Twenty-one thousand cannabis lovers poured into the Sonoma County Fairgrounds to get their taste of The Emerald Cup this year. Some say the sheer size has changed the event’s character. But for me, The Emerald Cup will always be a family reunion and coming-out party for a long-hidden tribe of freethinking, earth-loving self-reliant outlaw farmers. As survivors of raids, rip-offs, early rains, and other hazards of farming a quasi-illicit yet supremely beneficial plant, the core participants share a common bond. Besides, it is the largest marketing event ever created to promote the superiority of cannabis grown organically and in the sun.
The 215-area, which required a doctor’s medical cannabis recommendation to enter, allowed visitors to sample cannabis-infused sweets from 30 vendors in “Edible Alley” before going under the tall roof of the fairground’s Cow Palace where another 100 cannabis businesses lined five wide aisles. The organic emphasis of the event shone through with the dozens of pioneering and second-generation earth mammas standing behind counters of buds, tinctures, and salves, fielding questions and requests from the bustling crowd. At one booth, I was thrilled to see the smiling face of a vibrant herbalist elder who has sold her food at farmers markets for decades, but was selling cannabis publicly for the first time. You won’t find many of these women at other cannabis trade shows. Yet for one weekend each December, the Sonoma County Fairgrounds morphs into the Emerald Triangle itself.
A large array of organic food booths lined the path back to the halls, hosting a full schedule of workshops, and educational and political panels featuring leading cannabis researchers, activists, and cultivation-wonks. The volume of information offered at nonprofit booths dotting the fairgrounds made it challenging to break away to the panels. Fortunately, several panels can already be viewed on The Emerald Cup YouTube channel, and more are added weekly.
Rolling Stone dubbed the event last year as “the Academy Awards of the cannabis industry,” and the award ceremony on Sunday afternoon was once again an Emerald Triangle version of the glitz and dazzle of Hollywood’s big night.
Event founder Tim Blake kicked it off, noting the huge growth of the event and that some booths were $25,000 affairs, comparable to what’s seen at high-tech trade show. “I’m really impressed by what everyone has done to brand themselves, to step up and really make us look like we should,” Blake said.
He then gave a measured response to the tense debate the night before over the California legalization initiatives. The debate revealed strong divisions, reminiscent of the 2010 failure of Prop. 19, and made legalization approval in California this November look more challenging. When Blake noted during that debate that he was likely going to endorse the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), one activist began yelling and was escorted out of the room.
“It got a little heated there. I don’t blame people. We’ve been picked on long enough. We want to be proud and we want to be free,” Blake said on the award ceremony stage, but still maintained that AUMA, backed by high tech billionaire Sean Parker, is “in all likelihood going to pass.”
Acknowledging AUMA’s imperfection, Blake pointed out a concession made to small farmers. “They were going to have unlimited size grows and they’ve brought it down to limit it for at least five years to one acre farms.” He also mentioned an alternative concept he supported in principle.
“If we had 50,000 farmers that put up $400 a piece, and we put twenty million dollars up, we could write what we want…but are we willing to do that?” Blake asked. “I would say if we could get someone to really lead this thing that we should do that, but is there time? I don’t think so.”
Blake then presented the lifetime achievement awards of matching custom glass pipes to Chris Conrad and Mike Norris, life partners who’ve devoted over twenty-five years to writing, educating, collaborating, and speaking up for greater freedom for the cannabis community. They gave rousing speeches about the battles still ahead on the road to legalization. Before leaving the stage Chris Conrad implored, “Join me in passing the Adult Use Act or another initiative, and once its passed we’re not done. We have a lot of work because it leaves penalties in place, and we’re going to have to go to the legislature and get that all fixed. Going in by myself is not going to work, we’re going to have to stand side by side and fight for this together.”
Once Mikki and Chris exited the stage, the flower judges marched in, attired in matching green doctoral gowns and regalia. They surprised Tim with a painting depicting him receiving a cannabis plant from Jesus descending from a UFO. Anyone who’s been to Area 101 has seen the homage to aliens, and Tim describes UFO encounters in his new memoir, Cannabis Crusader. Winners were announced and many proudly took their moment on stage, some shedding joyful tears.
Nikki and Swami are the dynamic life partners who anchor the flower judging and announce the best flower contest winners each year. Swami likes to throw in little sermons about respect for the earth and how adult use should be called inspirational rather than recreational, while Nikki playfully grabs the microphone back to announce the awards.
As they gave the final top flower and breeder award to Mean Gene from Northern Mendocino for his Cherry Limeade, Swami offered one final message that pointed once again to the uncertain quest for a 2016 legalization initiative. Swami cried out to the crowd, “Register to vote!”