The Tears Of The Phoenix
by Bruce McEwen, October 8, 2013
The highly concentrated cannabis known as "Phoenix Tears."
An early morning call came last Tuesday while I was sipping my first cup of Major Dickason’s Blend at Schat’s Bakery across Perkins Street from the courthouse:
“AVA crime desk, this is Bruce.”
“Do you really want to know what’s going on with medical marijuana?”
“Not really, but the readers probably do. Why?”
“Be in the parking lot at The Avenue of the Giants 10 o’clock tomorrow morning and you’ll see first hand how we’re treating Stage Four cancer patients.”
“Who, may I ask, am I talking to?”
“What we’re doing is highly illegal, so I can’t give you any names. But I’m a graduate of the 707 Cannabis College.”
“Uh, well, lemme think about it.”
“Be there, or be square. Bye.”
The courthouse was full of newspaper reporters covering the child murder case with defendant Wilson Tubbs. I could hardly turn around without bumping into Glenda Anderson of the Press Democrat or Tiffany Revelle of the Daily Journal; besides, a weekly can scarcely keep pace with the dailies in an extended murder trial so I thought, what the hey. I went home and packed my road gear, grabbed my old six-string and joined the trimmers hitching north with their dogs and guitars.
Surprising how many of these young people are no more than high school age. “Shouldn’t you be in school,” I often asked. “Naw, dude. We, like, home school. Try this new Blue Dream strain I grew this year.”
All these kids were on vacation, it seemed. No wonder truancy is such a problem. Learning to grow pot is far more lucrative than anything being taught in the schools.
It was a glorious fall day, the trees shedding their autumn leaf, and the traffic vibrant with out-of-state license plates. Passing motorists seemed eager to pick up hitch-hikers and learn about this fabulous new form of tourism: The Harvest Holidays.
I made it in to Garberville by late afternoon, and went to the new Chautauqua healthfood store, for supplies. With its heart of redwood siding, copper roofing and abstract tile murals, the exterior looks more like a glitzy Carmel art gallery than an old hippy health food co-op. Inside, all the latest in glass and chrome, spacious aisles, everything clean and neat as a pin. Even nicer, though somewhat smaller, than the co-op in Ukiah.
The Humboldt Way seems to have undergone a Hollywood makeover, and all the talk was about a projected new sitcom called Garbleville. This new affluence and the heady conceits it has engendered may explain why Southern Humboldt now wants to get rid of the grungy argonauts who live on the streets and festoon the sidewalks with les merde du chiens. Every business, save Shop Smart, denies them the basic human hospitality of toilet facilities, so it’s little surprise that they sometimes crap and piddle right out in front of the businesses and residences that have been so inhospitable.
Congressional candidate Andy Caffrey was holding court outside at the little downtown park, but this reporter was leery of getting sucked into the thrall of the would-be Governor of Ecotopia. I walked the two miles to “Dredway,” above the Eel River, and went in to Redway Liquors for a bottle of Frey’s organic table wine. Then I caught the local bus to Miranda. I got off across the street from South Fork High School at sundown and disappeared down a trail into the towering redwoods. More school-age kids were hanging out in the woods, passing joints. Home schoolers, doing their homework. I made my camp on a bed of redwood boughs behind a gigantic moss and fern-covered log, ate my modest supper, and rolled up in a blanket for the night.
In the morning, stiff with the night’s chill, I went down to the parking area in the Avenue of the Giants and made tea in a Sierra cup over a can of Sterno. I stretched and yawned, reclined on my elbows and gazed up at the motes of pollen dancing in the sunbeams streaming down through a cathedral of sequoias, listening to a very scholarly raven lecture on fractal architecture and the glory of nature. By 11:30, I was about ready to give it up and move on. But then my rendezvous finally turned up.
“You’re late,” I groused. “Damned late!”
“You’re on Humboldt time now, Mendo man. Get in.”
Due to the nature of the appointment, I won’t give a description of the people I encountered; no names, no addresses, none of that. Law enforcement will be disgruntled by my deference to anonymity, but even the boldest of law enforcement officers, the ones who give me leads, always insist on remaining nameless themselves, so they'll understand. A young man we'll call River, and a young woman we'll call Sky, took me up into the golden hills and parked on a sunny southern exposure where they had a series of greenhouses set up and a couple of motor-homes parked.
The greenhouses were made with lengths of three-quarter inch PVC pipe, bowed over and fitted onto pieces of rebar driven into the ground. A row of these would be covered with a papery white fabric which covered the plants at night and could be pulled back to let in sunlight during the day. The greenhouses were full, but the marijuana was only just being harvested, and a half-dozen trimmers sat around on lawn chairs with specially made RubberMaid trimmer trays on their laps. These trays were designed with secondary trays, a fine-mesh screen in the bottom of the top tray to sift the keef into the lower one. Amazing how quick big business is ready to produce such equipment — available even to quasi-legal pot growing operations. But the grow appeared to be legal by most Humboldt standards, even though Mendolanders would be keenly envious.
However, I was soon informed that I wasn’t brought all that way to observe an ordinary pot pharm in production mode. Something more out of the norm was on for the day, and it proved to be quite dangerous — and not just because it was illegal. What they were going to produce for my edification was a batch of highly concentrated cannabis called the “Phoenix Tears.” For this, my hosts had brought out approximately four pounds of last year’s bud, all trimmed and ready to go — however, nobody wants to pay for last year’s pot, even though it has been kept in “a cool, dry place” and has nothing wrong with it. I was reminded of day-old bakery bread. The year-old pot was weighed. It came to 5.3 pounds with the big heavy trash bag it was in.
This was all done by a technician who preferred to be called Bambi. She set up a big restaurant-size rice cooker on a sturdy wooden table. She plugged the rice cooker into one of the motor homes. Then she opened a 20-gallon container of isopropyl alcohol (99%) and poured about three gallons into a plastic five-gallon bucket. Using a big wooden paddle, Bambi then stirred about a quarter (approximately one pound) of the manicured marijuana into the bucket of alcohol.
The lecture began.
“The alcohol kind of melts the bud,” Bambi said. She was wearing rubber gloves, the kind used to wash dishes. “You don’t want to go into the sun with the Phoenix Tears on your skin,” she cautioned us. Then she checked her wristwatch and said, “I like to leave it in the alcohol bath for about seven seconds. The Simpson recipe which uses naphtha only goes for three — they were doing this back in the 1920s,” she said, “when it was first used to cure cancer.”
Bambi then used first a colander and then a frying pan spatter screen to strain the mixture into the rice cooker, a bit at a time.
It was hot and dry on the hillside with tall yellow grass all around. As the rice cooker heated up and the alcohol began to boil, a cloud of vapor swirled up and drifted along on the soft breeze. It looked something like melted glass and distorted the scenery behind it. I glanced anxiously around for a fire extinguisher. Bambi noticed my apprehension and told the trimmers, “Don’t anybody light a cigarette. Absolutely no smoking, everybody.”
It took about 25 minutes for the alcohol to boil off, and during this time the vapors sometimes drifted in my direction as the light breeze shifted. I didn’t feel comfortable breathing the stuff so I got up and moved around. I was still nervous about the lack of a fire extinguisher. Bambi said she thought she had one in her car, or maybe it was in the motor home. I hoped it was in the car. If the cooker caught on fire there would be no getting into the motor home — it was too close to the door. It occurred to me that this demonstration was probably not something anyone should attempt at home. Like making nitroglycerin, it is better left to professional chemists. Not to mention the legal difficulties a person would be risking.
As the alcohol boiled down to the last cupful or so, Bambi used an eyedropper to add precisely eight drops of water, counting them aloud. “The water drops,” she said, “makes the remaining alcohol boil off completely.”
Bambi then turned the cooker off and we waited for the Phoenix tears to cool. With a rubber spatula she licked the brown goo out of the cooker into a cup. It netted about a quarter of an ordinary coffee mug. By the time the rest of the four pounds had been processed, the cup was full.
At the end of the process, Tears tech Bambi put the coffee mug with the finished product on a low-heat coffee mug warmer and let it stay there for the next few hours to simmer off any remaining moisture, and after a while the bubbles were all gone and it was a thick brown/black tar-like substance. (The reference to “Simpson” is Rick Simpson, a Canadian who recently won the World Cannabis Cup for his development of the technique I was shown in So Hum. Mr. Simpson has his own web-page and is the subject of several others, all easily found by googling Phoenix tears.)
I asked, “How many doses will that make?”
“It’s hard to tell,” Bambi said. “For most people a dose the size of a grain of rice on the end of toothpick, taken orally, is enough to stop even severe pain for several hours. But it depends on a person’s resistance, and the severity of the pain they are suffering.”
“How much does it sell for?”
“We don’t sell it. We give it to people with severe pain, mostly stage four cancer patients. But I have used it as a sedative to subdue and calm people who are dangerously upset, violent, or insomniac. Depending on an individual’s resistance, a small amount the size of a rice grain can be as effective as a Quaalude, or some comparable pharmaceutical sedative. Do you have pain or trouble sleeping?”
“Not anything a few beers won’t overcome,” I said, declining a sample.
We talked about the difficulty in transporting the Phoenix Tears to patients, and I noted that even in Humboldt where law enforcement is less gung-ho about interdicting marijuana transportation in moderate amounts, possession and transportation of concentrated cannabis is still a very serious crime.
“One of these days,” Bambi said, “after the war on drugs is over, all these judges and prosecutors and cops will be extradited to Ecotopia where they will face a war crimes tribunal for keeping patients — especially some of the smaller casualties — from getting effective medication.”
When Andy Caffrey is Governor of Ecotopia, and after the big earthquake splits off everything from Point Arena to Humboldt Bay in a physical secession from the union, we'll see these trials. Sometimes, even a few days in So Hum is wayyyy too long.
After a splendid luncheon washed down with the wine I’d brought — “Hey, don’t panic, it’s organic” — Sky and River drove me back to Willits where I caught the bus to Ukiah. Reading about the Wilson Tubbs murder trial in the Daily Journal and Press Democrat, I was glad I’d missed it, even though I had to risk being burned alive or indefinitely jailed for my outing. ¥¥