First, published in Grow magazine-Spring 2009:

The Emerald Cup: A Ganja Guild Networking in Northern California

Between thick redwood forests and wild rugged coastline, veins of a colorful marijuana culture thread through the California North Coast.  An illegal cannabis underground lurks beneath the skin of the spectacular countryside. This culture might someday help the region surpass the Napa Wine Country as the tourist destination of choice if marijuana is legalized. The smoky green atmosphere already entices people in to see the sights and participate in the lifestyle.  Events such as Reggae on the River entice music enthusiasts as well as marijuana tourists from all corners of the globe.  More recently, a relatively new event, The Emerald Cup, is slowly lifting its head from within the confines of the cannabis underworld and inviting weed connoisseurs to partake of its wonderment.

Not many of the events surrounding the secret culture thriving in the back country of the North Coast are widely known to the public—most are small and jealously guarded in the quiet hills which grow some of the most famous pot in the world.  Fear of prosecution keeps the events limited to those in the know.  But one gathering of growers is garnering some national attention.

“December brings the Emerald Cup, a public competition for the “best bud” in the county, if not the world,” trumpets the Washington Post.  Here, in what is arguably the most famous marijuana growing region of the world, and certainly is the most famous in the western world, some of the best local growers compete for a hand-blown glass cup that looks remarkably like a fanciful smoking pipe….

For those interested in where the best weed is grown and who grows it, the Emerald Cup provides an intriguing glimpse into another world.  Here, where the underground festivals of Northern California during the Eighties sparked the idea for the famous Cannabis Cup of Amsterdam, marijuana producers gather to learn from each other and have fun.  The crowd is thickly populated with weed connoisseurs delightedly sharing their favorite product and nodding imbibers sprawled on battered couches.  However, for many the event is about more than pleasure.

Within the glowingly painted Area 101 buildings and beneath the adjoining tarps and tents that keep off the pounding rain, conversations swirl like the pervasive smoke which writhes seductively from the glowing embers at the end of large joints.

Sellers create links: “Hey, come with me, bro. Travis is in here. I just want you to make that connection.”

Growers show off: “Try some of the stuff I grew this year—Pineapple Kush.”

Suggestions are made: “I think you need to rinse the plant more.”

And grower humor is exchanged with those who understand it most—their fellow ganja growers: “The best lights are the ones that spiral around…The problem is they break down a lot.  The guy I bought them from keeps saying, ‘they’re a Ferrari. They’re a Ferrari.’”  The comfortable laughter greeting this stems more from camaraderie than from the gentle buzz impossible to avoid in the smoke filled rooms.

One grower explained why he goes to the event in the online Topix version of the Ukiah Daily Journal, “Those of us in the know use these events to learn and meet and not just be entertained….I go to mingle and ask questions and learn answers more than anything although I have picked up a vaporizer or two…. I’ve met some good people at these events … even some breeders who I’ve picked for info on new strains and techniques. To some these events may seem like a stoner gathering but to others it’s a way to make contacts and find out what’s what….”

Men with Ben Davis jackets so old that the cuffs hang off the sleeves by only a few weary threads hold earnest conversations with men in shiny new down jackets.  Ranchers in denims and logging boots pass joints to men in robes and dreads. The differences of apparel are only superficial. These people are brothers of the Bud–sharing fears, hopes, ideas, and information that can’t be had elsewhere.  Booths selling gorgeous handmade glassware pipes are only a few feet from those selling shiny metallic weed trimmers that look like generators. These, in turn, are only a few feet from kitschy t-shirts proclaiming, “Humboldt Local” and tiny baby onesies sporting marijuana leaf patterns.  Jumbled together under tarps holding off the driving North Coast rain is a small sampling of an expanding underground society.

Like the marijuana culture itself, these people, its offspring, are thriving in spite of the inhospitable atmosphere around them. A few years ago, fear of law enforcement would have shut down such an event but with the passage of Proposition 215 (California’s medical marijuana law) growers have begun to feel safe.  “Hell, its legal,” one told me oblivious to the fact that, in fact, the joint he was letting smolder unnoticed at his side could put him in jail for years in other states and was still illegal in California unless he was a registered medical patient with permission from his doctor.

However, California’s Proposition 215 is allowing the promoters of the Emerald Cup to be bolder in their activities.  Under the umbrella of this regulation, all contestants for the cup must have a medical marijuana license.  And all the judges are supposed to have one also.  The legalities covered, the event is so open that professional looking ads are plastered on walls miles from the immediate area and across marijuana forums on the internet.

Actually, there are several contests at the event. The most prominent, of course, is for Best Bud which is judged on Looks, Taste, Fragrance and Effects (the last weighing in most strongly—points from it are doubled.) The contestant must submit an ounce of marijuana (which obviously is not returned as it is consumed in the judging.)  Each Judge receives 1 ½ grams of several different submissions which he or she burns over the course of the week.  They then fill out the work sheet.

Before testing another sample, they wait several hours. “We spread it out so not to be mixing both highs,” one judge explained.  Tim Blake, the owner of Area 101 just north of the small town of Laytonville, CA. adds, The judges are smoking three or four a day,” he said.  “It’s a serious job.” And the judges do this for weeks in order to taste the 100 plus entries contributed this year. The judges know their positions are a stoner’s dream but they take it as seriously as a job.  (Some of them told me they even experience burnout and take several months hiatus from smoking afterwards.) One said, “It’s not that we just toke pot and have fun.  We create the chart for other growers and for medical users.  It’s about networking.  We’re a Ganja Guild—very informal—but we’re here to make the weed better.”

Each week, the scorers meet to discuss which of the submissions they tested recently will be moving on to the next stage of the competition.  Only the top ten entries of the whole contest are ranked.  The remainder, however, are given comments which are posted on the competition night.

Most of the buds were incredible robust specimens—tight and sticky.  However, a seasoned smoker and grower, known as the Candleman, who viewed the sample buds displayed from each contestant, noted that while the buds were quite nice in most respects, many were poorly cleaned.  This was later confirmed by several judges.  They urged next year’s contestants to “Pick your best buds and trim them perfectly. If you don’t manicure right, it won’t taste as smooth.”  Then one of them added sharply, “And we don’t want to have to manicure it for you.” Nonetheless, among the entries displayed in a gleaming glass case were some extraordinary examples of what one viewer delightedly called, “Mendo marijuana, Humboldt homegrown, and Trinity tricomes.” Other Northern California counties were represented as well and there were even a few that hailed from more distant places.

One judge explained, “We want people to bring different strains [for the contest.]”  For years, OG Kush has been in the top three finalists but, in order for growers to breed better strains each year, variety is the key.

One of the key rules of the contest is that the buds must be grown outdoor—no indoor bud accepted.  Ted, a worker for Area 101 explained, “Mendocino County is known to have the perfect climate for outdoor bud so we don’t bother with indoor.  It’s an outdoor cannabis cup so we only take outdoor.”  He went on to explain that “Really, [natural sunlight] is the only way to get organic bud.”  According to him, artificial light does not provide the right flavor or health benefits of outdoor weed.  Other than that restriction though, the competition is open to proud marijuana farmers of any place in California.

Underneath the rows of sticky green buds were tiny containers of hash.  The clear boxes displayed the samples for a second competition which is judged in a similar fashion to the weed.

Then there are several smaller contests including one for Best Marijuana Photograph.  And others for everything from guessing the weight of a bud sample to surmising the number of joints in a jar.

But the one competition that had the crowd enthralled involved heaping buds on a circular table and seeing who could roll the most joints.  Cheers and raucous cat calls filled the air as competitors raced to make the most spliffs. Towards the end, an enterprising contestant began filling a rolling paper with some large lumber—stems stuck out every which way.  Hoots and laughter greeted the results and after the contest, when some of the results were passed out free to the crowd, no one volunteered for that sorry specimen. In the end, a character known only as Sketch won.  Shiny metal studs beaded his face like sweat and the backs of the fingers of one hand read Side.  The backs of the other read Show. In any other crowd he would have drawn stares like the carnival exhibit he obviously wanted to evoke, but here, among the Ganja Guild, he didn’t garner a second look. And comfortable among the congratulating crowd, his smile shone as sweetly as any boy headed towards the dugout after his first home run.

Fairly early in the evening, the results of the Best Bud contest were announced.  The crowd was silent as the countdown through the top ten began. In a hangover from earlier more dangerous times, all of the contestants used pseudonyms which seemed to indicate that not all of the pot grown was strictly for legal medical use. The winners were as thrilled as any Olympic athlete and some of their stories were as heartclenching as any described during TV’s coverage of the athletes.

The grower of the two strains coming in at fifth and seventh place was an older country woman with long wavy hair threaded with strands of silver. Wearing a vest decorated with marijuana designs so green they were nearly luminous, she bounded to the stage and stood there a moment with her eyes welling.  “This is for the Sandman.”  Her voice broke but still she beamed at the crowd.  With a voice shaking under the load of barely restrained emotion, she explained. At last year’s cup, her husband of many years had taken third with Sugaree and he was determined to place again in this year’s cup.

In June, as the sun warmed the soil for planting, he died.

“I had to learn how to grow.  I had just been in charge of the trimming before.  Now I had to figure out how to do it.”  Beside each plant, she sprinkled a little of his ashes as an offering.  She gently blanketed the roots of a new beginning with the remains of her past. And somehow, with the help of friends, she—a first time grower—out of over 100 entries, managed to pull off a double placement for her babies with the help of the strains developed by her partner! (And in fact, she came close to equaling his achievement the year before.  A judge confided in me that there was a three way tie for third this year that was only broken by some last minute serious smoking!)

Another compelling story came from the winner, Hawaii Dave, who told of how his growing career nearly came to an abrupt and unpleasant end.  He began by holding up the cup and over the crowd’s cheers, he cleared his throat.  “A special thanks to Sheriff Allman and his guys.  They were in my greenhouse right before these babies were to be harvested.”

The audience hushed. Mouths dropped open and those at the perimeter moved in mesmerized–unwilling to lose even one word of this story.  Shy, sweet, and nearly overwhelmed by his win, Dave kept the story short.  Earlier this year, he had purchased the 6 zipties that Mendocino Sheriff Tom Allman allowed medical growers.  [The zipties—small royal blue plastic strips emblazoned with a code are sold for $25 by law enforcement in his county.  In order to buy them, the farmer must show a doctor’s prescription for marijuana.] Those 6 slim zipties enclosing the thick stalks of his “babies” saved their lives when the law came around—saved their lives to make him the winner of this year’s contest! When the deputies saw the zipties, they politely left him his six strong plants.

Tim Blake, the owner of the property and one of the founding fathers of the Emerald Cup loves the real down-home setting of the event but worries because, “It’s getting so big.”  He is concerned that next year or the year after he will have to move to a larger venue and give up some of the funky authentic flavor that the Area 101 grounds impart.  He wants to keep it small but the proceeds from the tickets benefit both The Trees Foundation and The Mendocino Medical Marijuana Advisory Board so enlarging it would help causes that Tim, a cancer survivor, holds dear.

With California likely to have a pro-marijuana proposition on the ballot this fall, next year’s Emerald Cup might draw hundreds of participants. Blake seems ready for the new order.   When asked if he believes that marijuana will become legal, he looked at me seriously, spread his hands to indicate the event, and replied, “The battle is over; the negotiations have begun.” If he’s right, the tourists will come and the North Coast just might be ready.