Purple weed was already a thing when Ken Estes got his hands on Grand Daddy Purple in Mendocino County and brought it back to his grows in the bay area, but that journey south really put the winds in its sails.
We ran into Estes during our recent travels to cover Spannabis and the wider Barcelona club scene. He noted he had spent much of the last decade dealing with his health — this is what originally forced him to take his foot off the gas back in the mid-2010s. But his impact to this day is undeniable. We’d catch back up in California to talk purple a few weeks later.
While not as prominent in the era of 40 new exotic flavors a month, GDP, as Grand Daddy Purple would be known to many, still dots menus up and down California. Prior to the rise of dessert weeds following Cookies hitting the scene, GDP was where people went for a combination of flavor and impact. Even Cookies’ most famous sibling Cherry Pie was the Durban F1 used to make cookies paired to GDP.
But before all that came to be, GDP was the last stop for those looking for high-impact cannabis that wasn’t OG Kush. Some would also argue the purple was a bit more couchlock-heavy than the OG Kush of the time. And while Ken Estes certainly didn’t invent purple weed, he changed the demand level, all while living through the dark ages of cannabis.
And he was loud. Few pushed the limits like Estes. During an event in 2010, he opened a dispensary 20 yards from the steps of Oakland city hall. When he wasn’t executing his business plans, he was hitting city council meetings, eventually opening one of America’s first chains of dispensaries with his Grand Daddy Purple Collective shops in NorCal. His being so “out there” during that era led to frustrations for both his peers and city officials, but folks certainly had a knack for following Ken into town.
Estes’s path to cannabis would start after a motorcycle accident at age 18 in the 1970s paralyzed him from the neck down. Prior to the accident, Estes had been playing soccer at an elite level in California. Pele, in town with the New York Cosmos at the time, gave him a call of support from the hospital’s lobby so he wouldn’t have to fight the crowd there to support Estes in the days following his injury.
Six months into his rehabilitation, he experienced cannabis for the first time with a group of Vietnam veterans who were in the same care facility. This began his lifelong connection to medical cannabis.
“I was a young kid. I was 18. My first personal experience with weed was pretty strong. But I went back to my room and I slept all night. It was the first night in six months I slept all night,” Estes told L.A. Weekly.
He recalls how common the idea of marijuana being medicine was. All the nurses and doctors knew. And he certainly knew it was medicine from his first experience. After that first joint, Estes would end up having eyes on the scene for the next 45 years.
“I’m shocked and surprised where this movement went,” Estes said. “I thought we were just in California getting it for patients. When I started, it was the gay world that came from fighting for gay rights to we have people dying in San Francisco of AIDS. Why can’t they use marijuana? And then Brownie Mary got arrested and that changed the game.”
Mary Jane Rathbun was a San Francisco General Hospital volunteer. She eventually became famous for baking hundreds of brownies a day as the AIDS epidemic hit San Francisco hard. Between 1981 and 1992, she was arrested three times for her famous brownies, but her activism helped push Prop 215 across the finish line. Now, Brownie Mary Day is Aug. 25, in San Francisco.
But we quickly turned back to that first rotation in Vallejo. Since he was still fully paralyzed, the orderly had to hold the joint to his lips for him. But over the next few years, he would work to the point that allowed him to gain some independence.
“It really took me years of intense exercise, but I was an athlete. It was three years, four years, before I really started being able to transfer onto my bed. I could transfer (to) the floor, put my knees together, leaned forward over my legs to transfer back to my chair,” Estes said of his rehabilitation.
That moment he was able to transfer on his own signaled to him he would be capable of living on his own. Marijuana was already his lifestyle well before that day. He was still fully paralyzed the first time his friends took him up to Arcata in Humboldt County.
“I found the Skunk. I found Thai Stick. I found people with Columbian Gold and Panama Red,” Estes said of that first trip at age 19. “I found marijuana so awesome that I wanted the good stuff.”
He’d run into brick weed. The compressed nugs were far from medicine and he knew it. It further motivated him to search for the best options. That first trip north arose from a friend telling him he knew a guy with sensimilla.
“I said, what is sensimilla?” Estes noted with a laugh. “It’s a seedless weed? And it’s green, lime green? Let’s go there.”
The locals hooked him up, given his medical situation. He scored his first pounds of sensimilla for $100 bucks. That would be about $460 today.
As for the traditionally tight community up north, especially during the early era of enforcement, “My disability broke me in. People were very compassionate and they understood medicine,” Estes said.
Estes noted his original host in Humboldt understood the benefits of medical cannabis all too well having recently lost his father to cancer at the time.
“He lost his dad. His dad had cancer. He got help from cannabis. They think it dragged his life another two years, but he swears he was happier. He saw other people who were on pharmaceuticals dying. They were miserable, moaning, and his dad (had) weed on the way out. He really is a compassionate man,” Estes said.
Estes pointed to the statement “all cannabis use is medical.” He said he gets it, to different degrees. But in his case, it wasn’t really up for debate, and the farmers of The Emerald Triangle showed him a lot of love.
Part of it was because they knew in addition to it being for his own medical use, he was paying top dollar. Some of the brown frown was going for between $30-$50 a pound. Estes wanted nothing to do with it.
“When I got the first Skunk, which was fluffy, I had 24 bags. I sold it for $100 a bag and I would buy that. Next time I bought the Skunk it was $200, the next time it was $400 a pound and after that it was $500 a pound,” Estes said.
We asked Estes as he watched the pound price creep up, when did he know it was time to become his own supplier and get in on the cultivation side? He laughed and said it was right around the time he saw that first $500 pound. He’s already been collecting seeds in film containers and noting what they were.
In 1977, he would purchase his first hydroponic system. He said it took him about a decade to get to the point where he is comfortable looking back and saying he was dialed in. To help put that into perspective, the biggest movie of the year in 1987 when Estes started growing heat was Beverly Hills Cop 2.
The first grow went well, but he missed the part about changing the plants’ light cycle to get them to flower. By the time he did, they had been vegging for a couple of months. The plants exploded and he started selling grams for $5 after the harvest.
“I actually started catching a BART to the 51 bus on Market Street. The 51 bus took me over to Haight Street and Stanyan McDonald’s right there. I’d set up with little tiny bags in there. And I could sell down the street over there for 20 bucks,” Estes said. This was around 1984 and 1985.
Estes would move his garden outside. That wasn’t a bad thing — in that era, the best outdoor was widely regarded as the best cannabis available, period. He said it took another decade for the best indoor to start beating out the sungrown.
He saw cannabis grown under High-Pressure Sodium lights for the first time when one of his buddies took a light from a baseball field. Eventually, the HPS lights got a bit more normalized, but there was only one place you could buy them at first. Going in and grabbing more than one light was a red flag to anyone casing the store. Estes and others would send friends and family to grab a light each, until they eventually had enough for whatever size room they were trying to put together.
“If they saw you putting 10 lights in your car, they followed you home. You had a search warrant on your house a week later. So we were all nervous about that,” Estes said.
In the late ‘80s, he moves back indoors and starts building out grow houses. The product would eventually end up in Dennis Peron’s San Francisco dispensary. He would go from a 10-light house to a 100-light operation in Oakland in 1992.
While it was a big jump doing 10 times as many lights, he was confident in his standard operating procedures. He also had a lot of faith in his nutrients and pest management ability, too.
When Peron shut down, Estes went on to work a stint at the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club. Eventually, Estes decided to open up his first dispensary in Concord in 1997. As Estes went from city council to city council attempting to open more shops in places with no ordinances around medical cannabis, he faced a lot of opposition. Some of the very cities that he went to battle with are now booming cannabis commerce hubs.
But back then, he was attacked by 1990’s and 2000’s NIMBYs, terrified of the thought of cannabis in their town. They would call him things like a street dealer.
“I said you have never spent one time in my house and at my table having dinner with me. You don’t know who I am at all sir, or ma’am. But I was attacked all the time. That was the way they did it back in those days for sure,” Estes recalled.
He said San Mateo was the most vicious municipality of all back then. He estimates he probably opened 20 clubs over the years in different cities.
Estes credits his activism to meeting disabled activist Dan O’Hara. O’Hara rolled his wheelchair across America and the length of the Mississippi River. He was a vocal advocate in Sacramento and Washington D.C., for the disabled. He was even honored by President Jimmy Carter for his efforts, and the Vatican. Estes and O’Hara became friends.
“So I became very, very active, much more of an open activist. It was not a secret. I wasn’t behind the scenes.”
Estes has witnessed every level of cannabis regulation in California. We asked what it was like seeing things go from Prop 215 to the legal era. He thought it was all going to move a lot faster, given how fast he opened a shop in the wake of Prop 215 passing.
“Even though I wasn’t granted a license to have my facility, and I’ve always lasted about one year in these towns, it was enough to start the dialogue, to start the process where other people came behind me pushing, getting attorneys. And next thing you know, there are ordinances,” Estes said.
The conversation would turn toward the purple weed Estes helped turn iconic. Back when he was exposed to purple on his earliest trips to The Emerald Triangle, it didn’t denote some special quality. He’d see the haze Jimi Hendrix made famous in the late 1970s. He said it was good, but it wasn’t great.
But in the early 2000s, he started to notice some purple strains were bomb. The Purple Erkel was high on the list for quality, but it was a very finicky plant to deal with. Estes argues the Erkel is really just Lavender and everyone changed the name.
“It was finicky, but when you smoked it, it was fire. It had that taste,” Estes noted.
In 2003, his relationship with purple would change forever. He was showing his friends Charlie and Sarah, they were Blackfoot and Pomo Indians. The Pomo have a deep history in Mendocino.
The Pomo traditionally lived in what is now the area around Clear Lake, Alexander Valley, and the Russian River watershed. The Pomo spoke seven different dialects while living in small independent communities that relied on hunting, fishing and gathering to meet their needs.
Estes showed the pair some Big Bud x Erkele from Bodhi. A lot of people thought that was the GDP, but it wasn’t. It did do well though, taking home top honors at an early cup in L.A. at one point. This put the purple, and the affection Estes had for it, on Charlie and Sarah’s radar.
During a later trip to visit their home on the Eel River, Estes saw some suits as he was pulling up. He provided the pair with cash from a score he had made that day to keep their home. Charlie would go on to tell some other folks in the tribe about what Estes had done.
Eventually one of the members of the tribe showed Estes what they called Purple Medicine. It was phenomenal.
“He brought it to me. And I had a bright light shined on them. I was like, oh my god, this is amazing. The color was amazing, purple everywhere. But you could have rolled that pound out of the bag like a bowling ball. It all stuck together,” Estes said. “They had it for 18 years. You could peel buds off the pound like velcro.”
Estes wanted to buy as much as he could, but after a few rounds, the tribe didn’t want to do business with him. They gave him the cut of Purple Medicine so he could run it himself. It became what we know today as Grand Daddy Purple. Estes went all in on his new cut and changed all of his operations to GDP. When he couldn’t produce enough in his 200-light operation, he brought it north for his friends to grow, too. Since he was paying $4,000 a pound, they were more than happy to run it for him.
“I know what I got. I’ve got this. This is it. This is to me just like the Grand Poobah. It’s like the grand something, Grand Daddy Purple, and then I high-five Charlie,” Estes said, remembering how he came up with the name.
As he started making the trip more regularly, farmers would wait for him south of Garberville to try and catch him before he spent all his money on someone else’s weed. One time a utility truck flagged him down at night, the pounds were inside the bucket you would use to do maintenance on a telephone pole.
Estes said the best GDP came from all over. It wasn’t a particularly challenging plant to grow, so a lot of different people in various conditions were able to make the most of it.
On his way back from up north he would call his friends’ answering machines and just say Grand Daddy Purple and code word that it was on its way south. Eventually, he would open his shop in Oakland’s former Oaksterdam neighborhood. Oakland loved purple.
“People back then thought purple meant it was overdried or always moist or something. And then there was no purple on any menu,” Estes said.
In the earliest days of trying to convert Oakland to purple, Estes would hand out nugs to the people in line at his competitor and offer refunds to people who bought eighths if they didn’t like it.
“Pretty soon, within six months, we got E40 and Keak Da Sneak are smoking it. It was on Weeds. It was in Pineapple Express. Snoop Dogg said on Howard Stern it was his favorite strain. It was just this crazy blow-up thing. I did kind of have the idea it could happen, but I didn’t know it would happen as fast as it did,” Estes said.
Estes began collecting seeds from the 200 lights. Every run there would be a dozen or so. When he decided it was time to hunt for a male, he had about 60.
“I backcrossed it to stabilize the genetics. I tried to focus on the traits that I like, the rock-hard buds, the nose, the nice branching, the dark green waxy leaves, so that we came up with Ken’s GDP,” Estes explained. He argued some people liked Ken’s GDP better than the original. In the most technical terms, Ken’s GDP was essentially Grand Daddy Purple Bx1.
He also took that male and put it in a room with seven of the bomb strains out at the time. Estes said a lot of people won cups with the seeds that came out of the room. He believes a big chunk of what’s commercially viable in the market dates back to that breeding project.
Estes ended up dealing with a federal case for six years. Nobody wanted to touch him at the time.
“You have to almost like, stop doing what you’re doing to get them to leave you alone,” Estes said. “I remember being in their office in San Francisco and asking, why do I have this target on my back?”
One of the things that caused Estes some headaches was his choice to start declaring his cannabis income on his taxes early. He figured if he was paying his taxes, how could they say it was illegal? Well, they certainly took the money no problem.
“I want all my cases, but it took me six years. I had three federal cases. I got raided in 2005, 2008, and 2009,” Estes noted.
One of his shops was caught up in the massive San Diego sweep of 2009 that saw 13 stores shut down. People would tell Estes they weren’t growing the Purple anymore because he was too hot and he shouldn’t come around.
But the more cultivation in urban settings got normalized, the less he needed people up north to help, as GDP would prove to be an indoor strain. When you run it outside, it’s 80% leaves and 20% buds; thankfully it’s the exact opposite indoors. While it wouldn’t quench the thirsts of the eventual three-pound-a-light crowd on the hunt for maximum dollars, it was always heat.
These days Estes is doing his best to keep GDP alive. He recently had it tissue-cultured. While a popular long-term storage method, tissue culture is also a way to clean a plant of diseases. The freshest piece of the meristem is cut before it has a chance to be infected like the rest of the donor plant. Two people are currently running the clean version of GDP.
“I just want to be the brand ambassador,” Estes closed laughing.
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