The first thing you have to know about Michael “Big Mike” Straumietis is this—when he first started growing cannabis in his home state of Illinois, having up to 20 plants could get you six years in prison, 50 plants 10 years and more than 200 plants, 30 years. Oh yes, and those prison sentences were mandatory minimums. The early 1980s was not a good time to be caught cultivating.
It was a life in the shadows, a life on the run. So you’ll forgive Big Mike if he is living a bit, well, ostentatiously lately. You may have seen him on Instagram, the “Marijuana Don” partying at his mansion with bikini models and huge quantities of premium herb or hopping across the country on a private jet. The six-foot-seven-inch giant is living the high life for the rest of us and he doesn’t care who knows about it.
As the founder of Advanced Nutrients, Straumietis has done well for himself in the cannabis revolution of the past two decades, through his company Advanced Nutrients, the world’s largest hydroponics nutrient company specifically for cannabis. He’s been tweaking his formulas for three decades and had scientists in Bulgaria studying cannabis long before states began legalizing it for recreation.
“My whole life has been spent studying the plant and how to manipulate it . . . I wanted the best product in the marketplace.”
Straumietis recently took time out of his busy partying . . . um, work schedule to talk with CULTURE about the past and future of cannabis growing, why he feels cannabis strains will someday be a thing of the past and what it’s like to be Big Mike.
Have you always been “Big Mike?”
Yes, because my last name is such a mouthful to say. All my friends when I was growing up, because I was always the tallest kid, they just called me Big Mike and it stuck so it’s easier to remember than my last name.
What was your first cannabis experience?
I was 12 years old. My half brother Andy came back from Vietnam and he showed up at our door one day and he was into weed. He gave my father three joints which my father never smoked. I would look in his drawer and they were just sitting there. I decided to take one and smoke it. I liked it so much I took the other two.
When did you start growing your own?
I was 23 years old. I had a lawn care company . . . I had a couple guys working for me, salesmen. They go, “Hey, I’ve got this thing.” “What is it?” “You can make lots of money.” “Tell me about it.” “You’re not ready.”
They would tease me every once in a while . . . and one day they took me into their basement and they go, “Do you want to see what it is?”
They opened the door and it was these six-foot-tall cannabis plants growing under these metal halo lights. I asked how it worked and they explained it all to me. I was hooked and I wanted to make some extra money and I fell in love with the plant once I started taking care of it and growing it. I was amazed how it goes from veg into bloom and when you harvest it, how the plant goes through this metamorphosis. It’s really cool.
“The guys who treat it like a weed wind up with a really shitty end product and the guys who treat it like a plant, love the plant, it’s different.”
Given the lack of knowledge out there, did you teach yourself how to grow?
I was always doing different things, fertilizer wise, to the plants. One day I said to my friends, “I can do a better job than what we’re buying.” So I did and that was it.
How did you know which ingredients to use?
I experimented. Eventually I took tissue cultures from a bunch of different varieties of plants through the different phases of growing. I took them from the roots, stems, stalks, leaves and buds. I looked at what the plant utilized in different phases it was going through and from that I was really able to dial in the fertilizer even better. Before that, I realized the plant consumes a lot of potassium and didn’t want a lot of phosphorus. They use a lot of nitrogen. I always had to boost the calcium and magnesium from the fertilizers that were out there.
When did you move to Canada?
I moved to Canada in 1996. I had already been growing for 13 years . . . If you grow or consume in Canada, you’ve benefited from something I’ve done.
You founded Advanced Nutrients in 1999. What inspired you to go legitimate and start your company?
I built this huge organization, 200 people working for me, and I watched it all get obliterated by the police. I said, “I never want that to happen again. I love the community I’m in and I’ll just focus on Advanced Nutrients.” I got a license to grow from the Bulgarian government. There are like three licenses like that in the world. At any one time, I have 23 PhDs working and a lot of undergraduates as well . . . With that license I was able to research the plant without any repercussions.
What was your vision for Advanced Nutrients to set it apart from the competition?
Right off the bat, it was for cannabis and I never shied away from that. I said, “This product is specifically made for cannabis.” My whole life has been spent studying the plant and how to manipulate it . . . I wanted the best product in the marketplace. I wanted it for myself and wound up turning it into a company for other people as well.
How was it different from other products on the market?
Most of the products at the time were for general agriculture so they had a high phosphorus number. Cannabis doesn’t use hardly any phosphorus. It doesn’t like it.
I got sick of watching these fertilizer companies harming patients with heavy metals because they had sky-high phosphorous rates.
There’s a perception that it’s a weed and is easy to grow. Do you disagree?
My friend started growing and we used exactly the same strains, cuttings from the same mother all the time. His weed was just, he would get $2,200 for $2,400 a pound and I was getting $3,000 to $3,400 and he was like, “Jesus, what’s the difference? I don’t understand it. It’s a fucking weed.” I said, “Listen you’re treating it like a weed. You need to give it TLC and treat it like a plant. This plant is going to make you comfortable. It’s going to make you a lot of money, so treat it like a high-value proposition you’re involved in.” The guys who treat it like a weed wind up with a really shitty end product, and the guys who treat it like a plant, love the plant, it’s different. I think the plants can sense you’re taking care of it and they respond better.
You’ve talked about your belief that cannabis consumers in the future will focus less on strains and more on “outcomes.” Can you explain that?
The regular patients out there, they don’t care about strains. They hunt down strains because that’s all that’s available to them. If I had a product that says, “Hey, this is going to let you sleep better. This is going to give you better sex. This is going to stop your convulsions. This is going to repair your muscles faster. This is going to be for weight loss” . . . You can dial in exactly the outcome. People want outcomes. They want relief from specific problems, ailments they have. Those things are based on outcomes, not on strains. So the future will be outcome-based not strain-based . . . Think about corn. They have all kinds of different corn you can grow. Do you go into the supermarket; are you looking for DeKalb 604 or Pioneer 901 corn? No. You’re looking for sweet corn.
Doesn’t cannabis affect different people in different ways?
You’re going to run them through a program and I will be able to deliver an extract based on genetic information that’s available and make a product for you that is just for you. We can already do that to some extent. We know some people carry a gene that’s going to make them paranoid. I happen to carry that gene. And we can make a product where you’re not going to get paranoid.
“I fell in love with the plant once I started taking care of it and growing it.”
So you would give customers a blood test?
A dab of saliva. You’ll run it through a program and based on that we can deliver a product for whatever problem or ailment you have, deliver the outcome that’s not going to get you paranoid . . . I’ve been able to predict everything with great accuracy on where this marketplace is going. The only thing I’ve gotten wrong is the speed. This marketplace is almost two years faster than what I thought it would be like now. It’s moving really fast.
And it’s about to get a lot faster after this election.
Imagine a big fence with wolves on the other side. Right now you’ve got a few rogue wolves jumping the fence . . . Those wolves, the really big ones that are on the other side, the Big Pharma, Big Ag, they’re waiting for the federal government to make it legal. When that happens and the gate opens up and those 800-pound wolves come, you’d better be prepared. I am. Most people aren’t. And there’s going to be a huge mass of consolidations.
I’ve built the machine to withstand those guys. I have a very strong machine, and I’ve built it for when this day is coming, and they will not be able to move me off my number one position.
And why is that?
Because I’ve already got my marketing funnels set up. I’ve already been in this industry for a long time. I’ve been growing for 33 years. I’ve had the business for 17 years now. We’re the most profitable cannabis company in the world. I have done more cannabis research than practically anyone else has. I have built my company for withstanding the onslaught of the big boys.
I want to ask you about your public persona. All the parties and the social media posts, is it something you do to boost the profile of the Advanced Nutrients brand or just what Big Mike does when he can afford it?
It’s part of my lifestyle and I show that, the cooler aspects of it. My personal life and my business life are kind of just all one right now, and I like it that way. It’s a little bit of everything I try to show people. If you look at the Instagram, it’s not just jets and weed and women. My charity is on there, my philanthropy. I try to show the full circle, everything that I do.
The jets, bikini models and mansion parties—is this a dream come true for you?
Who would ever think some skinny tall kid who grew up in rural Batavia, Illinois, a country kid, would be sitting in Hollywood and be in a position I am in. I thank myself every day. I literally give myself gratitude. I get high in the evenings. I think about business when I get ready to go to sleep. I walk around my big-ass yard here and I see the views of Los Angeles and the Valley and I say to myself, “You’ve done real good.”