ON APRIL 1, I woke up to the sound of my phone delivering a message from Ben Dronkers, when I saw the message that our old friend Nevil had passed, I set up, grabbed my joint from the night before, and shed a tear as I started thinking about how I first heard about him in the pages of High Times magazine.
For those of us that grew in the 80’s, the ads running in High Times for high quality cannabis seeds by the Holland Seed Bank seemed too good to be true. The man behind the Seed Bank became a mystery to us all until he let the editor of High Times write a story about him on November 6th, 1986, and effectively change his life forever.
Nevil Martin Schoenmakers was born on February 2, 1957 to Dutch parents in Perth, Western Australia. When he was a teenager, Nevil scored some imported “Indonesian weed” as he called it, with his schoolmates and loved it, and was quoted in High Times as saying; “…we got extremely ripped, I really liked the sense of time distortion and everything happening so slowly.”
With his parents pushing him to become a young professional, he was offered a job as a lab assistant at a local University, and he accepted the job, which would end up being more of a burden than a blessing. Nevil was so good at his job that he was given the position of acting head of the anatomy lab with responsibilities for the operating room, animal room and office. His duties include administering drugs to the animals and he was given a set of keys to the drug cabinet, and put in the position of ordering drugs when the supplies were low, which would end up being his undoing.
Being the curious type, and feeling as if he was lied to about cannabis, he decided to start trying the other drugs that were available at his disposal and developed a taste for morphine. As many drug addiction stories go, Nevil lost his job after getting busted for drug possession, and it did not take long for the police to figure out where he was getting his supply. He was forced into rehab and around the same time, one of the girls that he sold some drugs to got busted, she identified him as her supplier and he was arrested again and charged as a dealer. By this time he was a full-on heroin addict and enrolled in a methadone program that he found to be very dehumanizing, stating that they made him “beg for drugs”.
Facing eminent prison time in Australia, he fled the country to Thailand, stayed in hotels and shot heroin until his money ran out. He then moved on to a different hotel, sold his belongings and started living the life of a junkie until he felt his time in Thailand had come to an end and all his resources were depleted. He phoned home to his parents in Australia, only to be told that the authorities had already visited the house with a warrant for his arrest. So instead of going back home to Australia, he flew to an Uncle’s house in the Netherlands.
When he arrived in Netherlands he enrolled in a methadone program and did his best to kick his habit, but unfortunately it did not work. Nevil moved out of his uncle’s house and into a city in the Netherlands called, Tilberg, which at the time, was a junkies paradise. The heroin epidemic was rampant and Nevil got sucked back in again, as he states in his interview with Steve Hager back in 1986: “Smack was being sold up and down the counter, it was a madhouse. Apparently the police didn’t or couldn’t do anything about it. It went on like that for quite some time. When the police would close one place down, everyone would move to another bar. It was a fairly rough town and I went through a time of hardship. I had no money except welfare, I had a raging habit, I was living in a town known for being tough and criminal and I cost the state large chunks of money as I went through all of the available drug rehabilitation programs. After having made numerous failed attempts at stopping, I decided no one could help me. Which is true. No one can help a junkie. He can only help himself. So I decided to kick heroin on my own. I convinced a doctor to give me ‘ludes to sleep and synthetic opiate, which probably didn’t do anything. I stayed home and suffered for six weeks until I reached the point where I could handle alcohol. Then I started drinking every day, a half bottle of Scotch in the morning, a have bottle at night. I used the ‘ludes to sleep, so that there were always a certain part of the day blocked out. Eventually, I got sick of hangovers and turned to grass. I’ve decided it was probably the only acceptable drug.”
While trying to kick the habit in 1980, Nevil came across a copy of the Marijuana Growers Guide by Mel Frank and Ed Rosenthal, which renewed his interest in cannabis cultivation, as back in Australia he grew some cannabis outdoors and really enjoyed it. And as crazy as it may sound, the drug program he was enrolled in gave grants to drug addicts to get them started doing something useful with their lives, so Nevil applied for a loan to build an indoor grow to make seeds, and he was granted the money. As Nevil was quoted in High Times; “I told them I wanted to grow weed indoors. They weren’t thrilled with the idea, but they gave me the money anyway. There was a vacant lot behind my apartment and I filled it with weed. I had Nigerian, Colombian and Mexican seeds. The Mexican was the best, I still have the strain, my dwarfs come from it”.
So with a loan from the Dutch government, Nevil became a seed merchant and the world of cannabis would never be the same. But because there was not much of a market for Naderweed, as it is called in Holland, Nevil became a hash oil maker, using petroleum ether which is extremely flammable and caused him to have a fire. Nevil suffered burns all over his body and singed his hair and ended up in the hospital where he was given morphine, but instead of continuing the treatment, he refused more shots because he knew he would turn into a junkie again. After that harrowing experience with the fire, he stopped making hash oil with flammable alcohol and focused on selling seeds.
The Holland Seed Bank printed its first catalog in July of 1984, although it was not much of a catalog, it was just pieces of paper with a list of available genetics being sold at $0.25 a seed. Nevil had been collecting genetics at the coffee shops that were getting imported cannabis from various countries. In his first catalog he states that he could not guarantee the purity of the seeds, as he was not the one who bred them. The initial catalog included varieties from Jamaica, Colombia, Indonesia, India, Malawi, Mexico and more. But he quickly discovered that a lot of these equatorial genetics did not do so well indoors or in the Northern climate of the Netherlands.
Fortunately for the Seed Bank and really, the entire Dutch grow scene, an American named David Watson arrived in the Netherlands and brought with him some very valuable varieties of cannabis; Afghan #1 & Durban Poison that he got from Mel Frank, Original Haze that he had gotten from his old friends the “Haze Brothers” in Santa Cruz, Hindu Kush, and the plant that he bred himself, the now famous, Skunk #1. In the mid 70’s, David founded the very first modern cannabis seed company called the “Sacred Seed Company”.
Nevil’s cannabis genetics collection completely changed when he met Watson, as it introduced him to stable varieties that would become his best sellers. Initially Nevil just purchased seeds from Watson and resold them, until eventually Nevil inbred the lines, and started reselling the Skunk, Afghan, Hindu Kush and Haze varieties as his own, a practice that would become very common in the community of seed sellers. It was also around this time that Watson gifted Nevil three male Haze plants that would become legendary, as Nevil would use them to create some of the most popular cannabis combinations the cannabis community had ever seen. As indeed, most of the varieties that Nevil would use to make his breeding famous, he was gifted by Americans.
In the 1987 catalog of the Holland Seed Bank, the very first page showcases Skunk #1 which was bred in the Santa Cruz mountains in the early to mid 70’s. Skunk #1, was the choice plant for most indoor growers because of its stability, uniformity, and it’s exceptional scent and high. The plant was so popular with breeders that it is found in some degree in almost all varieties of modern cannabis smoked today.
In 1985 an American breeder named Greg showed up with a variety called Northern Lights. Greg, sold, gifted or traded it with Nevil, and Nevil made it famous. As he did with other varieties that he got from the states, such as Big Bud, California Orange, Early Pearl, and Haze.
I see Nevil as a great artist, much like Pablo Picasso did not invent the red and the blue and the green, but it is his combination of those colors that we all appreciate, and very similar is the art of breeding plants. Nevil took these primary plants, Northern Lights and Haze and did not just cross them and call it a day, Nevil numbered every male and female and tested the crosses to determine which of the two plants had the best hybridization. Nobody hears about Northern Lights Number 1, 2, 3, 4, X Haze A, B & C, but he crossed them all and determined that Northern Lights #5 x Haze (A) worked best. And that may sound simple, because it’s really just selective breeding, but unfortunately, most people that came after him making seeds are not like Nevil. They do not take the time to really breed and make varieties that are fantastic, they are simply chucking pollen at plants and calling it a day. But this is why I think Nevil was truly an artist, as he was really taking the time to breed, and not simply making seeds.
One of the varieties that Nevil offered in his catalog was called Ruderalis, a variety he said he collected from wild plants growing along the Russian-Hungarian border. It has an early flowering characteristic that he was breeding into other plants, because many places are challenged with a Northern environment, plants that flowered really quickly opened up more areas where cannabis plants could be successfully grown. Nevil’s Ruderalis became some of the early genetics that would become the ever so popular autoflowering varieties.
Nevil was also traveling to places such as Afghanistan in order to find seeds, as it was his famous photo printed on his 1987 catalog, taken along the Khyber Pass, simply holding hashish and smiling, that was used by both the American DEA and Interpol as his wanted poster.
OPERATION GREEN MERCHANT
Through the 1980s, the Holland Seed Bank brought in millions of dollars and provided tens of thousands of people with quality cannabis seeds throughout the world. While there were other seed companies selling the same genetics. Perhaps it was his courage, naivety or simply not giving a shit, and selling seeds in ads in High Times to the United States, that caused him both his incredible success and sadly a severe downfall.
The Holland Seed Bank was a rather sophisticated operation; when somebody from the United States ordered seeds from the Netherlands, they had to send actual cash to the Netherlands, and the Seed Bank catalog suggested wrapping the cash in carbon paper to avoid detection. The seeds were then sent to the buyer from within the United States, as Nevil set up deals with various Americans where he would ship them bulk seeds and they would redistribute those seeds based on the letters and then later faxes, they received with instructions containing codes for different varieties and how many packs, with an address to send them to.
According to the sworn affidavit by Raymond Anthony Cogo, dated January 26, 1994, in early 1986, Nevil was taking phone calls and answering questions from his customers about seeds when he received a phone call from Raymond Anthony Cogo. The two men developed a friendship and in the summer of 1986, Nevil invited Cogo to visit him in Holland. By January of 1988, the two men developed a trusting friendship and Nevil asked Cogo if he would distribute seeds for the Seed Bank within the United States, Cogo agreed, so from about February, 1988, until June, 1989, Cogo acted as Nevil’s distribution agent within the United States.
Cogo not only distributed seeds for the Seed Bank, but in 1988, Nevil and Cogo structured a deal where Cogo would sell nutrients. As Cogo stated in his sworn affidavit to the DEA: “Schoenmakers told me that he would pay me $10 for every seed order that I mailed. Later, my compensation for this service was changed by agreement with Schoenmakers, pursuant to which he had Charles Benjamin Frink give me the Seed Bank’s formula for liquid fertilizer, and agreed to endorse it when I started to the market it in the United States.”
Unbelievably, Ray Cogo is still selling the nutrient solutions he got from the Seed Bank, on his company website “Cogo’s Original Cannabis Formula” he states on the “About Us” page: “Ray Cogo traveled to the Netherlands in 1986 to 1989, where he collected herb and flower formulations from professional cultivators, then he returned to the USA.”
Because Nevil was advertising in a nationally distributed magazine, the DEA was obviously onto the seed sales, they did not, however, know where the seeds were coming from within the United States, and according to the affidavit by DEA agent Carl Pike, the case against the Seed bank started on June 7, 1987, when DEA agent Patrick Warner ordered seeds from the Seed Bank. On July 14, 1987, he received 71 seeds by mail. This started routine seed purchases by the DEA in order to establish a case against the Seed Bank. Because these officers were based out of Louisiana, Nevil’s indictment was filed there.
Cogo distributed seeds for the seed bank from February, 1988, until June, 1989, when he was arrested in Michigan for growing cannabis, sentenced to serve six months in jail. At Cogo’s wife’s request, Nevil sent them $30,000 to cover legal expenses. Up to this point, the DEA did not know the connection between Cogo and the Seed Bank, but that was all about to change.
According to his sworn affidavit, while Cogo was on a work release program, he learned that the company that was handling distribution for his liquid fertilizer, Superior Growers, Inc., had stolen the formula and was cutting him out of the picture. He says that this and other things led him to go to law enforcement authorities and agree to cooperate and providing information about his dealings with Nevil and the Seed Bank. Cogo states that the authorities were not to his knowledge aware of his serving as the Seed Bank’s distribution agent at the time. Cogo became the source of information to the DEA about not only how the Seed Bank was conducting its business, but he even turned over to the DEA the lists of people Cogo was mailing the seed to within the United States for the Seed Bank. In Cogo’s own affidavit, he states: “Although Schoenmakers told me to destroy these lists, I kept them as a record of my activities in support of his operations.”
On February 8, 1990, with information provided directly by Cogo, Nevil and Charles Benjamin Frink, were indicted by a Louisiana grand jury. It is almost impossible to determine how many people were raided directly by the DEA from the more than 11,000 addresses that Cogo provided to the DEA. The customer lists that he turned over no doubt became the first victims of Operation Green Merchant, as DEA and local police stalked out local gardening stores for potential cannabis cultivators. What is more alarming is that the DEA agents already had the addresses of the people who received the seeds during the time that Cogo was responsible for sending them. By knowing who the growers were, it was simply a matter of following them to their local gardening shop and implicating the garden store owners as conspirators in the manufacture of a controlled substance.
This type of abhorrent behavior was very common during the drug war, and greatly rewarded. In his affidavit Cogo also states; “I have cooperated with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and its investigation of the activities of Neville Martin Schoenmakers and others. No charges have been made against me as a result of the facts related herein, although I fully appreciate the fact that my statements have the effect of incriminating me.”
It saddens me to no end to think about how many lives Cogo destroyed simply because he found out the bottling company he used for his nutrient company was screwing him over and he wanted some type of twisted revenge. While I was researching the true history and timeline of Nevil’s case, I could not help to notice Steve Hager’s 1987, High Times article attached to Ray Cogo’s affidavit as “Attachment 1.”
The DEA’s “Operation Green Merchant” started on October 26th 1989, and by the end of 1991, the operation had arrested 1,262 people, busted 977 indoor grows and confiscated $17.5 million dollars in assets.
On July 24, 1990, Nevil was arrested in Australia while visiting his family. Even though Cogo provided the DEA with over 11,000 addresses, Nevil was only charged with sending a total of 1,921 seeds to DEA agents and growers in the New Orleans area from 1985 to 1990, but he was also charged with the cultivation of more than 1,000 plants, by tying him to the conspiracy charges of people who purchased his seeds and grew cannabis in the United States. Nevil served 11 months in prison in Australia while he awaited extradition to the United States.
While sitting in prison, Nevil’s friend and Sensi Coffee shop owner Ben Dronkers, cut a deal with Nevil and purchased the assets of the Seed Bank, his son Alan Dronkers, moved into the cannabis castle and continued Nevil’s work. In June of 1991, the Australian government gave Neville a $100,000 bond which was posted, and within six weeks, Nevil left the country and went back to the Netherlands, where the Dutch government would not extradite him to the United States for something that was not even a crime in the Netherlands.
The Seed Bank became the Sensi Seed Bank and and released its first catalog in 1991. The one big change was that seeds were no longer sent to the United States. Ben Dronkers decided to look East and directed the seed companies marketing towards the emerging cannabis culture coming from the Eastern Bloc of Europe, the move was brilliant and most likely saved the now Sensi Seed Bank from more indictments, as the DEA kept it’s prized informant Ray Cogo a secret till he gave his sworn affidavit on January 26th 1994, and his involvement in the case became public record.
I first visited the Amsterdam Cannabis Cup in November of 1994 with Jack Herer and the crew of High Times, I was fortunate enough to attend the very first tour of the Cannabis Castle open to the public, which was really, just open to the friends and family of High Times, and was when Ben Dronkers christened Jack Herer with a cultivar named in his honor. Nevil was nervously in attendance and stayed on the roof for most of the festivities, dressed as a ghost no less.
While I was living there in 1996, the working relationship between Nevil and the Sensi Seed Bank ended, for a short while Nevil went to work with Arjan and Scotty aka; Shantibaba, of the Greenhouse Cafe, which had started its own seed company just the year before. Unfortunately, personalities clashed and the working relationship did not last that long, but in that time, Nevil bred his Northern Lights #5 x Haze, crossed back to Haze (C), and called it “Nevil’s Haze”, that combination was incredible. He then took that plant and bred it against Skunk #1, and that became the multi-award-winning Super Silver Haze.
In the years that followed, Nevil moved back to his home country of Australia, and for a short while was making a comeback in the industry he helped create, but as a longtime drug user, he was battling both hepatitis C and also cancer, and unfortunately passed away in March of 2019.
The mark Nevil left on the cannabis cultivation community is tremendous, his influence is undeniable, and the many varieties that passed through his hands have become legendary. I believe that the entire cannabis community owes much reverence to Nevil for his dissemination of genetics for so many years.
When I lived in Amsterdam in 1996, I had the great pleasure of hanging out with him numerous times, playing chess with him and learning from him. On numerous occasions my girlfriend and I were invited up to the castle to smoke hash, sleep over and be inspired. Nevil was always very open in his discussion about cannabis breeding and was very willing to explain to those who did not know as much. Nevil was a kind teacher to me and I will always appreciate time we got to spend together.
Long live the legend of Cannabis Castle.
Nevil Martin Schoenmakers
February 2, 1957 – March 30, 2019
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