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Emerald Cup Recap: The Movement’s History and Future in Legal California

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To those who have never been to the Emerald Cup, it can be rather hard to comprehend the scope of the renowned affair that takes place on the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, California, every December. Founded by Tim Blake fifteen years ago as a small friendly cannabis competition, the Cup has grown into a mecca of 15,000 featuring cannabis industry figureheads and, more importantly, for Emerald Triangle pot farmers, who venture out of the hills down south to show off the finest, sungrown, sustainable crop in all of California. This cannabis competition-meets music festival-meets academic conference brings together thousands of cannabis producers, artists, musicians, activists, scientists, and everyday consumers, from Willie Nelson to Jay & Silent Bob to cannabis-for-PTSD researcher Sue Sisley and Los Angeles pot czar Cat Packer.

However, while the Cup at times may feel like a survival-of-the-fittest among even the most veteran cannabis consumers, the ways in which attendees can even try product, as well as the nature of the Cup itself, has changed along with the ever-evolving nature of California’s weed regulations. 

This year, for instance, rather than sampling product at each of the vendor booths and walking away with tote bags full of free bud, attendees needed first to make a purchase before they could even try the stuff. Why? Because cannabis license holders, according to state law, cannot gift cannabis. 

It’s going to be really interesting to see what next year holds as people start to move the ball forward and get a little more flexibility in some of the things they’re willing to give the green light,” Alex Traverso — assistant chief of communications at the Bureau of Cannabis Control — told Civilized. This year, the Emerald Cup had gone through the state licensing process and had gotten approval to go through the normal event process for getting permitted.”

Since Governor Brown signed AB 2020 this past fall, sanctioning cannabis sales on private and public property, the number of locations where weed events could be held has expanded greatly. Prior, events could only happen on fairgrounds, and the fairgrounds themselves had the authority to decide whether they even wanted to host cannabis events in the first place, Traverso explained. 

At the Emerald Cup, indeed located on a county fairground, event planners needed to provide a layout of the festival, designating specific areas for consumption, and other areas (including where alcohol was served nearby the food fair) for non-consumption. And of course, all cannabis vendors setting up shop at the licensed event needed to have their own retail licenses, themselves. 

AB 2020 is good in the long term because it opens up venues that are better for consumer events,” Jim Lewi — manager of Red Light Management, which produces the Emerald Cup, as well as festivals like Bonnaroo or Outside Lands — told Civilized. At some point our dream is to take the Emerald Cup or part of the Emerald Cup and do the competitions in [different] cities.” However, while much smaller than other festivals involved with Red Light Management, the Emerald Cup stands out as an educational experience, as much as it is a cannabis or music festival. It’s a very different model. We have 500 vendors, four stages of speakers, and 135 speakers this year. Education is big part of our show,” he said. Comparing it to other shows, we’re more in the lines of FYF [in Los Angeles], that’s 10 or 15,000.”

The idea is for Emerald Cup to be another major event, as cannabis becomes less niche and more normalized entering the mainstream. We want cannabis to be part of everyone’s life,” Lewi said. Our goal is to raise the water level for cannabis events. We’re also putting together a cannabis events organization that we’re hoping will be international so everyone can share their best practices about what works and what doesn’t work, where cops are expensive to rent…”

In its growth, however, Emerald Cup also draws from its roots. We’re looking to emulate everything from what the Emerald Cup started out as,” said Lewi. We’re looking at every consumer experience and we’re trying to upgrade that.” 

The roots of the Emerald Cup, so to speak, are in sustainable, sungrown, organic cannabis — and celebrating the family farmers dedicated to growing it. There’s a whole hall dedicated to exploring sustainable, regenerative farming practices,” Kristin Nevedal — a principle at The Nevedal Group, a small consulting firm specializing in compliance for cultivators, events, and sustainable/​regenerative educational programming — told Civilized. They’re easily implementable from a personal cultivation garden to commercial cannabis operations. There are opportunities for attendees to engage with change and educate themselves while they’re at the event.”

Along with a strong social justice component, shedding light on efforts like those by Cage Free Cannabis (Emerald Cup’s charity partner) to improve the lives of those most impacted by the Drug War, the Emerald Cup honors the history of where the cannabis industry has been the past 40 years, and where it’s going post-prohibition. A celebration of the Emerald Triangle’s agricultural heritage, as well as of California cannabis culture as a whole, the Cup is universally accessible to cannabis veterans and the canna curious, alike.

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