The Emerald Cup is not like any country fair you have ever visited.
Forget prize piglets, pie-eating contests and sheep-shearing demonstrations. This fair is dedicated to showcasing the very best marijuana grown in California, and by extension, the world.
Cannabis-wise, we are in a remarkable moment. The prohibition that has put California growers and users on the wrong side of the law is breathing its last gasp, having sustained a major blow in 1997, the year voters legalized medical marijuana. The smart political money (and there's a lot of it) is on total legalization, sooner rather than later.
So when more than 20,000 people showed up at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds last weekend — most carrying medical marijuana cards, making it legal for them to partake — you can't help but feel that the battle is over. No one is sneaking around anymore.
Instead, in the full light of day, people smoked pot, vaped pot, ate pot, bought pot seeds, bought pot plants, bought equipment to process pot, demonstrated how to process pot, and of course, talked and talked and talked about pot.
You have never seen so many red-rimmed eyes. Or goofy smiles. Or white people with dreadlocks.
"It's just fun to get together with like-minded people," 25-year-old Tyler Logue of Santa Rosa told me. "You don't have to ask if anyone minds if you smoke."
Logue and his friend Blake Almira, 21, were helping themselves to seconds of free samples of cannabis-infused macaroons offered by Becca Marston, 28, who started in the marijuana business as a "trimmigrant," or seasonal worker, manicuring buds during the harvest. Now she's a sales rep for Utopia Farms, a Santa Cruz cannabis company.
Nearby, Cullen Raichart, 47, a San Diego inventor, stood next to his $5,000 GreenBroz machine that gently trims buds without destroying their integrity. Some purist growers won't allow their buds anywhere near machines, but Raichart's contraption, about the size of a small pinball machine, can process up to 30 pounds of flowers a day. It eliminates the need for trimmigrants, and can pay for itself in 24 hours. Raichart can't keep up with demand.
I heard a similar lament from Leo Stone, founder and CEO of Aficionado, a Mendocino County high-end seed company. Stone, a former Army intelligence officer who spent 16 months in Iraq, brought 40 boxes of elite seeds to the Emerald Cup. Each box contained 10 seeds and cost $500. "They sold out in 10 minutes," he said.
Over the weekend, I popped in on panel discussions about plant genetics, pest and mold management, how to create medicinal grade extracts, the role that marijuana can play in helping cancer patients, children with epilepsy and veterans with PTSD.
I heard a plant scientist tell growers to stop giving meaningless names like "Blueberry Kush," to cannabis strains, and instead call them by the effect they have on users: "Peaceful & Tranquil" or "Jacked Up and Wanna Get Something Done."
During a discussion about the hazards of driving stoned, I heard an Iraq vet named Chris Kavanaugh say "It's a good thing I use cannabis before I drive, otherwise I'd be in jail for murder."
avanaugh, 30, is California director of the Weed for Warriors Project, which lobbies the VA to relax restrictions on cannabis. Using his nom de pot, Chef Nugs, he has developed a line of cannabis-infused condiments, Stoney Sauces, especially for veterans with PTSD.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned during the weekend was this: Crowd control is not really an issue for stoners. They're too mellow to fight or be hostile. I heard the phrase "One love" repeated like a mantra.
The only harsh words I heard were spoken during a debate about the dozen or so pot legalization initiatives that are jostling for a place on California's November 2016 ballot. And it almost came to blows.
Tim Blake, who founded the Emerald Cup in 2003, more or less started the fight. He rose from the debate audience, grabbed a mike and threw his support behind what is often called the Sean Parker Initiative, whose billionaire namesake has pledged to match every dollar donated toward the legalization effort.
A longtime grower and sometime outlaw, Blake is among the most famous cannabis activists in California, and his words carry special weight with this crowd.
Many cannabis activists oppose the Parker initiative — also known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. It legalizes pot, allows individuals to have six plants, imposes a 15% tax on retail sales and bans large commercial grows for five years (to protect existing small farms). It also allows cities and counties to enact local bans, an untenable concession for some activists.
Others, like Blake, think it's good enough, can be tweaked by the Legislature, and more important, will probably win because Parker is loaded (with cash).
"You know this is the only initiative that's got a chance," said Blake, prompting a Monterey County grower and activist named Kevin Saunders to leap out of his seat and loudly berate him.
"Shame on you," said Saunders, who supports a competing initiative that puts no limit on the number of plants an individual may cultivate. He accused Blake of "playing dirty pool" by using his bully pulpit to prematurely endorse the Parker plan.
The panel's moderator, Matt Kumin, a civil rights attorney, was so alarmed by the outburst that he came down from the stage and tried to calm Saunders, who kept yelling.
Someone summoned security, and Saunders was escorted to the back of the room, where he cooled off.
It was a very unmellow moment during an otherwise extremely laid-back event.
I wanted to tell everyone to smoke a fattie and chill out.
But you know what? They probably already had.
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