With around 400 vendors and more than 30,000 attendees at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Dec. 10–11, the 13th annual Emerald Cup was one of the biggest cannabis events of 2016. The fabled Northern California festival is renowned for attracting the state’s best cannabis growers and extractors.
Pony Boy, founder of the marijuana rap group Los Marijuanos, has been in the cannabis game for more than 17 years, and he assembled our Emerald Cup crew. (Pony Boy recently signed a marketing deal with Freedom Leaf.) He invited me and photographer Big E Scott to road-trip with him to the Cup, where he planned to promote his new marijuana merchandise line.
We set off on Dec. 9 from the Freedom Leaf office in Las Vegas, loading our minivan with provisions (gas station snacks) and refreshments (energy drinks). The van came with fantastic leg-room and a multitude of cup holders— necessities for our 10-hour, 600-mile voyage to the land of great marijuana. I was the sole driver for the entire expedition, which would prove to be a drain on my dabbing ability. But all that driving wasn’t a bad trade-off for attending the industry’s dankest event.
On the first day of the Cup, Big E and I beat Pony Boy to the fairgrounds. It was cold and rainy in Santa Rosa that early morning, and we hadn’t exactly packed warm clothing. Even worse, we’d left our bud in the car, thinking that we would get into the event quickly and get free samples. When all hope seemed lost, some generous fellow line-waiters started to pass around blunts, which made the time go by faster and much more pleasantly. We finally met up with Pony Boy, and managed to finagle our way into the show.
Growing up in Indiana, I went to many 4H fairs and small-town festivals. When we walked in, that’s exactly what the Emerald Cup looked like to me—just another 4H fair full of bustling people and busy vendors. But then it dawned on me, as we walked into the packed fairgrounds, that all of these people were here for one reason: cannabis. Every legal state was represented at the Cup, from Down East Mainers to old-school Cali cultivators.
Just inside the entrance was the appropriately named “Hall of Flowers,” where the generous people at Gro-Kashi opened up their booth to us as our home base. Next to us was a massive cylindrical glass case filled with gorgeous buds waiting to be judged. I’d never seen so many different varieties laid out in such an alluring manner. The wood-paneled display case was at least six feet tall, with bright show lights on the inside. Every type of strain you could imagine was there, in every shade and hue: massive, deep purple buds; dark green ones with orange tendrils; light green nugs shimmering with trichomes; and every-thing in between.
Right behind the flower display, there was a long rectangular case packed with every kind of concentrate: Golden crumble, amber wax, dark brown oil and yellow shatter; they all made my mouth water as I stared longingly at the contenders. These exhibits were the highlight of the Hall of Flowers, and streams of people ventured to the cases to admire the products. In total, a staggering 1,200 entries were submitted for judging.
While we spent much of our time in the Hall of Flowers, passing out Freedom Leaf magazines and shooting videos with Pony Boy, the Emerald Cup spread out across the entire Sonoma County Fairgrounds. All of the non-horticulture industry booths were in the Hall of Flowers, like nutrition and supplement companies. The Science and Compliance stage was next door in Finley
Hall; presentations were given on industry regulations and testing, and lawyers and doctors had booths there. The Cultivation stage was in Kraft Hall, where various experts discussed growing techniques. The Grace Pavilion hosted musical performances by Damian Marley, Dirty Heads and others.
In addition to the broad selection of attractions, there were a number of food vendors—offering good old-fashioned fair grub like pizza and hot dogs, perfect for the inevitable munchies—to choose from while walking in between the halls.
The remaining half of the fairgrounds was dedicated to the enormous Prop 215 section, where patients could openly smoke and vape flower and concentrates. You needed a special wristband, available at booths around the fairgrounds, to get in to Prop 215 land. I visited a stylish wood-paneled bar where a smiling woman stood before a spectacular selection of wax. Feeling like Indiana Jones pick-ing out the Holy Grail, I chose a sample of Frostberry Diesel. Many more dabs— they were being given out like treats at a candy store—ensued over the two days at numerous booths. After a while it all started to blur together into a happy daze.
The ample supply of concentrates available for sampling was cause for both joy and concern. Let’s face it, this is not your grandpa’s hash. Inexperienced smokers need to be extremely careful at large-scale cannabis events like the Emerald Cup. But, by and large, attendees were able to handle the high-dose hits with few problems.
While the event itself was fantastic, the drive back to Las Vegas felt harder than climbing Mount Doom. Big E and Ponyboy both passed out less than halfway into the drive. But somehow I managed to stay awake and get us back to Las Vegas.
We’re already planning to make the pilgrimage to Santa Rosa this year, and once again bask in the glory of all that cannabis. It’s now legal for all uses in California, so we won’t need to have a special wristband to light up next time.
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