Scott Blakey, perhaps better known under his alias Shantibaba, is one of the pre-eminent breeders in the modern history of cannabis cultivation. He saw great medicinal potential in CBD-rich strains before medical users even knew what cannabidiol was. He was born in Australia, made a career in the Netherlands, and moved to Switzerland twenty-three years ago. On the terrace of his house with a breathtaking view of Lake Lugano and the surrounding mountains, I had an amazing opportunity to interview this living legend, and it was both enlightening and highly entertaining.
Life must be really great here…
I am hardly ever here, I am travelling basically non-stop because I don’t trust most people. I go straight to the source, I knock on doors and ask questions myself, even now. The advantage of being an Australian compared to most Europeans is that thousands of kilometers is nothing for us. I can get into my car, drive one thousand kilometers to have dinner, and then drive back the next day.
“Shanti” means peace and “Baba” means person, so Shantibaba equals peaceful man.
In Europe, people don’t talk to each other even when they are only 100 kilometers away. But my power has always been finding people and putting them in the right place. During the past six months I have been everywhere. Australia, Norway, Spain, Holland, even Portugal, where I’ve got a new license for a 500-hectare farm. Tomorrow I have some Australian guys coming who want me to sign a consulting contract with them. It’s just happening everywhere.
You are one of the most famous cannabis breeders in the world, but when I tried to look you up on the Internet, it was hard to find more than a handful of articles and videos. You don’t care much for crowds, fame, attention?
Rather the opposite. People have to come to see me. I live in the back corner of Europe and I am quiet here. I write my articles, do my things, enjoy my kids who have grown up to the point where now I can “run around” a little bit more now. I think I am in a good stage of life when I can start re-enjoying myself. But no, I am not and nor have I ever been looking for fame.
What does “Shantibaba” mean?
Many years ago, I was in India at an ashram in Poona, attending what they called the multiversity there. I just had a motorbike and a girlfriend, and I used to smoke chillums with the saddhus. One day they started calling me Shantibaba because “shanti” means peace and “baba” means person, so Shantibaba equals peaceful man.
They kept calling me “shanti, shanti, shantibaba”, so it somehow stuck with me. Later I started a company called Shantibaba Enterprises and I have been using it as my penname in magazines, etc. Also, the initials correspond to my real name, Scott Blakey – SB – Shanti Baba.
The truth is that the vast majority of cannabis lovers know you simply as Shantibaba.
I often meet people who say, “Hi Scott, nice to meet you,” and talk to me about a guy called Shantibaba, and I tell them, “You are not going to believe it, but that’s me,” and they go, “Nooo, he is six feet tall, he is a freaking mountain,” and I say, “Well, that was a few years ago.”
When and why did you leave your country of origin?
I left Australia a fair few times as a young university student to visit Asia and South America. I left for good in 1989; however, it wasn’t planned, I just wanted to travel the world for a year or so – like every other Australian. But I fell in love with travelling, I started hitchhiking around Australia, then I went to Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, India, and ended up in Holland, where I started trading gemstones.
Did you finish school before leaving Australia for good?
I finished my studies at Melbourne University, where I did a Bachelor of Science in plant biology and sport psychology – I had a double major. Originally, I thought I would stick with psychology, but instead I started travelling.
When you arrived in Holland for the first time, you had no intention to start growing and breeding cannabis?
Not at all. I went from Delhi to Amsterdam in 1990, and I had the address of one friend in Leiden. So I tossed a coin as to whether I would go to a youth hostel in Amsterdam or visit my friend, and Leiden won.
I always choose flowers over animals – because animals age, but with plants, there is some longevity around them.
Along the way I met so many funny characters, some of them helped me, they rented me a house and so on. That is how the story began – you think you are starting one thing and you end up doing fifty other things, and suddenly doors start opening and things start evolving.
You weren’t selling cannabis seeds then, in the early 1990s?
No, I was just collecting cannabis and other plant seeds, which I had started doing when I was a kid. And I still do, today I have some 50 different landrace seeds still to be worked on. And since I’ve always smoked cannabis, it was a natural thing for me to collect its seeds.
How did the legendary Green House Seeds company come into existence?
Arjan Roskam had already got one coffee shop in Tolstraat street when I first came to Amsterdam. Together with our partners we then built, decorated and opened up two more coffee shops. Then I wanted to start a seed company, so in 1992 we started outfitting a big farm outside of Amsterdam and in 1994 we founded Green House Seeds and hit the market with White Widow and all the other strains. Those were great times, but that’s all history now.
So that was when you finally made use of your collection of seeds from all around the world?
Seeds and plants. But there were many different people involved, lots of knowledge shared. These were the days of David Watson, Rob Clark, Nevil Schoenmakers and others. Everybody was sitting around, enjoying discussing breeding and coming up with new ideas, areas to visit to pick up seeds, and so on. The nineties were the golden years in Amsterdam, it was fantastic. We were all friends, although we had some differences.
You met Nevil Schoenmakers, who was also from Australia, before you met Arjan?
First I met my girlfriend, who was working with Arjan, in 1990, and we all got together and worked together from 1992 to 1998, when I sold my share in Green House and moved to Switzerland. I met Nevil in Amsterdam the same year as Arjan, and we became really good friends because we had so many things in common – like breeding coy carp as well as different varieties of birds.
But obviously your biggest hobby was cannabis.
When you breed, you try to find the quickest way to second generation, so that you can see if your work has been successful. And cannabis ended up having the quickest turnaround. With animals, it takes a year to get to second generation. So that was a natural progression: cannabis became our main focus because we made money from it, we were good at it and we had a different taste.
Super Silver Haze, Mango Haze, Critical Mass, White Rhino, White Widow, Great White Shark, La Nina – so many things came out of that time. I had all the building blocks to create all these strains and to this day I am still making strains for other seed companies because they know they get guaranteed quality, and I do all the hard work for them.
Why did you sell your share in Green House Seeds and move to Switzerland in 1998?
I didn’t really see Holland getting further than being a glorified dope dealing place, and I have always wanted the medical aspect of this plant to come out. I was pretty strong about that. I hadn’t been to Switzerland before and I didn’t know anything about it when a group of Swiss people approached me. Two years before that, I met Howard Marks and, with Nevil contributing, we started Mr. Nice Seed Bank the same year when I left for Switzerland.
Even though it was hard to go from such a big thing as Green House where we were the dream team, we had won everything – 28 Cups at that stage – it was the logical thing for me to do and it was better than where I was. Switzerland is more pharmaceutically oriented, and they had all the greenhouses, which I prefer over indoor growing. I like to turn off the sun rather than turn on light.
It sounds like you didn’t do much planning before leaving for Switzerland, either. Have you ever thought that in a way, the cannabis plant is leading you?
I feel that the plant has chosen me, my whole life. Of course, we are all responsible for our deeds, but I’ve often felt that I was an “accidental” hero because the plant chose me to do this and that. But no one is the “first” person, you inherit things down the line. Take cherry tomatoes – someone decided that was a good thing and commercialized it. It’s someone’s choice that we have certain things.
We were our own worst enemies at that time by making our plants too strong.
If you look at agriculture and cannabis like that, we made a big difference in the world of marijuana in the nineties when we came out with the strongest THC plants and made them stronger and stronger. But in a way we were our own worst enemies at that time, because we were hurting ourselves by making it too strong. This is where all the negative criticism came from – the young kids smoking strains containing 20 or more percent THC and then bang, they were having bad times. At that stage it was all about THC: even when I moved up here, we were working with high-THC plants until 2003.
What exactly was your job in Switzerland when you first came here?
I was working on the extraction of essential oils with absolutely no trace of THC because we were exporting it to the USA to body shops – twenty liters a month. We were the only ones doing this with flowers, using the whole plant. At that time, in 1998, nobody really understood what we were doing; it was basically steam distillation.
Thanks to this contract we were able to run nine farms and were processing twenty tons of plant material every month. I used to go to work with a video camera and drive and then review it in the office later for quality control, because there was so much of it. A drone would have been great in those days.
Was it a mere coincidence that Shantibaba moved to Switzerland, where not much was happening in terms of cannabis, and then some fifteen years later CBD-rich strains with less than one percent THC are legal and can be bought at every gas station in every town in Switzerland?
When I started CBD Crew with Jamie from Resin Seeds in 2007, everybody laughed at me, and we didn’t even know if we were going to survive, if anyone was going to buy CBD seeds. But in 2009 we went on the market and the next year I was making seeds for every other seed company. They were sending me their mother plants, which is unheard of in the seed bank business because the companies don’t share their mother plants. But they sent them to me because they wanted me to “CBDize” their most popular strains. At that stage no one knew how to do it, and we did it first and we had all the business, and we still do to this day.
The advantage of being an Australian is that thousands of kilometers is nothing for us. I can get into my car, drive one thousand kilometers to have dinner, and then drive back the next day.
As regards the CBD boom in Switzerland, the reason why CBD came here was probably pretty much because of me, I was bringing a ton every month from my farm in America four years ago already. This is no longer possible. I knew about the one percent THC law here and, since my cannabis in America was under 0.3 percent, I realized I could import it to Switzerland because there was more of a market for my product than in America, where the market was flooded. It was a no-brainer for me, so I just got all the permits from the Department of Agriculture and so on and started bringing in tons. I was the first one on the market, and my product was in the first CBD cigarettes.
I remember European newspapers publishing stories a couple of years ago about “marijuana cigarettes” sold in Swiss supermarkets such as Lidl.
Yes, that was me partnering with the Heimat company. I always try to innovate, and I know when I’ve got a good product. It’s nice to see how Switzerland became a bit more lenient with the one percent THC rule because no one can really tell the difference between 0.3 and 1 percent anyway. Those rules are all arbitrary.
What brought your attention to CBD more than twenty years ago? There were not so many studies back then and nobody was talking about it.
There were no studies, we were just looking for something different. I had some problems in Switzerland in 2003 when I ended up in jail because some farmers who were under contract with us were selling some stuff and I was the person responsible for everything. In prison, I had time to think and I realized I am not going to leave the plant, so I need to reinvent a way to do it legally – but at the same time, to make sure we don’t lose integrity along the way. And as it happens, one thing led to another – a friend told me he tested one plant and how interesting it was.
He said: “Scott, maybe you should look into it.” So I did, and decided to breed it, and that is how we started. We didn’t have any money in the beginning, for two years we didn’t sell a single seed because no one wanted CBD, most people didn’t even know what it was. But then some studies started to come out, and I was already working with some PhD students from universities and we had made a few inroads, we did understand a few things about this plant, and all of a sudden, Charlotte’s Web came on the market in the States. Which I sometimes think was one of our seeds, but you never know. Anyway, that’s not important, everyone is doing good work.
Around the time, there appeared another phenomenon in the cannabis world – “Rick Simpson oil”, which was supposed to be the strongest possible THC extract. Have you had any personal experience with it, and what do you think about preferring one cannabinoid over another?
Of course, I knew about it; I’ve met Rick Simpson a few times as well. Right at the beginning it was hard to say how much you needed of what. The thing was, and I still maintain it today, the plant is the recipe. We are just trying to replicate what we’ve found. You find a certain plant and that does something to you and then we work backwards – how much THC is in it, how much CBD, which terpenes are there, which flavonoids and other compounds.
And we work out the combination that makes us feel good. However, we haven’t been able to measure everything, so as the technology gets better, we can measure things like how many terpenes there are and in what quantity, and so on. I have always thought the whole plant is the recipe, and I still maintain that to this day.
Which are your favorite CBD strains today?
Yummy, Recovery and Therapy – these are the strains I use for production in the US. Of course, in my seed business I have 45 different mothers – all the THC and CBD stuff, but in the production in America I use mainly these three varieties rich in CBD. I grow them in Colorado and Oregon, and in Washington state I also grow THC-rich plants, such as Super Silver Haze and Critical Mass. Then I bring my CBD plants from Colorado and Oregon to Washington and I can make the 1:1 THC/CBD products there, which is what I recommend.
Some of my mother plants have been alive longer than my kids.
Everyone should have THC as well as CBD available, not just one of them. For me the 1:1 ratio is the answer to so many things. And then terpenes make a big difference. Today science is slowly catching up with what I believed many years ago, and thanks to science I can finally prove it. I have gone from the subculture of cultivation to a businessman and a scientist, I suppose.
It looks like the world has changed.
Yes, and I am glad that I just persisted, that’s all. At least there are a good few varieties in the world that came from our camp.
Now you have cannabis businesses all around Europe and in three states in the US. What about South America, have you been there? Have you thought about starting a business there too?
I have been there, but I am concentrating on my high-end products, not on taking over the world. South America is good, but they are a long way behind with growing. If I went there, I would be going backwards. Europe and North America have been the breeding grounds for me where I can test everything and where I have been successful.
Where do you keep all your famous genetics? In one place or all around the world?
If I told you that, I would have to kill you and eat you alive, but I am a vegetarian, so I am not going to do that (laughs). The truth is I keep a copy of my genetics in America, a copy in Spain, a copy in Germany, one in Switzerland and one in another country. I don’t trust anyone; I am a bit of a control freak in this sense, because those plants have been alive longer than my kids – most of them are from 1992. Sometimes I even tell my kids that I am going to see my “real” girls if they don’t stop with their nonsense. But that’s only teasing, of course. I have also inherited a lot of plants from Nevil which originated already in the eighties, so they are probably older than you.
You have always maintained that you prefer regular seeds over feminized. Why is that?
Mr. Nice is probably the only seed company that sells only regular seeds. Regular seed is still a bred seed. You need male and female. You are looking for different characteristics and traits and you are blending them and doing the right work. Feminized seed, on the other hand, is what I call a production seed. When you find a good female and you want to replicate it for commercial purposes, then you produce a large amount of seeds, but there is no breeding involved. Mr. Nice’s philosophy was to keep old-school genetics alive, and that means keeping male and female alive. That is why we don’t sell any feminized or autoflowering seeds. Autoflowering is what I call population breeding because you can’t keep parent plants alive.
I make feminized and autoflowering seeds for other companies, I just don’t work with them myself. Only CBD Crew strains come in feminized versions because they are intended for sick people, and me and Howard thought that growing from regular seeds would be harder for them. In this case it made sense to produce and sell feminized seeds.
I just don’t want feminized or autoflowering plants in my breeding populations because they reverse a lot of our work. It’s neither a true male nor a true female, and with it you are slowly breeding in different things we were breeding out for many years. From that point of view, the purest are plants from regular seeds. But I make them for others, some very good feminized versions, although it is true that not every strain feminizes so well.
Is Mr. Nice Seed Bank’s philosophy successful?
We are still alive, and we celebrated twenty years with a new line of medical products called Dr. Nice. We had to reinvent ourselves because obviously feminized and autoflowering seeds took a huge share of the market. But there are still breeders who are looking for original male plants, and they come to me. I believe Mr. Nice has one of the best reputations in the seed business, but it is far from a commercial thing. It’s kept alive for people who care.
What do you think about one of the latest trends when it comes to seed banks selling male pollen?
I’ve tried it, and it has a very quick use-by date. Years ago with Nevil, we used to send pollen around to different countries. Selling it by grams – what a job… It worked in limited ways, but it was difficult. Until you’ve got tissue culture, cryogenics and all of that working on your side, I don’t think it’s very useful. It can be used in the agriculture industry where they have all the technology.
Do you work with tissue cultures and cryogenics?
I have access to it in Holland and Switzerland, and we’ve definitely tried a lot of tissue culture stuff for the last several years. I am following everything that’s going on.
What do you think about the indica/sativa concept? Isn’t it outdated in the light of what we know now about cannabinoids and terpenes?
I have never looked at the plant in terms of indica and sativa, rather in terms of building blocks. Afghani, Thai, Nepalese, Indian, South American. Who knows what the pure breed was? Cannabis has been around longer than humans. I mean, how far can the bumblebee fly?
You think you are starting one thing and you end up doing fifty other things, and suddenly doors start opening and things start evolving.
There were definitely landraces and pockets in Burma, Cambodia, Laos and other places. But in most places, there was some THC inbred throughout history because people were trading it and looking for the high. So, it is really hard to say such and such is a pure indica or pure sativa. This classification is just a human thing. We only do it to try to compare our notes and do other breeds, but nature actually doesn’t give a rat’s ass about it. Species evolve naturally; with cannabis we may just have hurried it up and catalyzed things.
What is your preferred method of cannabis consumption today?
Orally. Of course, I use my own CBD products, such as vapes and liquids.
Do you think that CBD will play an important role in the prevention and treatment of Covid-19?
In my years of experience with cannabis and the various strains and the various compounds sought after and synthesized, the body benefits most definitely from using cannabis versus not using cannabis. We have receptors and an entire endocannabinoid system in the body for using cannabis.
This tells me that the body homeostasis is balanced when it has been satisfied with the elements it uses once we ingest cannabis. CBD is a well-known anti-inflammatory – as is CBG. I take my own Rebound and Rebound Plus pills daily. And use my own Flucann lozenges if I start to feel a sore throat coming on… And these all help me in mind and body while keeping my immune system strong.
So to simplify my answer to whether CBD helps with coronavirus – well, it is a definitive yes in my opinion. Since cannabis helps me already all my life with so many other issues both physical and mental, I keep it close at all times. To conclude, I would state that cannabis has made me a better person and strengthened my body and mind, while keeping me free from side effects. I only use cannabis and tea tree oil for all my ailments and avoid using anything else if humanly possible.
How about your children and cannabis life, does it go together? How did you educate them in this regard?
I put my kids through college and everything, so I think it’s all good. It’s very hard to make rules for parenting and decide what’s right and wrong. I’ve always told them to find something they are passionate about and follow it. Because then it becomes an enjoyable thing to get up in the morning and go through your day. And you really need that. Because after ten years of something you can be either half-dead or double alive. I still jump out of my bed every day even with my old back and all the aches and pains. But I love what I do and I can’t wait. But waking up to some office job, getting into a car and putting on a suit… Oh, I just wouldn’t fit in that world.
What about making money as a way of life?
I have never tried to be greedy, you know – taking more than you really need. I have met a lot of greedy people along the way. And I still do, but I recognize them a bit quicker nowadays.
It has been only a few years since Howard Marks passed away, and now Nevil in 2019. How do you reflect on your cooperation within the cannabis legalization movement?
Of course, I miss them most. It’s a mortality check. No doubt we are getting older. Looking at my kids I can see it already. But when I look at my plants, I don’t feel any older, because they look the same to me. That’s why I always choose flowers over animals – because animals age, but with plants, there is some longevity around them.
What are your brands at the moment?
CBD Crew, Shantibaba Seeds, Mr. Nice Seed Bank, Dr. Nice CBD products and the newest addition are the Prague-based companies called Sciva Corporation and Sciva International. When I have been looking around Europe for some good laboratories, good GMP facilities and good people to work with during recent years, naturally I went to the Czech Republic. For me, Czechs are the same as Germans and the Dutch in a way that they get things done; however, Czechs do it with a little bit more humanity and passion.
No one can really tell the difference between 0.3 and 1 percent THC anyway. Those rules are all arbitrary.
They’ve got a bit more heart involved when it comes to cannabis. It’s not just money, it’s not just technology, and it’s not just proving the scientific point. It’s the whole combination of everything and being human about how we can move this thing forward. Because there are no set rules! They’ve been writing them ever since I started in this business, and they’re still writing them to this day. Anyway, I like to work with companies that are like-minded, professional, with GMP backing, scientific laboratories, certifications and legal stuff. And I met a lot of these people in Prague, funnily enough. By the way they are all women and they are amazing.
They have really revived the innovation genie that I have inside me to find a new product and to go forward and formulate the recipe. We’ve worked a lot, and my base products are consistent now and I can replicate them again and again. Without knowing it, I built up the whole of my plants’ stuff, my seeds’ stuff, I’ve got everything selected, made the production, got the extraction, and now I’ve put it together with a Czech company to make it into finished products ready for the European and world markets. It’s just been an accidental evolution, that’s all. It’s been a pleasurable ride.
Have you thought about writing a memoir?
I had thought about it when I was with my ex-girlfriend in Spain who is a writer and film editor. She’s already started to write something, but then I realized I need to be finished with what I am doing before I can write about it. As the saying goes: When you are finished, write a book. But I am not finished yet, I am still a youngster at 56.
Scott Blakey (b. 1964), a.k.a. Shantibaba, is a legendary breeder and grower of cannabis from Australia. He has lived in Europe since 1990 – first until 1998 in the Netherlands and then in Lugano, Switzerland. The co-founder of the renowned Green House Seeds seed bank and the creator of famous strains such as White Widow has gradually become an advocate for the medicinal properties of cannabis. In 2007, he founded the CBD Crew seed bank and was the first in the world to breed and sell varieties with a high content of cannabidiol. His companies sell medical products made from his own cannabis in Colorado and Washington state, Switzerland, Spain, the Czech Republic and other European countries.
Text: Luke Hurt
Source: Cannabis Therapy Vol. 2
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