Just before he won the 2013 Amsterdam Cannabis Cup for Best Hybrid with his exquisite Somari, we sat down with Soma – the dreadlocked American expatriate who has guided his company, Soma’s Sacred Seeds, to the top of the industry – in his Amsterdam home. Soma’s a popular, friendly figure in these parts, one who evinces a deep passion for the plant and stands firm against the forces of oppression. He’s a veritable preacher, spreading the gospel of cannabis via his own experience, including his recovery from open-heart surgery using medical marijuana exclusively. As he puts it, people think of him as a “cannabis shaman” and a “cannabis witch doctor,” because he’s convinced that the plant can transform our hearts and, in turn, the world.

Soma sat down with us amid his 13 pet cats – and an expansive collection of crystals – to talk about his cannabis journey.

Where does your story begin?
I was born in Pittsburgh four years after World War II ended. My mother and father divorced when I was about a year old. We moved to New York City and moved in with my grandmother. Even though I was born in Pennsylvania, I became a New Yorker pretty fast. Growing up in New York City is really basic training for going around the planet.

Were you familiar with cannabis at all growing up?
I was such a nerd at 17 ... I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do. I was so straight, I actually joined the Air Force at 17, just before I finished high school. I thought, “What the heck? I don’t want to go to college. I’ll join the Air Force and become James Bond.” Boy, I was so lucky – I failed the physical and they didn’t let me in.

What was your problem?
I had orthostatic albuminuria, which can lead to kidney disease, which I’ve never had. I was bummed, but when it came time for me to get drafted, I was exempt. I started working at IBM on Madison Avenue, wearing a suit and tie in the mailroom. It’s when I first got turned on to cannabis. I bought 15 joints off this guy. It instantly started changing my consciousness. I started going to work so stoned that I was called into the office and given all this shit about my image. And I said, “Look, I quit.” I started driving a taxi in New York City. I could have my hair as long as I wanted. I used to go to LaGuardia Airport in the taxi-pickup line and smoke a joint of this Vietnamese weed that my step-brothers brought back from Vietnam. It was so strong that, by the time I picked up a passenger, I’d sometimes for- get what address I was told.

So when did cannabis become your life’s work?
I loved cannabis right away. I started to experience the psychedelic nature of it; it also turned me into a vegetarian. So, at 21, I moved to Vermont and opened up an organic natural-foods bakery and restaurant. It was hard making money, but I’d started growing cannabis outdoors. I had these seeds from Colombia, which were heavy sativa. I was trying to grow them in the northern climate of Vermont. I didn’t know what I was doing, and they never would have finished, but I ended up getting busted. I learned that if you grow this beautiful plant, the cops will come and take it away if they get the chance – even in a faraway place. I got a year of probation.

Then, in 1974, I moved to Gainesville, FL, where I came across the famous Gainesville Green, one of the first homegrown strains that didn’t come from Mexico or Colombia or Afghanistan or Nepal—it was made in America. After smoking it, I got totally inspired to start growing my own.

Did you remain arrest-free?
No, no – I got arrested in 1983 and went to prison for trafficking cocaine and heroin. Looking back, it seems like some other person or some other lifetime. I totally got lost; once I tried it enough, I got hooked. My daughter got taken away from me by her mother. I was in great emotional distress and portrayed as a bad father. I did end up actually winning that case, but during this one period when I hadn’t seen my daughter for four years, I totally got depressed. I ended up going to prison for two and a half years, losing my first set of dreadlocks.

How would you describe that experience?
An amazing learning experience ... not one I’d want to repeat, though. I learned lessons, not just about survival, but about tact. Because if you use the wrong tactic or don’t use tact, you’re fucked. You’re in there with all these weightlifters. You have to use the weight of your brain. It taught me to use my smarts in a more fine-tuned way than I ever knew.

What did you do after prison?
I got out in 1985, but it was hard to be a cannabis person in Florida. People I knew in Oregon were showing me their cannabis. In most states, cannabis was a felony, but in Oregon, it was a misdemeanor. So I went to misdemeanor-land and started a hemp store – one of the very first.

I met Jack Herer in 1990, and he turned me on to The Emperor Wears No Clothes [Herer’s legendary hemp bible]. He changed me. In fact, a lot of times when I speak – now that he’s gone – I feel like he’s speaking through me. I feel like he uses me sometimes as a vehicle to speak through.

Tell us about your first trip to Amsterdam.
I first came here in 1994. I was a celebrity judge at my first Cannabis Cup. I was given 14 different kinds of cannabis to judge. Every single strain had seeds in those days – they were from seed companies, and the buds that you smoked came with seeds. I ended up with like 200 seeds from those 14 strains.

I labeled them carefully and smuggled them back to America and planted them all. I had my own genetics and started mixing the Amsterdam genetics with my own. I ended up with 10,000 seeds and all of these new crosses. Before I knew it, I had 51 different mother plants. I thought I was in paradise. So, in 1996, I decided to move to Amsterdam.

I’d been busted again, but I jumped probation. I was on three-year probation; I did two years, eight months, but I split. The arrest was for growing, though now it’s legal to grow [medical] cannabis in Oregon. I didn’t want to be a target in this war on cannabis any longer. So I left for a place where I could work with this plant freely.

How did things go?
The Dutch gave me a lot of help and advice. I had 747 plants, but I got busted there too. I was in Serious Seeds’ old growroom, which I took over. The cops came looking for the Serious Seeds guys, not me. I got caught because the place was hot when I moved in.

What happened?
I lost all the plants, but because of the way they cut them down, I was able to bring 22 of my original 51 back to life. They chopped the plants but left a few bottom branches. I lost 29 strains. It was heartbreaking because I didn’t yet have seeds. The paradise that I thought I’d stepped into wasn’t so cannabis-friendly after all.

Believe it or not, though, I was only in jail for six hours – and when I got out, I started over again with those 22. I got new lights, new everything, and started over in the exact same spot. That’s where I had my breeding operation. I started winning prizes in 1999, and I grew there until 2001. That’s when I moved my operation to my home.

Any problems with the law since then?
I got busted here in 2004 when I had 11 really big plants on my roof. It was a freak situation: I was in Spain and, while I was there, somebody committed suicide in Amsterdam by jumping off the roof of the French Embassy. I had people watching the house – it was a nice day in September, and they decided to go out and sit on the roof. The neighbors saw them and thought somebody else was going to jump, so they called the suicide squad. My friends had gone back inside, but the next thing you know, the police were on my roof and found these 11 plants. They came in, started searching and found 11 kilos, plus weed drying from the roof, and busted the place. I assumed all the blame.

I came back from Spain two weeks later and voluntarily turned myself in. My lawyer said they’d keep me for six hours, then let me go. I brought my cannabis medicine with me and smoked a big, fat joint just before I turned myself in. I took a big puff, walked into the police station and let it out – which they didn’t like.

I was in a holding cell for six hours; then they interrogated me and held me for four days. But in those four days, I was the very first person in Holland to have medicinal cannabis given to him in jail. They didn’t know what the fuck to do: You’re not allowed to smoke tobacco [in jail], and they wouldn’t let me smoke my cannabis. Instead, they made me ingest it. So I ended up getting Earl Grey tea and drinking cannabis tea for four days while there. For the first time in my life, I stayed stoned in jail continually.

So what happened?
In court, I said that the apotheek [Dutch pharmacy] weed sucks. It’s the legal – quote-unquote – cannabis here, the stuff you don’t get busted for. It’s not organic; it’s grown hydroponically with chemicals, using pesticides – and they irradiate it on top of that. Not only isn’t it helpful, it’s actually harmful.

In court, I said I’m pleading not guilty. They threatened me with eight months in jail, but I said I’m growing my own organic medicine because it’s better. I brought in a Dutch doctor and expert witnesses who were pro-cannabis, which blew the prosecuting attorney away. He was tongue-tied whenever he had to say something, because my lawyer and witnesses piled fact upon fact upon fact. I took the case to the next higher court, just beneath the Dutch Supreme Court, and was found guilty. However, according to Dutch law, [if I appealed the case and won,] a “not guilty” verdict means the government would have to pay my lawyer’s fees for the entire case – about 50,000 euros. So they immediately pardoned me ... no sentence, no penalty.

How did that make you feel?
Great! I was fighting for a cause. I want all of us to get pardoned for this shit. There is no crime.

Why do you think you’ve become a cannabis celebrity?
I’m on the front lines. I know cannabis is great, capable of healing at least half of the shit that’s wrong on this planet. Research is blowing every lie out of the water. There won’t be a cannabis lie able to stand within the next two years. When I travel, I never say no to a picture. I could be tired or in a bad mood, but I always say yes. It’s one of my favorite things, because people write me later on Facebook and tell me: “I put the picture up on my refrigerator; I look at it every day.” It’s amazing. They see me as a cannabis shaman, cannabis teacher, cannabis witch doctor.

I love this plant. I love studying it from the roots up – every aspect of it. I’ve been a cannabis mentor for many people who are now successful seed-company people – some even more successful than me. That’s how it is in life: The younger generation usually passes the older generation in certain things.

Tell me about the strains you’re proudest of.
Well, New York City Diesel – I love it. I named it “New York City Diesel” right after 9/11, because I’m a New Yorker and I felt so bad about what happened. I wanted New York to have a strain name.

When it’s done right – not picked early and done organically – it tastes and smells just like ripe red grapefruits. Lavender is unique like Diesel, but it’s much more couch-locky. Lavender’s good for a nighttime high, good to go to sleep on.

What about the 2013 Cannabis Cup?
I’m entering Amnesia Haze, which won the Cup last year for Best Sativa. It’s better than last year’s – so beautiful. I’m also entering the SoG Kush, one of my newest indicas. It’s a mixture of OG Kush, LA Confidential and Trainwreck. Then there’s Somari, a combination of New York City Diesel, Buddha’s Sister and Kushadelic. It’s very close to New York City Diesel, but faster-flowering and a harder bud – not an airy bud.

You’ve always emphasized the spiritual aspects of cannabis.
We’re most spiritual as humans when we do things from the heart. If we learn to do everyday things from the heart with feeling, with passion and care, we connect with spirit. That’s where real spirit resides -- in the heart vibe, in that heart space. Once you start operating from that heart space, a spiritual path starts to unfold in front of you.

What do you mean by “spirit?”
Divine energy, higher energy, angelic energy. I truly believe that all of us are angels. But we’re in this state of amnesia. For some reason, some learning lesson, we angels chose to incarnate in this third-dimensional realm, where life is very dense. We struggle to survive, fight with all these dichotomies – all these yins and yangs. We have to figure out what’s really right, what’s wrong, what’s true, what’s false. We have to get through it in a successful way.

How does cannabis enhance our spiritual nature?
Cannabis is a way for people to come together and share. Community starts to happen by sharing ideas, by sharing material goods, by sharing ways of thought. And when communities form, you get group energy going. And once you get it going on a psychoactive, psychedelic level, you see that divine energy really exists; telepathy exists. You see the interconnectedness of life.

Cannabis takes you on a spiritual path that’s beyond the Bible, beyond the Koran, beyond Buddhist teachings. Cannabis is something that continually makes your brain expand.

Last question: Has life been good in Holland?
I gotta use a Dutch word here, because this place really has gezellig. It’s my favorite Dutch word – it means “the warmest, best vibe.” That’s what I feel now. I’m a grandfather of three. It’s really unbelievable being a grandfather and becoming a new pop again. I actually forgot just how much fun babies are, what an inspiration they are, how young they actually make you feel – even when you’re an old-timer like me.