Tim Blake shook his head in awe as he stepped out of the smoky shadows and into the spotlight of a stage at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
Behind him, two huge red banners, each emblazoned with a cannabis leaf, hung unapologetically above the tables of trophies made to look like intricately blown glass bongs. Before him, thousands of weed aficionados were on their feet, cheering. A thick curl of pungent blunt smoke wafted by, not that anyone else besides me turned around to find the source.
Really, I should’ve been used to the smell by then. (Contact high? Check!)
It was Sunday, the final day of the annual ode to weed known as The Emerald Cup, “the Oscars of the outdoor cannabis industry.” Awards were about to be given out – for best edibles, best flower and so on – and people were ready. Ready, if nothing else, to get back to the tents where cannabis was being served up in every imaginable form to anyone with a valid medical marijuana card.
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Blake, for his part, seemed to be in a bit of shock about his surroundings. I can’t say I blame him.
In just 12 years, the event he created has gone from a clandestine competition in the mud between a few cultivators in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties, to one that is held at a legitimate venue and, this year, drew more than 21,000 people to Santa Rosa.
“We had more people here yesterday than we did all of last year,” Blake said to raucous applause.
The arc reflects that of the cannabis industry itself. California voters authorized medical marijuana way back in 1996. But it wasn’t until this year that state lawmakers, at the urging of Emerald Triangle growers, passed a package of laws to regulate it. A ballot initiative that would legalize it for recreational use is in the works, too.
That means that soon growers who have been operating in the shadows for decades with inconsistent rules and the threat of incarceration will face a highly structured process to become legitimate businesses. There will be cultivation permits, plus policies on using pesticides and diverting water. Growers who’ve made a habit of destroying all their paper records instead will have to save and organize them to meet the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s “seed-to-sale” monitoring system.
In short, the industry is being asked to grow up.
That’s exciting. Thrilling, really. It’s a reason to celebrate, as speaker after speaker did during panel discussions at The Emerald Cup.
“Six years ago when I started this business, I was just trying to stay out of jail,” marveled James Slatic, an entrepreneur in the cannabis industry. “Now we’re talking about Periscope (a live-streaming app) and platforms and building your brand.”
But look closer and you’ll see that a good number of growers are wholly unprepared for such a transition. While experts droned on about new regulations, taxes and making the industry more inclusive to women and minorities, people – OK, the sober people – in the back of each room nodded along with overwhelmed expressions.
“Be careful what you ask for,” they seemed to be thinking, “because you just might get it.”
They still want to live and work with the wanton abandon of kids, to smoke their plants instead of sending them to a lab for quality-control testing – and that mindset was evident at The Emerald Cup, too.
The medical marijuana zone was what I imagine Snoop Dogg’s dreams look like most nights. Weed everywhere. People praising the plant’s ability to heal and save the world. Clouds of it from blunts, bongs and vapor cigarettes, in soda and in lotion.
In the midst of it all, one group of guys stumbled up to me.
“Have you seen the cookies?” one asked.
“Nope,” I shook my head.“I haven’t seen any cookies.”
“What?” his voice going up an octave, with the petulance of a 30-something man-child. “They said they were over here!”
“Well, I just came from that way,” I said, pointing through a cloud of secondhand smoke and toward someone chowing down on a plate of organic Indian food. “I can assure you, there are no cookies.”
The cookie vendor, whom I found a short time later, was very nice and extremely knowledgeable. She wasn’t afraid of quality control or the new laws.
Such are the dual worlds of The Emerald Cup and, indeed, the cannabis industry. Uniting them will be a sobering challenge.