one thing is for sure; it is all cause and effect. Here we take a look at cannabis cultivation and how it has evolved over the last four decades in the United States, from the “Just Say No” days of the 1980s through the mostly legalized market of today.

1980s: Sinsemilla Cultivation and the Introduction of Hydroponics

“Herban Legend” states that it took ten growing seasons to produce the first modern cannabis hybrid, the “Skunk 1”. With that, American sinsemilla cultivation was born. A true benchmark in modern cannabis breeding, this seedless strain had been in development since the early '70s, when most marijuana consumed by Americans was imported. Scientists first began removing male plants from their fields, eliminating the possibility of fertilization. This method of growing cannabis, which has been used in other countries like India and Thailand (think back to Thai Stick), allows the female plants to put more energy towards producing resin rather than seed production, making for more potent buds.

Then in the mid-'80s, the relentless push from the War on Drugs encouraged some cannabis cultivators to change their methods and take their grow indoors. From their clandestine farms under the sun, many growers sought out information gathered from tightly knit circles and some new sources. Shared and bartered through word of mouth at festivals and gatherings, details of the ancient hydroponic growing methods were reaching the attentive ears of cannabis growers and spurring on innovation. Excluding soil from the recipe, hydroponic technology would expand growers' abilities to harvest their crops in even an urban setting and away from the watchful eyes of “The Man.”

Cannabis farmers who wished to grow where perhaps they couldn't before now had even more access to instruction and simple systems as High Times magazine began to publish details on hydroponics. Needing only ample light, air, and space with a perfected blend of water-based nutrients; hydroponics uses coconut fibers, clay pellets (made to mimic the air and water flow of Hawaiian volcanic rock), and other light aggregates to replace soil.  The growing method also makes the application of nutrients to plant roots much more efficient and effective.

1990s: Sea of Green, Cuttings and Selective Breeding

The late 80’s early 90’s brought about the Sea of Green method, or SOG.  This cultivation technique resulted from challenges being met by indoor cultivators who realized that they needed a way to maximize their yields with limited space and resources. In essence, it is a method of light depreciation that forces smaller plants to flower earlier while still supporting cola development. More and smaller plants with singular colas yield as much, if not more, than fewer large plants with multiple colas each. Creating a canopy, or “Sea of Green” appearance when entering the grow room.

In addition to SOG, another cultivation method was introduced in the '90s; cuttings allowed growers to re-create all-female plants through cloning. This drastically changed the “landscape” of cannabis as we know it today, making sinsemilla growing for hobbyists not only possible but profitable.

Another benchmark within cannabis occurred in the early '90s. In 1991, Proposition 215 made California the first state nationwide to offer Medical Marijuana to a segment of their population. Following that, the first medical marijuana dispensary opened its doors in 1995. This began the gradual trend of states legalizing cannabis use, first for medical purposes than for recreational consumption. State-regulated supply and demand dictate that agricultural rules and regulations must be applied. Again, these changes impacted the efforts of cannabis cultivators.

2000s Marijana Meets Science

Now faced with stringent rules and requirements and the need to develop a brand, figure out marketing and maintain (if not improve) the quality of your product – everything needed to survive within a growing industry – cannabis cultivators turned to modern horticultural methodologies and science. While cannabis may have its own specific needs as a crop,  horticulturalists have, for eons, been contending with the issues of large-scale grows. Much of this expertise began to be translated to cannabis fairly swiftly. The conversation crossed over and started to become more acceptable.

During this time, medical marijuana had been adopted in a few places, forcing a series of changes in cannabis cultivation. Set aside the visions of free-loving hippies trying to grow “kind bud” and instead introduce lab coats, the methods, and rigor of plant sciences, then sprinkle in some analytical chemistry, and you are witnessing the birth of today's cannabis industry.

Technology has also exploded in the last two decades, aiding in the improvements seen in cultivation. Advanced HVAC systems and computerized data logging efforts, for example, help growers understand and control their environments to effectively and efficiently produce higher crop yields and fewer failures.

2010-2020 Expanding Cannabis in the Digital Age

As more states legalize to one degree or another, a more intricate web of restrictions and regulations is woven. A heightened need to stay on top of a kaleidoscope of laws, coupled with more compliance requirements, has thrust cannabis into the digital age.

These days almost no part of the process is without technology; from the genetics website, growers obtain seeds or clones to the displays showing continuous digitized readings of pH balances, humidity, and temperatures. Today's systems even integrate emails received from the lab with the testing results for the plant material. No longer taboo, shared information on the internet has assisted growers worldwide with a plethora of issues. The ability to obtain real-time data from a drone flying over your outdoor field has proven irreplaceable, saving time and money identifying issues. None of these things were possible, even in the '90s

Advancements are being made every day in the science and technologies behind cannabis, in turn, improving cannabis crops. Innovations like vertical farming, improved dehumidification systems, and software integrations that trigger hormonal responses in the plants via controlled environmental manipulation, cultivators can look forward to more efficient and cost-effective means to produce their desired yield. The bustling market will likely incentivize innovation leading to more improvements in this still-new decade.