Ken Estes graduated from high school in June 1976, a promising student athlete who’d lettered in three sports, earning a college scholarship along the way. A month later, however, a horrific motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the neck down.
After doing what little they could to help, his doctors prescribed massive doses of pharmaceutical painkillers and deposited Estes in a rehabilitation facility, where he would languish for the next six months, rotting away in a narcotic stupor. Until, one fine day, he met a group of Vietnam vets – patients at the same rehab facility – who offered to share some of the marijuana they’d been using medicinally to treat and heal both body and mind. The teenage paraplegic had never smoked pot in his life but felt he had little to lose.
“My nurse wheeled me over to them and then took a hit himself before holding the joint up to my lips,” Estes recalls. “When they brought me back to my room, I slept all night and woke up in the morning with an appetite. During the previous six months on pills, I hadn’t slept like that and hardly ate. I’m over six feet tall, and I went from weighing 160 pounds down to 100.”
Today, Estes remains in a wheelchair, but he’s regained limited use of his upper body. He credits marijuana with providing not just the healing but also the hope required to overcome adversity and become the driving force behind one of California’s leading medical marijuana collectives.
“Really, that first puff was the turnaround in my life,” he says. “I was going to die in that terrible condition – until this herb made me hungry and helped me sleep, so that I could start to recover.”
Named for Estes’ signature strain, the Grand Daddy Purp Collective retains deep roots in the Bay Area, where it currently provides a full range of top-quality cannabis medicine, seeds and clones to legal medical marijuana users out of a storefront location in Richmond, CA, with plans to distribute soon via more than a dozen leading dispensaries throughout the state. In 2011, the collective’s Bay 11 entry took home top honors at the HIGH TIMES Medical Cannabis Cup in San Francisco, while Granddaddy Purp ranks among the most recognized names in kind bud history.
Estes and his team gather at an undisclosed location tucked away in a nondescript industrial park, where they grow their top strains in strict accordance with California’s medical marijuana laws. Running a collective, at least in California, remains shrouded in a legal gray area, but that doesn’t stop Grand Daddy Purp’s strategic team from planning for a far different future.
“We’re positioning ourselves so that, as things go more corporate, we’re already there,” says Ernie Cefalu, a graphic-design and marketing expert who’s working closely with Estes to help build the collective from a mom-and-pop-style operation into a fully integrated, fully optimized brand capable of surviving and even thriving in post-pot-prohibition America. “Now that Colorado and Washington have made it legal, that genie will never go back in the bottle. So we’ve got to ask ourselves three questions: How can we best bring America this great product? How can we create good jobs while doing so? And how can we be a benefit to society?”
Cefalu – who earned legendary status in the 1970s by designing album covers and artwork for Cheech & Chong, Alice Cooper, George Carlin, and Jesus Christ Superstar – remains best known as the artist behind the original Rolling Stones lips-and-tongue logo. Later, he went on to a long and prosperous career in brand development for some the nation’s largest corporations.
“I worked for Fortune 50 companies, and I know that some of them are seriously looking at this industry with bated breath, just waiting,” Cefalu explains. “When corporate America shows up with the big checkbook – the one that can accommodate all those zeros – they’re going to be looking for companies that have all the moving pieces working together in harmony, like a fine Swiss watch. And I don’t think we have much further to go before that starts to happen.”
Cefalu’s first encounter with the Granddaddy Purp strain came when he was searching not for business, but for relief. Stricken with cancer in 1999, Cefalu ended up so zonked on pills during his recovery – “literally drooling on myself” – that a concerned friend who happened to be in the know when it came to cannabis suggested tracking down some of that purple weed that was going around. Word had it that the stuff really worked for pain.
“I spent 3,000 bucks that year buying Granddaddy Purp from every collective I went into, because they all had it,” Cefalu recounts. “But you know what? None of them had it for real – until I met these guys.”
That proliferation of imitators was one reason he encouraged the collective to begin offering its strains exclusively through authorized dispensaries – which could then, in turn, assure their customers that they were getting the genuine article direct from the source.
The Strain Seeker Estes’ journey as a marijuana grower and breeder began with a tiny, one-light hydroponic setup in the closet of the one-room apartment he lived in right after leaving the rehab facility. At first, he didn’t even know enough to switch the light cycle to 12/12 to induce flowering.
After getting well acquainted with the day’s top imported sativas, such as Thai Stick, Panama Red, and Colombian Gold, Estes next devoted serious time and effort to investigating the new generation of hybrid varieties that ingenious local breeders were just then developing to flourish indoors. When he heard wild tales about something called Skunk, he took an eight-hour drive up into the Humboldt Hills to seek out some for himself.
“You had to go up there,” Estes says, “because otherwise the best stuff never leaves the area – everybody keeps it for their own heads.”
He still fondly recalls the first time he encountered the variety that would become his calling card in the world of cannabis. Fortunately, by the time a Blackfoot Indian he’d befriended in southern Humboldt came to him with a gift of the original Granddaddy Purp, Estes understood exactly how to grow it out, collect the pollen and backcross it. He also knew to let his mother plants flower out each year and then start new mothers in order to keep the strain strong and preserve its potent indica lineage for future generations.
Marijuana Movement In 1993, Estes got directly involved in the burgeoning medical marijuana movement after reading a newspaper account of the arrest (and later release) of Brownie Mary, who famously provided thousands of free marijuana-infused desserts to San Francisco AIDS and cancer patients long before it was legal. Estes was so inspired by her story that he had the article laminated and kept it in his wallet, with plans to show it to the cops if they ever busted him.
“It was like my first cannabis card,” he says.
Spurred on by Brownie Mary’s example, Estes quit working at the string of successful tanning salons he’d opened after graduating from Cal State and turned his attention full-time to the fight for medical marijuana. Well aware of all the plant had done for him, he felt a responsibility to speak up against the oppression of patients who used it for healing – especially those who couldn’t speak for themselves.
“A lot of people get broken down or even beaten when they’re in a wheelchair, but I hadn’t,” he declares. “I had the energy and the gumption to get out there and tell the truth: that medical marijuana patients needed safe access to a better alternative, because the pills were killing us.”
After working with Denis Peron and other early pioneers of medical marijuana distribution, Estes opened one of the very first storefront collectives in California, not long after Proposition 215 made it the first state to legalize medical marijuana. A string of openings and closings would follow, as Estes formed and folded collectives throughout the Bay Area amid a series of armed robberies and law-enforcement raids that left him frequently at odds with the local government – and even some erstwhile allies in the medical marijuana movement.
A stony survivor of the many ups and downs in the medical marijuana movement, he’s managed to roll with the punches ever since – and, in the end, may even come out on top.
Inside the Grand Daddy Growroom “I knew the Granddaddy Purp was really special the first time I smoked it,” Estes recalls as he enters a beautifully maintained growroom full of that famed strain and half a dozen others. “That’s why I gave it to my growers and offered them a premium to produce it. My first collective went from five people on the first day to 500 in the first month, and then on up to 5,000.”
Estes has designed this entire operation to allow him full access in his wheelchair, including the large vegetative and flowering rooms and the smaller spaces for drying, trimming and curing.
Neatly arranged beneath air-cooled 1,000-watt lights, rows of Granddaddy Purp, Girl Scout Cookies, Ken’s Kush, Phantom, and even some experimental varieties sprout up stout and sticky. Ken and his small cultivation team typically space out six plants beneath each light, harvesting 25 percent of the garden every two weeks – a steady supply of medicine that arrives in manageable amounts.
“With the Granddaddy Purp, the white hairs on the bud will start to turn red towards the end,” Estes notes after closely inspecting a bud that’s nearing full maturity. “We wait until it gets to about 50 percent red hairs before we harvest, when the trichomes just start turning amber.” On average, the collective’s growers expect to yield about 1.5 pounds per 1,000 watts in every cycle. They’ve been experimenting with both soil and coco-based mediums.
Estes says one of the keys to bringing Granddaddy Purp to its full potential is providing plenty of air circulation. This room runs six air conditioners that provide 25,000 BTUs of power each, plus a 10-ton central air conditioner and a powerful charcoal filter on the exhaust system. CO2 burners at each end create a carbon-rich environment that supports rapid growth, while pulleys attached to the lights allow them to be raised steadily as the plants grow taller, which means they can be kept between 18 and 22 inches away from the canopy, depending on the strain.
At five to six weeks, Estes and his team strip-clean all the lower branches to allow for maximum airflow, while encouraging each plant to fully develop its uppermost colas until they’re thick with round, dense, sticky nugs. They also lower a net to support the branches, as the weight of so many swelling buds makes the plants dangerously top-heavy.
At six weeks, Granddaddy Purp begins to turn purple; a week later, it expresses its full coloration. “You can make any strain turn purple at the tips by exposing it to low temperatures,” Estes says. “But my strain is purple all the way through due to its genetics.”
Granddaddy Purp flowers for eight weeks, ideally at 50 percent humidity and temperatures between 70°F and 78°F. (Above 81°F, the plants will no longer turn purple.) The harvested branches are dried upside down and not on racks, which can damage the buds.
“We hang them upside down so the buds retain their round, spherical shape. That’s part of how Granddaddy Purp grows. It’s not wispy – it’s a solid-cola bud that’s very dense. You squeeze it, and it should be like a hardball.”
Corporate Cannabis? Asked point-blank, Estes and Cefalu won’t say whether they plan to compete with Wall Street, Big Tobacco, and whatever other dark forces capitalism will unleash themselves on the cannabis industry in the near future, or simply line up for a taste of that oversize checkbook. But either way, it’s clearly important to both of them that people who care about the plant – and the patients – continue to have a strong voice in the way it’s grown and sold.
“I do wonder how the whole game will change, with legalization right on the heels of the medical marijuana movement,” Estes says. “We’ve built a local nonprofit model after dealing with law enforcement and adversarial politicians and zoning boards pushing us into strip malls. So what happens when suddenly Walmart starts selling pot – or the liquor store’s got it?”
No one can tell what the future holds for a legal cannabis industry. But for the time being, only those with the foresight to plan ahead can reasonably expect to compete in an emerging world where growing the nation’s favorite green herb will no longer require breaking the law.