It’s early afternoon on May 20th, 2019 and on the other end of the phone is Arjan Roskam, best known for his lead role on the television series “Strain Hunters,” although his relationship with cannabis dates back to the ‘80s. In 2005, Roskam approached his team of global strain hunters with the idea of taping the team’s strain hunting expeditions. “I went into my office in 2005 and said, ‘Guys, you know what? We’re going to film [our excursions].’ My partners Olaf and Heiko go, ‘Arjan, you’re crazy. We’re going to die. We’re going to lose our business.’ I didn’t care. I only have one goal: activism and legalizing marijuana. It is more important than my family, as crazy as it sounds.”
On January 2nd, 2017 Roskam lost his right-hand man, Franco Loja, when he contracted “a very aggressive form of brain malaria in [the] Congo … we came back, and he died in the hospital here in Barcelona,” Roskam shares. On the day that we speak, it is Loja’s birthday.
When asked what he has lost in Franco’s passing Roskam observes, “Nobody ever left our team of people. We are a great group of people. The most important thing that I lost was a great friend.” Loja, like Roskam, was willing to jeopardize his life if it meant more access to the benefit of medical and recreational cannabis. “Him and me,” Roskam asserts, “we had the same philosophy, shy of whatever happens, we’re going to [strain hunt].” From hunting with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the FARC in Colombia to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean all the way to Malawi in southeastern Africa, Loja and Roskam risked their lives many times. “Our [strain hunting] team has nearly been killed in Malawi by drunken soldiers, we lost a cameraman in South Africa, who we found a day later in the bush. We had a huge issue in the Congo, in the north, with a general who didn’t like us and one of us was taking a shower in the river, naked, which was basically the death penalty there. In northern India, we became so sick [from] food poisoning that we all nearly died,” Roskam details. So, how did Roskam get his start in the cannabis business? It began in the north of Thailand in 1982.
Thailand 1982 – Painting a Picture of a Medicine Man
I had stumbled upon an early interview with Roskam in which he mentions receiving a gift of cannabis seeds from a medicine man in Thailand in his teens while on holiday. How did this seemingly serendipitous encounter launch Roskam’s lifelong romance with the plant?
“Well, you won’t believe the setting. I was very, very young. I think I was 17 [traveling] with my rucksack to north Thailand. [At the time] I had been to Thailand many times. You have to remember I grew up in Africa and Asia so I was kind of familiar with the area, and I went on holiday up in the north to see Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai,” Roskam reflects. At the time, in the early ‘80s in Thailand, many people were suffering from opiate addiction. “[The medicine man] was curing them of their addictions, treating them with marijuana at the time, and I was just a very occasional, recreational smoker but nothing special. I was just looking for a sleeping place actually, because I was going through the mountains and [the medicine man] offered me a sleeping place.” It wasn’t until the early morning that Roskam would realize how devastated the village had become as a result of opium. “I didn’t have a clue where I was until the next morning when I woke up … I see some people vomiting, and I see all kinds of pretty weird stuff around me, which was strange.”
“At that time, the [medicine man] was already 78 years old … he was not a young guy anymore. I asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ He responded, ‘We’re treating people here with drug addiction.’” Roskam had only planned on staying one or two nights, but his visit turned into a week-long stay. The medicine man mentions to Roskam that the cannabis is being used in lieu of quitting opium cold turkey. “He gave me a handful of seeds and said, ‘This is a very powerful medicine, it’s very good, it’s used in all ancient medicine in Asia.’ He said, ‘Keep those seeds. Those seeds in the future, they are so powerful. They will be able to overthrow governments.’” Roskam took the seeds and although to this day he is unsure where they ended up — he misplaced them during his travels, but he returned to Europe with a new sense of purpose and started growing. “I basically started working with marijuana because of that man,” Roskam asserts.
Holland – The Skunk Years
As a young teen intending to become a world-renowned chef, Roskam worked in the service and hospitality sector. “My dream was to become a Michelin star chef,” Roskam laughs. After some serious reflection on his initial life goals, Roskam started growing. “At the time there was nothing happening in Holland; actually, there was no marijuana industry, there were no marijuana coffee shops in Amsterdam.” He notes that at the time the only person who had brought the first skunk seeds from America was Old Ed, a legendary pioneer of the Dutch marijuana scene. “I got ahold of [Old Ed’s] skunk seeds and started growing skunk,” Roskam notes. With his seeds in tow, Roskam started building relationships with some of the early coffee shops. Through the ‘80s he often traveled to Thailand, Nepal and Southeast Asia, bringing seeds back to Holland, and began to breed sativas and cross strains. “You have to remember at that time there was only skunk and orange bud, which were kind of the same thing,” Roskam shares.
Between ’87 and ’89, Roskam built his repertoire with Amsterdam coffee shop owners leading to his attempts to sell his cannabis. He desired to do something different and put his skunk days behind him. He would drop off samples, return for feedback, and learn quickly that they hated it. “I came with something new to the coffee shops. They called it ‘cat piss’ (the sativas and the kush). People weren’t used to it. You have to remember [that] Holland comes from a hash culture, so 90 percent of what Holland had was hash from Morocco and a little bit from Afghanistan, some Nigerian schwag, some Jamaican.”
Eventually, the coffee shop owners came around, but the problem remained in the “budtender” recommendations. “Back then, the budtenders as you would call them today, they didn’t give a shit about weed, they didn’t think [my stuff] was good, so they wouldn’t promote the product to their customers, which was a bummer of course,” Roskam chuckles. This continued on until 1990 or so when Roskam’s wife said to him, “If you really think this is so good, why don’t we open our own club?” Thus began Roskam’s dive into the Holland coffee shop scene.
Tolstraat 1992 – The Green House
Roskam was no stranger to solitude, having spent the ages of seven onward in boarding schools. His wife and he sensed a similar loneliness in the early ‘90s as they attempted to launch The Green House coffee shop on the Tolstraat (a street) in Amsterdam.
“I had no money. I had nothing. We were, my wife and I, very, very poor. At one point we were so poor we were kind of living on the street,” Roskam opens up. “We were kind of just cruising around in the center of Amsterdam, and I had one good friend whose sister had four bars, her name was Marsha. She had famous bars where all the theatre people from Amsterdam would come, the left wing [people], the gay community, artistic people, the painters.” Roskam’s connection to Martha was the catalyst for the opening of The Green House coffee shop. “My good friend [Marsha’s brother] we grew up together from the age of 12. I said, ‘Listen. I have this great idea. We should start a coffee shop. We’ll make it like an artistic café, we’ll sell alcohol and we’ll sell joints.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’” Roskam and his business partner approached the Heineken brewery with a proposal to open a bar, got a loan for one hundred thousand guilders (the currency of the Netherlands until 2002) with backing from Marsha, and opened up the club. At the time, one hundred thousand guilders was a fortune.
“It was a big nightmare. We made [the space] very beautiful, I sent a letter to the mayor inviting him to come for the opening. I sent a letter to the head of police to come to the opening because it [was only] the third coffee shop with alcohol, it was pretty rare, that didn’t exist then. At that time coffee shop licenses didn’t exist … they came in 1995,” Roskam iterates.
From the launch, The Green House faced immense problems. The cops showed up and wanted to shut the place down. Roskam’s lawyer worked diligently to keep it open. They had no customers because no one liked the weed they were selling. “People would say, ‘It’s still the same, it’s cat piss, we don’t want to buy it,’” Roskam says. From nine am until one in the morning, Roskam would lay on the couch in the shop waiting for customers who never arrived. “Maybe I was selling 25 dollars’ worth of beer and coffee each day,” Roskam shares. This was in the Spring of 1992.
The lack of sales had Roskam’s business partner and Marsha worried. She had vouched for the shop for Roskam to get the initial loan. “My partner and Marsha saw that [the lack of sales] was jeopardizing all of her businesses. After three months my partner said, ‘We’re losing so much money Arjan. I am stepping out. You can keep it; you pay me back whenever you want.’ Which I did later. So here I am on my own, with my wife, with a place that’s not running … nobody likes my marijuana. Then in January of 1993, a car stops in front of the door, a big limo with the Kennedy family*. They stepped out [of the limo] and I had no idea who these people were, I didn’t even know of High Times’ existence. They said, ‘We heard that you have some special marijuana. Do you want to enter a contest around Thanksgiving in November?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ I had nothing to lose.” The limo drove away and some months later in November when 500 people would show up on the doorstep of The Green House coffee shop. “The club’s still not running [well], I’m with my wife, and total panic breaks out and luckily, luckily, luckily we had old enough weed [to enter into the competition].”
“To make a long story short, there were I don’t know, 25 coffee shops entering into the Cannabis Cup. The award ceremony was like five or seven days later … these were the times of Steve Hager. At that time The Bulldog coffee shop had a discothèque called the Buddha Club, and he gave High Times permission to do the ceremony there.” Roskam goes on to express how crazy a weed world championship contest was in 1993. “Which idiot is going to award the marijuana contest where all the cops are going to come, you know what I mean? There were 25 television stations there to film this because no one had ever seen a marijuana contest. CNN came, and BBC and Japanese television and South African television and the whole lot! I am standing in the back, I think I am 27 at the time, so I am super young. There were six big prizes to give away. Well, guess what? I won five of the six prizes,” Roskam punctuates with excitement. “From there on the whole Green House saga started.”
1995 – The King of Cannabis
In 1995 Roskam created kingofcannabis.com. “At that time there was a big repression by the United Nations – from the French, Americans and Swedes. They were bashing on Holland because [they felt] our drug policies were very dangerous for the youth, bad for the world. They thought that Holland should be stopped and that the coffee shops should be closed. We were scared to lose our business,” Roskam flashes back.
During this time, Roskam penned his book, “How to Run a Dispensary.” He hoped that American weed entrepreneurs like Steve DeAngelo would take the book and go back to America and spread his message. “That was the plan. And it really worked because I became friends with Bill Maher, Woody Harrelson and Kirk from Metallica. We got 150 A-list supporters and family. Roskam felt that coining himself The King of Cannabis would be a prelude to greater awareness and more opportunity to share his message. In 1995 Roskam along with others in the community created a big cannabis union called the BCD (there is no English term/translation for the union), which still exists to this day.
From 1995 to 2005 Roskam built his awareness campaign. By 2005, he had spoken at more than one thousand seminars. “I was educating police officers. I had so many high officials, judges, district attorneys, the whole lot, and it was hard work,” Roskam notes. He began to get fed up with the haters who would bash on him through forums. Roskam took it upon himself to prove through action that his awareness campaign was real and pledged to film his hunting endeavors. “Strain Hunters” was born.
2005 and Beyond – “Strain Hunters”
“If you look at the quality of the movies, the first three or four, [it’s obvious] that we were making the films ourselves. You can see the difference in quality [between then and now]. At one point, National Geographic came and picked it up, they did an entire episode. Then Shane [Smith], the owner of Vice [Media] called me and requested a meeting in New York.” Vice Media would film, produce and air one “Strain Hunters” episode filmed on site in Colombia. After that, HBO approached Roskam, resulting in another episode.
After Franko Loja’s death, the show was put on pause. “Franco died, so the last two years we didn’t do one. But, I am thinking, at the latest, next year we’re going to pick up ‘Strain Hunters’ again and we’re going to make a whole new series, because Franco’s replacement is here and we had to work really hard to find someone [who could fill Franco’s shoes]. Every time I go on a mission, and I go on many missions … I’m looking into my kids’ eyes and they know it could be the last one. It’s not easy, it’s hard … I have to do this because the plant is so valuable and I am very, very sure in the next 10 to 20 years we can cure or prevent [the majority] of cancers.”
Roskam is hoping to film another ten episodes of “Strain Hunters” with no intention of slowing down. Removing the many misconceptions that surround cannabis seems to be what his legacy will be built on. It became apparent during our conversation that Roskam’s connection to small communities who employ cannabis holistically appears genuine. “We can see in Morocco, where we were running around, that the chickens and their eggs are much better to eat because in the big marijuana fields in Morocco the chickens live on marijuana seeds,” Roskam states. “In the Congo, we see children suffering with stomach issues due to malnutrition. The oil and seeds from hemp are very, very important for these children who often have nothing else to eat … It’s the ignorance, the stupidity, the politicians who don’t get reelected, the Christians, the Catholics, the pharma, the alcohol industry – they are responsible for the misconceptions about cannabis.” Roskam goes on to say that in Vietnam, they are using hemp to attempt cleaning up soil contaminated by Agent Orange.
As we enter into the months of summer, Roskam and his team are wrapping up building a large factory in Canada. “We just acquired the first outdoor license in the history of Ontario, Canada,” he shares. “We are extending our factory and will be producing 12 tons of materials next year.” Roskam’s team has also established a factory in the Congo almost two years ago, which is now currently feeding 250 families and nearly 700 children. Roskam says, “We’re going to be making medicine for the people of the Congo.” He also has plans to globally expand their genetics while keeping all material organic and hopes to begin filming full-length feature “Strain Hunters” films now that the team is in full swing again after Loja’s passing.
It appears wherever he goes, Roskam finds pockets of people using cannabis for much more than recreational enjoyment, and he has no plans of slowing down any time soon.
*Michael Kennedy was a civil rights attorney who was one of the trustees who took over High Times as a publication following the original founder Tom Forcade’s death in 1978.