On April 16, 2019, Phylos Bioscience announced that they were launching a breeding program. The grower and breeder community responded with anger, and for good reason: a company that earned trust in the community through a narrative of standing against monocropping and promoting the protection of small farmers and breeders is now using their data as part of a plan that’s built to support big-ag models and ultimately become their competition.
In a video leaked online from an investor conference in Miami in February, Phylos CEO Dr. Mowgli Holmes shares the company’s overall investment strategy, which puts breeding at the center of it. According to Dr. Holmes, Phylos now considers itself a “legacy data company” and the genetic sequencing and sex test services they provide growers and breeders only exist to support the breeding project. Some of the statements Dr. Holmes made dismiss the work of the very breeders who contributed to their research and suggest that their breeding project will create “outrageous new strains” to replace them. Dr. Holmes’s presentation to investors confirms many of the fears the community has had about Phylos’ intentions for years.
Phylos was able to allay these concerns and counter these fears through the work of the Open Cannabis Project. Our story has been a key part of shaping their public image as altruistic and science-loving protectors of the cultivation community. OCP started as a project of Phylos to “protect” heirloom varieties from overbroad patents as cannabis transitions into a legal market. In late 2017 we became our own organization, with a new board and new leadership, built with the intent to carry out the same mission — to prevent people who did not invent new cannabis breeds (“patent trolls”) from receiving monopoly-granting patents.
For the past year and a half, we have done our best to carry this out. But we have also discovered that our task was harder and more complicated than we anticipated. We had trouble raising enough money to sustain the effort in the medium term — we never had more than one person on staff and a handful of volunteers. Though we were able to do some work in service of solving our primary problem, ultimately we have not solved it — though have discovered many ways to do this work better.
Through it all, and despite our best efforts, we’ve been called a fraud, a scam and a cover for some kind of secret plot. At first, we thought it was simply a technical misunderstanding of the subject matter. Now we know that there is truth to some of these fears. For those of us who were brought into OCP as it separated from Phylos, we came on board because we sincerely believe in protecting small growers and breeders during this crucial transition to a legal market. We also feel we have been deceived. As a result, no matter what we do as an organization going forward, Open Cannabis Project will never escape this deception.
We cannot take responsibility for the actions of others, but we can acknowledge the role we played in it — albeit unwittingly. We can also love our friends and still draw clear ethical boundaries. Now that we know what we know, we are doing our part to make it right.
For all of these reasons, it is time to say goodbye to the Open Cannabis Project. We will sunset the organization by the end of May 2019. The open data set will remain in the public domain, hosted at an organization such as the Internet Archive and of course on NCBI. We will do our best to share what we’ve learned with anyone who’s interested in taking this kind of work further.
Our final public offering will be a Legal and Advocacy Clinic for breeders and growers on licenses, patents, interstate commerce, and new FDA hemp regulations. The event is part of this year’s Cultivation Classic, with proceeds to benefit the Craft Cannabis Alliance and potentially another nonprofit.
We are grateful for all the support that was given to us, particularly for the past year and a half. We are also grateful to our critics because they too care about protecting small breeders and growers and want to make sure it is done right. We hear you.
There are still some pressing issues facing growers and breeders today. All of us at OCP, and particularly the signatories on this letter, would like to hear from you so that we can begin to craft a plan to truly protect small breeders and growers together. If you are interested in research and activism around breeding, open source, documentation, data and law related to inventorship and ownership, here are some problems that still need to be solved:
- The cannabis community still needs better documentation systems for legal, scientific, environmental and R&D reasons, as well as community-led frameworks to support it.
- Growers and breeders still need legal resources to help them protect their work — and, really, legal resources in general.
- There are still overbroad patents that could be countered, though they aren’t just on plants and likely require a new strategy.
Many of us look forward to using what we’ve learned in continued service of solving these kinds of problems, with new partners and new directions. If you have an idea or question about any of these things, please get in touch.
Though the organization is ending on a sad note, we are proud of much of the work we’ve been able to do. We’re excited to see what grows from those seeds, and for all the rest of it to turn into compost.