The crowd jostles for position around an octagonal glass case that glows in the dim light, peering in as if it held precious jewels. The case holds a couple of hundred green marijuana buds, entries in what's billed as "the world's only outdoor organic cannabis competition," the annual Emerald Cup.
Here in the Grower's Pavilion tent, entrants are listed by number and strain, with breeding information that reads like something off a racing form. Entry No. 1, Obama Drone Strike, is a cross between Royal Kush and Humboldt Kush grown from seed. A clone strain called Three Kings is a cross between OG, Sour Diesel and Headband. Ringo OG takes its name from the master breeder, Lawrence Ringo, a botanical wizard who works with the Southern Humboldt Seed Collective.
This is the ninth annual Emerald Cup, the biggest so far with 202 entries in the bud contest, 40 more in categories for "concentrates" and "super concentrates" including hashish, hash oil and edibles. It's also the first cup in Humboldt, after moving to the Mateel Community Center in Redway from its original home in the Area 101 compound near Laytonville.
On Saturday, people young and old -- but mostly young and mostly male -- crammed into The Grower's Pavilion, a long tent below the Mateel's main hall. Many were ostensibly medical cannabis patients, although no one seemed to be demanding 215 cards. A hay bale couch split the room, and people sat to roll a joint or smoke a bowl. Vendors on either side offered classic bongs, the latest high tech vaporizers, books on cannabis, organic hydroponic supplies and bioengineered seeds so you can grow your own Blood Wreck Trinity Purple Urkle Space Queen.
The Home Grown Stage at one end of the room had a DJ backing artists like Brooklyn-born Rasta Rocker T and Humboldt home grown reggae star Ishi Dube. At the other end, an Indian bedspread door led to another tent where forums were held on growing organic weed, breeding new strains and using testing labs to analyze soil or crops.
Standing in a cold drizzle outside of the pavilion, Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake offered a bit of history. (He had been worried that snow in the Mendocino hills would stop some from attending, but the event sold out). The first cup, in 2004, was his way of celebrating the cannabis harvest while emulating the sort of judging you find at a county fair for apples, jam or livestock. "It was more of a wild party," he recalled, done on the cheap with no sponsors. It's never made money. He almost abandoned it last year because of the federal crackdown on Mendocino's medical pot scene but marshaled on. This year he lined up support from the Canadian cannabis culture magazine Skunk and the website WeedMaps.com among others and ramped things up a notch. Moving to the Mateel, augmented with a few tents, allowed for more attendees, more vendors and an enhanced education component with more panel discussions.
Stand-up comic Ngaio Bealum was one of the emcee/moderators for panels in the Mateel Hall on topics like pot legalization, the federal crackdown, and cannabidiols, aka CBDs, compounds in the magic plant that reputedly cure everything from arthritis and Alzheimer's to cancer.
"I'm all for cannabis, at almost all the time, although it's not for everyone," said Ngaio, who also was at last year's cup. "It's a growth industry; it makes for sustainable jobs, jobs that won't leave the county." And, he points out, not just jobs for growers and trimmers: The industry creates ancillary jobs for soil and nutrient companies, alarm companies, accountants, lawyers and specialty magazines.
Down in the Pavilion, a grower from Sonoma County stands between the bud display and another glass case holding fanciful glass bongs, awards that will be presented later like Oscars on Academy Award night. The 37-year-old grower calls himself Cherry Jack, borrowing the name from his entry in the contest, No. 162, a cherry phenotype of a strain called Jack the Ripper. "It just happens to smell like cherry; cherry lemonade or cherry Sweet-Tarts," he explains, noting that the seeds come from Green Avengers Genetics, a company with a booth across the way.
Cherry Jack makes part of his living growing medical cannabis; he's also a day trader and a poker player, a gambler at heart. "And," he adds, "I'm also a husband and a father of two, married 14 years." Jack says he has a 215 card because glaucoma has made him blind in one eye. Cannabis hasn't cured his glaucoma, but he says it reduces the pressure so he can cut back on prescription drugs. "This truly is medicine. Yes, it gets you high, gets you happy, but it's more than that."
He says he entered the Emerald Cup competition because he's "a true believer in medical cannabis" and because he wanted to see how he'd stack up again against "the local competition." Local, in this case, is the fabled Emerald Triangle, Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties, birthplace of designer cannabis. And the competition is fierce. Along with the bong awards come major bragging rights. And this year, the grower behind the top strain wins a trip to Jamaica as first prize.
A nine-judge panel, nicknamed the Supreme Court, chooses the winners after a blind tasting. Each judge gets a bag with one-gram samples of each strain, and rates them for looks, smell, taste and, most important (scored double) is how it makes you feel: the high.
"Some make you happy, some make you crabby," says Judge Pearl, who like most of the other judges would only provide her first name. "I like the ones that pick me up and make me creative."
Once each judge has a score for all samples, they gather to compare notes, resample as needed, and then reach consensus on 20 winners.
Before the winners were announced, cup organizers gave civil rights lawyer Tony Serra a lifetime achievement award for his work in marijuana law reform -- a glass bong in the shape of Lady Justice holding her scales. Speaking of his long, "wondrous romance" with cannabis and the law, Serra promised, "I'm not finished yet."
Two of the judges, a woman introduced only as Nicky and a white-bearded man called Swami, let the honors roll. They worked through a long list, offering judges' comments on the top strains. Second place went to No. 23, Cry Baby OG, grown from a clone with "diesel Lemon Pledge unwhirling flavor," according to Swami.
As the tension mounted, Nicky wondered aloud, "Who's going to Jamaica?" The grand prize winner was strain No. 47, listed only as a Chemdog. Strain history: "Ask Jerry Garcia." The judges described 47 as "the smoothest yet, A-plus crystals, very sticky, ridiculous überstink, nasturtium and gasoline and fresh earth, complex, enticing -- top notch shit."
With his carefully trimmed goatee, his hair combed up to a semi-Mohawk peak, the exultant winner, identified only as Leo, didn't have the working man look of most of the other growers. He explained that his strain was a cross of Chemdog No. 4 and Star Dog, a creation of his new company, Aficionado Seeds. He thanked his girlfriend and made a major shout out to his homies ("This is for you, Laytonville!") with special thanks to his soil supplier who "makes the best compost in the world."
A little while later, down in the Grower's Pavilion, Leo still seemed amazed that he'd won. He recalled dreaming about growing pot when he was serving in the military during the Iraq war, stationed in Baghdad. Now he was living that dream. With a cold, half-smoked joint in one hand, he finally read the laminated certificate he held in the other and it registered. "I can't believe I'm going to Jamaica," he said with a huge smile before adding, "Hey, does anyone have a lighter?"