When We Were Criminals: An Interview with Mel Frank
Mel Frank [aka James Goodwin], is the co-author, along with Ed Rosenthal, of the 1974 book, The Marijuana Grower’s Indoor/Outdoor Guide, and its expanded 1978 edition, Marijuana Grower’s Guide Deluxe. These two seminal tomes taught countless amateur botanists how to cultivate cannabis and fueled the homegrown revolution of the ‘70s and ‘80s in the United States. As a breeder, he developed the varieties Afghani # 1 and Durban Poison, which, along with Haze, Hindu Kush, and Skunk #1 from other California breeders, became the basis for the commercial seed industry in Amsterdam. He remains one of the world’s foremost experts regarding the plant. He is also a great photographer whose gallery exhibit, When We Were Criminals, is opening at M+B Photo in Los Angeles, California, April 28-June 19, 2018. I interviewed him at his Los Angeles-area home back in 2015 for the Outlaw Marijuana Oral History Project. All photos courtesy of Mel Frank. Check him on Instagram @melfrank420
Chris: You told me once that you first heard about marijuana when you were in the navy.
Mel Frank: I was a shipboard electronics technician in the Navy from September 1963 to September 1967. One time we were in Jamaica and a couple of guys came and said, “Hey, we’re going to go smoke some stuff, buddy, you wanna come with us?” I declined, because I was pretty short then—“short” meaning I was getting close to the time I get out, and there was no way I was going to risk the brig and have to make up the time.
After that the navy sent me to the Bethlehem steel yard where my ship was being refurbished. We were a skeleton crew of about 10 of us and the only thing we had to do was pick up the mail everyday and then send it out to the various ships where our old shipmates had been sent. But they didn’t allow 4th Class mail to be forwarded, which was magazines and newspapers, so we had all these magazines to read and, in the summer of 1967, what were all the magazines writing about? Kids doing acid and marijuana and everything else. They’d have stories, “Five college students go blind after eating acid.” I’m reading this stuff and I don’t think those smart college kids are going blind. I couldn’t wait to get out and try all these drugs.
Chris: When did you first try to grow?
Mel Frank: I moved to New York after the navy in November 1967 and smoked my first joints near the end of the year. When I first bought an ounce of brown Mex, you know, it had a thousand seeds in it. I had a big apartment I shared with my girlfriend and her best friend―they were two great women―and I just started planting the seeds. I was already growing loads of house plants, so I set up our little 8 by 8 room with four-foot fluorescents, just for growing.
Chris: How did it come to pass that you wrote the first-ever cultivation article for Rolling Stone?
Mel Frank: In 1971 I was talking to a friend, Ross Gelbspan, who was an incredible journalist―in fact he later won a Pulitzer―about how I had to make some money to pay the rent. He said, “Why don’t you write an article and we’ll sell it?” We brought it to Rolling Stone, and they called me a couple of weeks later and said, “Hey, we’re going to print your article in a two-part series in our New York flyer, what name do you want to use?” I hadn’t thought about using a pseudonym. We had three cats, Melon, Frank and Yammy. And I thought, I can’t be Frank Melon, that doesn’t work, alright, make it Mel Frank.
The editor also told me that I should meet this guy, Ed Rosenthal. Ed had gone to Rolling Stone at the same time I did with another article on growing pot. So anyway, Ed came to me, and really, the first time he met me, he said, “We should write a book.” I didn’t want to write a book, but Ed can be very persistent, and after a year or so I finally relented, really, so that he’d leave me alone [laughing]. We basically took the Rolling Stone article and fleshed it out with outdoor info and it became a 96-page little book. And to Ed's credit, he completely changed our lives because he went to the West Coast looking for a publisher. I think it took him about a year before he found Level Press in San Francisco and they published the book in 1974. We split 35-cents-a-book royalties. By then I was going to college full time and taking all the biology courses I could, especially botany, chemistry and microbiology, and now I was determined to write a comprehensive guide to growing marijuana that included history, botany, chemistry and whatever else was known. Eventually, And/Or Press published the Deluxe Edition in 77 and The New York Times gave it a very good review and, boom, that was it. It started selling everywhere.
You know, there were plenty of marijuana growers before I arrived on the scene. There were guys in the ‘60s, I’m sure there were guys in the ‘50s and ‘40s too. There were already good hybrid strains on the West Coast by the time I moved to the Bay Area in '76. The thing that the Deluxe did was it distilled all of the scientific material that had been published on marijuana, it explained the cannabinoids, it gave a brief history, had accurate botany, it explained the photoperiod, which once you understand the photoperiod, you can manipulate the plants and do all kinds of strategies with it. The Deluxe really brought the fact that you could grow marijuana anywhere you lived and it could be at least as good as anything you could buy. It got the country thinking it could grow marijuana.
Chris: Then you and Ed moved in together, right?
Mel Frank: We bought a house in Oakland in ’77. We converted a shed in the back that wasn't even 400-square-feet. We took off the roof, we covered it with windows we got from a junk yard, and grew pot in there.
Ed would travel to Amsterdam and bring back seeds. Amsterdam was nothing special at that time in the ‘70s, except that all their pot came from the Middle East and from Africa, which was unique to us because we got all our stuff from South America, Mexico and Thailand. At that time you had the hippies’ hashish trail. Hippies were going all over the world. You could go to Lebanon, Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan and all that, with few worries. And with the book coming out, people found us. Guys would come from Arkansas and Alabama, Kansas, Hawaii, all over, with their own seeds that they brought back from Afghanistan and everywhere else, and we would trade seeds.
Well, at that time, a local grower gave me an Afghani, it was actually an original Afghani landrace, and I bred to improve it. It became Afghani 1 since it was my most potent Afghani. I grew Congolese, Nigerian, South African, Nepalese, Pakistani, Thai, Cambodian, besides the usual Mex and Colombian. I also met [legendary cannabis breeders and Hortapharm founders] Dave Watson and Rob Clarke at that time, this was in maybe about ’78, ’79. They came to see me and pretty soon we were trading seeds. Dave Watson gave me Haze, he gave me some South Indian, he gave me a Nepali. I don’t think he gave me Skunk #1 at that time as I don’t remember growing it. I gave him the Afghani 1 and my Durban Poison.
Durban Poison was the one that I felt was really my strain because I took that landrace from something that was mediocre pot, but very quickly got it to the point where it was potent. But the main reason I was breeding it was because it matured well before anything. It was about a month sooner than Afghanis, so Afghanis would be ready late September to late October, and the Durban was ready in August and early September. I took it back east, and we harvested most of it in August, 60 miles from New York City. I have a funny High Times story, but it’s off the record, ok?
Mel Frank: I grew over 500 pounds, 60 miles from New York City, of really the best pot that anybody there had ever smoked. It was Afghani x Congolese backcrossed, Afghani x Nigerian backcrossed, Durban Poison hybrids, pure Afghani, along with some shitty pot that the local growers had. Anyway, I rented an apartment in New York City, but spent most of my time at the grow. After It had all been dried, and they were weighing and bagging it, I left, as I didn’t wanna know anything from there, where they were selling it or anything. But a couple of weeks later I stopped by High Times before I left for Oakland. And I’m in there, and I’m talking to a guy, and somebody came back, and said, “Hey, Mel, you gotta see this stuff, you gotta try this stuff.” Alright, he brings me back, and they have a bag of buds, and I take one look, one smell, and I know it’s Afghani x Congolese. I know exactly what it is, and I can tell them the plants it came from, but I don’t say anything. And they’re just talking and all getting really stoned, and someone says, “This is the best stuff from the big island this year!” And I say, “Oh really?” And he says, “You can’t grow pot like this unless you’re in Hawaii or in the mountains.” I never told them that it came from 60 miles away.
Chris: Why is that off the record? That’s a funny story.
Mel Frank: Well, alright, I don’t know, I guess I’m safe about the growing 500 pounds that year.
Chris: You know, you got a five-year statute of limitations, you were safe in like 1983. Did you ever travel and get landrace strains yourself?
Mel Frank: No. I was a collector. I’m telling you, people used to come and visit all the time.
Chris: What were these people like?
Mel Frank: They were about my age, in their 20s or 30s. It was all very open. When I think about it, we were pretty outrageous. We had a greenhouse which was always filled, we had plants growing in pots in the backyard, we had a halide in the attic where I was doing seed production. I had pot in my office window, there was pot in the guest room window. There was fucking pot everywhere. And this leads to what happened to the seed collection.
One time I came back from wherever, and there were all these fire engines. The house was in a cul-de-sac, the fire engines were just pulling out, there was water on the street, and there were all these neighbors out there. The neighbors said, “Wow, you were growing a lot of pot back there, they just kept taking out bagful and bagful and loading it on the firetruck.” So I thought, oh shit. What it was, there was a fire in these vacant lots right behind the greenhouse. So the firemen broke down the door to the greenhouse because they didn’t know what was in there—it could have been flammable stuff, there could have been animals, they had a perfectly legitimate reason. So I naturally thought, fuck, I’m going to get busted, I better hide my seed collection. So I brought it over to my neighbor, who put it under his bed. A couple months later I went back to the guy, I said, “Listen, they’re never going to arrest us at this point, let me take my seed collection back.” And boy, where did he get the seed collection from? His attic. So it wound sitting for two months in the summer heat in an Oakland attic. I couldn’t get a seed to sprout, they were all cooked. I kept the collection, because I thought, someday, even though they’re dead, we might learn something from it.
Chris: How has pot changed since the ‘70s?
Mel Frank: Oh, it’s much stronger. The stuff that I grew back then that got tested by the government lab at the University of Mississippi, the highest stuff was almost 12 percent THC. They said it was the strongest thing they had tested. In fact, the guy there called me and asked me if the stuff was adulterated. But now you routinely have stuff that tests at 20 percent and over, and to me, at this point, I don’t really care about that. I care about the fragrance and flavor, ok? That’s what’s going to make your highs and also just your sensory pleasure different. Once you get into the teens what difference does it make?