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Is Hop Latent Viroid Everywhere?

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Hop latent viroid (HLVd) is one of the most devastating things ever to hit cannabis, with researchers estimating it could be costing the industry up to $4 billion per year in financial loss. But are the streets safer than the recreational mega-farms that were decimated in the transition to legalization? We reached out to some hitters from both sides of the fence to see if HLVd has had the same impact on the underground cannabis market that it’s had on the recreational market.

For those not in the know, HLVd is one of the worst things to happen to cannabis since the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Currently, the viroid is considered one of the biggest threats to both the global cannabis and hop industries. Viroids are the smallest known infectious agents that can cause diseases in plants. The first viroids were found in potatoes in 1971, and then eventually, HLVd was reported in two out of three varieties of hops in Spain in 1987.

Many plants affected by the disease are also asymptomatic, meaning there are no symptoms or signs of infection early on. Later, the viroid will fully express itself and ruin a plant’s yield and vigor. In the case of cannabis, this prevents a plant from reaching its full potential when producing cannabinoids and all the other good stuff. HLVd’s costs to the cannabis industry have now run well into the billions at this point, and it’s fair to think that the loss may even be over $1 billion on the trap side of the market, too.

High Times Magazine, April 2024

HLVd Takes Off

Last year, researchers in Canada and Japan consolidated all the known data about HLVd to get the clearest picture yet. The research, published in the scientific journal Viruses, cited a 2021 survey conducted by Dark Heart Nursery. 

Dark Heart’s founder, Dan Grace, was quick to agree with the idea that HLVd had to come out of the trap. 

“All the genetics we have now came out of the illicit market, that stands to reason,” Grace told High Times. “It’s just a matter of historical facts. The virus was all over the place way before 2017. I mean, we learned about it in the Emerald conferences. Maybe like [in] 2013, people were calling it PCIA for ‘Putative Cannabis Infectious Agent.’”

Grace said people at The Emerald Conference—a cannabis science and psychedelics science event put on by MJBiz Science—were presenting qualitative data at that time when no one knew what HLVd was. Dark Heart’s 2021 survey “showed that it had been growing for years at an exponential rate, as one would expect from a virus,” Grace said, noting HLVd is now everywhere. “But to the question about the illicit market or regulated market, I mean, I guess all I can say is that back when all of us operated in the illicit market, none of us knew what it was or had the resources or anything else to figure out what it is. It’s only with transparency and very transparent, honest communication that we can start to solve the problem.”

Dark Heart was one of the first organizations to identify HLVd in 2019. Two years prior, the nursery began working with Dr. Jeremy Warren, who oversaw the study of intentionally infecting healthy plants with HLVd and analyzed the symptoms of sick versus healthy control plants. Warren confirmed that HLVd was the cause of “dudding” symptoms, such as yellowing leaves or stunted growth.

Dark Heart research included an examination of 100 California cannabis cultivation operations between August 2018 and July 2021 and discovered that in 90% of those grows, one-third of the plants were infected with HLVd.

More research would be necessary to truly understand the scope of HLVd across the thousands of licensed cannabis cultivators in California. Still, it became clear that it was, and continues to be, a serious problem.

Many have attempted to cull plants infected with HLVd, but in reality, a grower’s best bet is to start with clean clones from scratch. To do that, companies reach out to specialized nurseries to buy cuttings started from tissue culture that are ultra pristine and free of disease. One of the popular providers of these cuttings is Node Labs in Petaluma, California.

Given their expertise on the issue, we asked Node Labs’s co-founder and Chief Business Officer Dan Adler-Golden if he thought the compartmentalization of the trap scene from the legal market makes it safer from hop latent viroid. He argued the opposite.

“The trap scene is where hop latent initially thrived and was unknowingly proliferated with some legendary strains for years,” Adler-Golden told High Times. “Because infected plants can be asymptomatic, the lack of information on the viroid combined with minimal screening practices led to widespread contamination among truly elite cuts.”

It’s not crazy to think that as California nurseries transitioned to the legal era, the infected mother plants they brought into the newly birthed rec market came from the unregulated market. It’s not like everyone hunted new genetic stock to go legal at the end of 2017. Adler-Golden explained that Sour Diesel was a famed cut known to have been circulated widely after it was infected.

“It is only in the last few years that pathogen testing has become widely available, and stock can readily be screened,” he said.

We also asked Adler-Golden whether he thought the smaller selection of clones available when the market went rec had the biggest impact on the spread to so many cultivation sites.

“When the market initially went rec, there was a brief window of time when many nurseries were operating and even supplying their clones at retail, resulting in lots of great options for consumers,” he replied. “However, pathogen screening was not common practice, so cultivators would inadvertently introduce the viroid into their stock by purchasing clones from different nurseries.”

Adler-Golden closed, noting that while general pathogen screening services have improved, there are fewer operating today than a few years ago. It’s very difficult for a professional operation to survive handing out dirty cuts anymore.

Information & Prevention

Popular NorCal cultivator Paki Grower believes small isolated unlicensed grows like his have a slim chance of getting infected.

“[In] isolated environments such as homes or small personal gardens, you would think that there’s less possibility if you’re taking your own clones and growing from seed,” Paki Grower told High Times. “That’s very situational because it can jump from room to room and grower to grower so easily. It just depends on who is messing with whose cuts.”

Paki Grower noted that a lot of the genetics he works with are sourced directly from Wyeast Farms. Wyeast is testing all of its cuts every few months. In recent years, researchers found that crossing an infected parent with a healthy one can spread HLVd in the seeds. Tests found the viroid on the outer shell of seeds made from infected parents and within the seeds themselves.

“Wyeast is testing everything he takes into quarantine, and with guys like him having a large collection of heirloom cuts that he might not be able to replace, it’s that much more important to him,” Paki Grower said.

He went on to note that even though he believes he is in a more protected situation, the recreational market is starting to take a better course of action. Things like bleaching tools are an important step, given how easy it is to spread HLVd. Imagine that the first clone you take with a fresh razor is infected; how heartbreaking are those trays of cuts going to be?

And part of the problem is just knowing what you’re looking at. It’s difficult to identify HLVd until it’s too late. Testing is cheaper than ever, but you’ll still need a refined eye.

“I mean, I guess from a grower standpoint, you’re just going to have to pay a lot of attention to detail in the room,” Paki Grower said. “Yes, things can slip by. They can maybe fail to have been detected. Maybe they can pass testing and be hiding and come up at a later time. So the best thing that growers can do is to make sure that every plant that he has is healthy, and if anything is looking out of health, you need to analyze to make sure that it’s not a number of things that aren’t related to that virus.”

Just presuming everything is related to HLVd will make your room susceptible to a host of other issues. You should ensure all those other boxes are checked regularly before presuming your weak crop is infected with the viroid. But if all those boxes are checked, and you believe your room to be pest and stress-free, it might be time to get some testing done. At least that’s more affordable than ever.

We asked Paki Grower if he felt there was the same level of fear in the underground economy as the recreational market when it came to HLVd.

“It’s funny you say that because I’ve worried about it for the last couple of years a lot. And every time I see a plant that’s in kind of crappy health, it could be a user error, it could be an environmental disadvantage. I’m always stressing out about that, dude. That it could be the viroid,” he replied.

But it is admittedly a background concern that pops up instead of a feeling of inherent threat given his practices.

“I still don’t feel threatened because I deal with kind of just a very select few cuts, and I haven’t seen it in my area here, but we’re talking about, you know, smaller spaces,” Paki Grower said. “We’re not talking about big facilities with margins.”

Paki Grower went on to make another interesting point about the famous strains we no longer see in the marketplace. He believes many of the genetics that wore out over time were victims of HLVd.

If anything, it’s pretty clear that HLVd has transcended all types of cannabis cultivation operations regardless of their legality or scale. It comes down to sourcing the genetics you’re selecting for your closet, greenhouse, or warehouse from reputable places and implementing the best practices to keep them free of the viroid.

At the very least, it’s cheap enough to quarantine any new cuttings you bring into the mix and get them tested these days. You only need a little tent and an LED panel to keep it away from the rest of the kids. Then, just hope the test is negative for HLVd.

Hopefully, as cultivators continue to learn more about the disease, even more cost-effective solutions will be discovered.

This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of High Times Magazine.





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