A few days before the Emerald Cup, Casey O'Neill, the proprietor of Happy Day Farms in Laytonville, was feeling confident. Well, maybe not confident about his chances of winning a trip to Jamaica, the cup's top prize for marijuana bud — he was going up against more than 650 other entries of California's premier pot, including those from his dad, brother and wife, after all. But he was confident about the quality of his entry.
O'Neill, who runs the "diversified" family farm — he grows vegetable, fruit and other crops in addition to medical cannabis — said he's been growing this particular seed stock for three years hoping for a harvest worthy of competition. The second-generation back-to-the-lander judged the competition in years past, but said following this year's yield, he knew it was time to enter. "If ever we had a shot at it — the plants really did beautiful things this year," he said.
On the first day of the Cup, O'Neill split his time between the Emerald Grower's Association booth, where he discussed the community- and ecologically minded efforts of the organization, and his farm's booth in the 215-designated area where he showed off the flowers of his labors with patients and enthusiasts.
O'Neill is gregarious and energetic, with an infectious smile under his mussed but close cut hair and beard. He caught up with old friends at the EGA booth, exchanged numbers, signed them up for the mailing list and sparred good-naturedly about who had the better Cup entry. Perhaps he was feeding off the energy of the festival, but O'Neill was excited to talk about farming, community and marijuana. It was almost as though he was getting something off his chest — he did, after all, serve jail time for cultivation in the past. Now, under the bright lights of the festival, where fears of persecution were morphing into uncertainty about the future of the marijuana industry, O'Neill was comfortable enough to talk to a reporter.
At first glance, the Emerald Cup, held Dec. 13 and 14 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, was nothing more than a straight-up celebration of weed, an exuberant, smoke-choked, loud and crowded bacchanalia.
And it was that, but there were undercurrents flowing through the festival: activism, pride, ego, a swell in the marijuana industry and a concern over who's populating that surge.
"[The Cup's] definitely becoming a name brand thing," O'Neill said, which gives winners and finalists a marketable (and profitable) edge over the competition.
The Emerald Cup has come a long way from its inauspicious birth as a harvest celebration in 2003, and even the massive, industrial confines of the Sonoma County Fairgrounds could barely contain the throngs of bonghunters in attendance.
Tim Blake, the festival's founder, was nervous days before the festival, when rains were flooding the North Bay Area. He said he would've lost $250,000 if nasty weather had continued through the weekend. But by Saturday the clouds had made way for new, human-caused clouds, and the festival had sold out (10,000 people were reportedly in attendance). Nearly 700 people entered buds into the festival's premier cup, more than twice as many as the year before, an onslaught that nearly overwhelmed the Cup's panel of judges. (The winner was a grower from Mendocino County.)
Blake called the last decade an "amazing transition," both in terms of the openness of marijuana culture and the changes in horticultural technique, processing and smoking practices.
The Emerald has far outgrown its Podunk manger, the highway-side Area 101 north of Laytonville. In the Sonoma County fairgrounds' massive Grace Pavilion, marijuana leaf banners hung from the hangar-size rafters. A massive screen displayed panelists and musicians to the audience, and live streaming services broadcast the scene to the world.
While Sonoma's been more than welcoming, Blake said, the festival may have to move again, as the county is considering a smoking ban on county property. That would effectively kill the buzz at Emerald Cup, and Blake's eyeing San Francisco for next year.
It was a young and mostly boisterous crowd that filed into the fairgrounds on Dec. 13, stopping traffic back to the highway and squeezing into the limited parking surrounding the grounds. Speaking on the phone a few days before the festival, Blake said organizers — in a prescient move — were bringing in 75 couches for patrons. By Saturday evening there were dozens of near catatonic young people sprawled around the fairgrounds.
Name a pot smoker stereotype and it was on display. It's certainly a testament to pot's broad popularity, but also an eye-opening example of how far marijuana has come out of the closet.
"We're ambassadors for the culture," Blake said, a role that he seems to take seriously. The Cup has gained legitimacy for not only its sound and respected competition, but for its call for outdoor grown, organic marijuana. The event proves there's more to the "cannabis nation" than outlaws, Blake said. "That's why the activists show up."
The Emerald Cup is part trade show, part stonerfest, and part marijuana summit. Inside the aptly named Hall of Flowers were more than one hundred vendors and organizations: a streaming marijuana-themed talk show, soil and nutrient manufacturers, glassblowers, vape makers, T-shirt sellers, tech outlets, as well as legal organizations, cooperatives and activist groups.
On one end of the noisy hall was a line of about 70 people studiously filling out forms while they awaited a 215 evaluation. With a doctor's recommendation, attendees could get into the "Shade Park," where, it appeared, the real fun was happening.
In a side building, Dale Gieringer, President of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law (NORML), asked several panelists sitting before a crowd of around 40 about the future of the cannabis market in California.
While the panelists agreed that legalization in the state was looming, there was uncertainty about how yet-to-be-decided regulations would affect the market.
Taxation is almost certain, said Phillipe Lucas, a dispensary owner from Victoria, British Columbia. While Canada and the U.S. don't typically tax medicines, a combination of provincial and federal taxes in Canada total a 12-percent sales tax rate.
Lucas and other panelists, including California Cannabis Industry Association President Lakisha Jenkins and Oakland dispensary owner and activist Andrew DeAngelo, agreed that a tiered taxation system would likely go into effect with legalization. Lucas said a sales tax would be most likely, as higher-THC products typically command higher prices, which creates a de facto tiered effect for stronger products like concentrates and potent bud.
Jenkins said legalization could lead to the proliferation of large farms, which concerned her because medical marijuana patients — especially those with weakened immune systems — need attention to quality. "I need to know I can get consistency from farmers all the time," she said.
Lucas said that's achievable with large farms, especially as extracts become more and more popular, and suggested that large-scale production of cheaper marijuana shouldn't cut into a strong market for "trophy buds" — top-quality, boutique-brand pot.
Jenkins, who's based of out Tracy, said the Central Valley is primed to produce pot. On top of sun and fertile soils, the area is rich with farmers who have land, water rights and agricultural commodities. But a lack of clarity about medical marijuana laws and right-leaning sensibilities have led to cultivation bans in several Central Valley communities. "Without regulation they're going to be very hesitant to grow [marijuana]," Jenkins said.
In a Q-and-A session at the end of the panel, Lucas allayed the fears of one young man who asked if legalization in California would open the door for big tobacco to storm in and seize the industry. "There's more decentralization in the tobacco industry than people think," Lucas said, meaning there are lots of small farmers who sell to larger manufacturers. And besides, he said, there isn't crossover between alcohol and tobacco. "It's not their area of comfort or expertise."
So, big tobacco may not be poised to sink its teeth into cannabis, especially while it remains federally illegal. But what's to prevent the independent formation of big cannabis?
That's a thread that was hinted at during the Emerald Cup, but not fully explored, at least not at any of the panels this reporter attended. If the number of clean cut suited types at the Cup, and the ongoing discussion of marijuana in investment and business magazines indicate anything, the outspoken marijuana activists of yesteryear have something to be concerned about. The micro-climate farmers that have flourished in recent decades have remained small out of a necessity to remain unseen. If investment capital leads to industrial scale marijuana in California, can the small farmers survive?
During the NORML Women's Alliance panel, Valerie Corral, a Santa Cruz dispensary owner, said there's been an "incredible movement" to unveil marijuana in recent years. But she fears that medical marijuana users could be left in the dust by legalization. "We're building something that looks a lot like what oppresses us," she said, her speech punctuated by the whoops and hollers of young men passing outside of the hall doors. "There's a movement that forgets where the revolution comes from and doesn't speak 'patient.'"
Aundre Speciale, a Bay Area activist, said cannabis capitalists are beginning to change the industry "in a way that alienates patients." Small, patient-oriented dispensaries that organize wellness or hospice programs stand to lose ground unless the industry focuses on an ethos of social responsibility, she said.
What can be done? Debby Goldsberry told the audience that growers, dispensary owners, activists and patients need to get sophisticated — and quick. "Three to four billionaires legalized cannabis," she said, referring to large individual donors that have made legalization possible by funding change within the traditional framework of government. She said she wishes those funders had also taught the groups they supported to become independent — to organize and gather support and funding from the populace.
Just a few hundred feet away, in the Hall of Flowers, red-eyed marijuana enthusiasts shopped for posters of scantily clad women holding guns and beatific images of Hollywood's most violent and sociopathic criminals.
Around the corner, Casey O'Neill, of Happy Day Farms, said he was tired of being an outlaw. O'Neill grew up in the CAMP era, where he said he was spooked by militaristic nature of marijuana raids as a kid. While attending College of the Redwoods and working on a grow, he told the Ganjier this year, he was arrested as part of the FBI's massive Operation Southern Sweep in 2008. He served two months in the Mendocino County jail, where he worked on the jail's organic farm, learning and developing ideas for his current practice.
He said he's always been dedicated to environmentally and socially responsible marijuana cultivation, and he's ready to prove it by seeking to form regulation and then adhere to it.
"I'm a long way from compliance," he said. "But I'm asking for regulation and I'm willing to do what it takes to come into compliance. Until we have regulations that say what is good practice ... we have no way to say, 'This is bad practice.'"
He said he's willing to become an example of what it takes to come out from the shadows, to show people that, no, it's not going to be easy, but it's possible and, moreover, it's the right thing to do. That role doesn't come without challenges.
"Whenever people try to use you as an example, they try to poke holes [in what you do]," he said. "It's a tremendous risk because we're not up to compliance. The last thing I want to do is point fingers, but we all need to work together. It just feels good to be able to finally talk about it."