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What was once an underground celebration after the cannabis harvest up in the hills near the Mendocino-Humboldt county line will debut in a new form this weekend at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Organizers expect the 10th annual Emerald Cup to draw about 5,000 people each day to Grace Pavilion, the Hall of Flowers and other areas of the fairgrounds where farmers have for generations displayed their harvests.

But this weekend, people will file through the gates to learn about organic, outdoor marijuana production, visit more than 170 vendors hawking paraphernalia alongside farming goods, and listen to panels discussing issues from legalization to business tactics.

This year's change in venue to the hub of Sonoma County's mainstream agricultural roots — from livestock to wine — isn't lost on medical pot advocates.

"The fact that Sonoma County Fairgrounds is opening and welcoming to the medical cannabis community and helping patients come into the mainstream is a testament to the acceptance of cannabis as medicine," said Sebastopol Mayor Robert Jacob, executive director of Peace In Medicine dispensaries and a panelist this weekend.

Organizers of the two-day Emerald Cup, which starts at 11 a.m. Saturday, agreed.

"It's a big step up for us," said founder Tim Blake.

The Cup culminates in an honors program recognizing the best of Northern California's outdoor, organic pot.

This year, 10 judges spent the past five weeks evaluating 257 cannabis flowers for appearance, smell, taste and effects, up from just two-dozen entrants in 2004, the contest's first year. The first-place winner receives a two-week vacation at a marijuana-friendly resort in Jamaica.

The consumption of marijuana this weekend will be limited to a designated area, and patients will have to present doctors' recommendations to take part, Blake said.

But the majority of the fair will be open to anyone. Blake said that, after a flood of calls asking whether children could attend, organizers are developing a corner with kids activities. Musical acts such as Jefferson Starship are expected to draw crowds.

But that's a long way from the event's beginnings.

A decade ago, Blake gathered a handful of local farmers for the first Emerald Cup at Area 101, his property and event center about 10 miles north of Laytonville along Highway 101.

The Cup's first years were a chance to shake off the work of the harvest. The event was publicized by word of mouth and a few posters thrown up around Mendocino County. Despite the suspicion that some attendees were undercover law enforcement officers, the event more often than not became a late-night party among friends.

It was nearly canceled in 2011, when major law enforcement actions threatened the delicate balance of medicinal marijuana in Mendocino County. In one case, federal agents armed with weapons and chain saws raided Mendocino's poster-child collective, the 1,400-member Northstone Organics.

But they held the Emerald Cup anyway and broadened it to include panels discussing outdoor growing practices, the legal challenges facing growers and patients, and the implications of legalization.

Last year, organizers moved the event to the Mateel Community Center in Redway. More than 1,200 people gathered at the center, bringing the event out of tents battered with rain, hail and snow of December in northern Mendocino and into a structure.

Organizers hope this year's move to Sonoma County will attract a larger crowd from the greater Bay Area.

"The significance of the Emerald Cup coming down from the hills and into the valleys is that it's a metaphor for the acceptance of cannabis by society at large," said Steve DeAngelo, co-founder and executive director of the massive Harborside Health Center medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland.

The Emerald Cup is now among a growing legion of cannabis competitions held across the world. Perhaps the largest is High Times magazine's annual event in Amsterdam.

Several dispensary owners from the area said that the Emerald Cup stands apart because of its reputation for fair judging standards.

"The quality of the cannabis evaluation at the Emerald Cup is head-and-shoulders above that which you find at most cannabis contests," DeAngelo said.

"I've heard many people refer to this as THE cup, particularly for outdoor growers; it's their spotlight," said John Hurley, longtime general manager of the Mighty Quinn smoke shop, which has stores in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, San Rafael and Napa.

On Thursday, 10 judges from across the Bay Area gathered at Blake's property north of Laytonville for the final round of judging. They had whittled the entrants down from 257 to the last 20 or so and met to make their final deliberations.

Earlier this year, Blake approached Sonoma County Fair staff and pitched an event modeled after Sonoma County's annual Harvest Fair, which has in the past celebrated a variety of crops big in Sonoma County and recently has become a showcase of the region's wines.

"Tim came to us and said, 'It's to celebrate the harvest of cannabis for medicinal purposes,'" said Sonoma County Fair's Deputy Manager Katie Young.

Young said fair staff worked closely with Blake and his cohort to draw up a plan for the event that lined up the proper insurance and security in addition to a full-scale fair. With those details in place, they had no trepidation about holding an event focused on medical marijuana, Young said.

Beyond the panels on legal issues, growing practices and the business, several workshops also will touch on controversial issues.

Hash oil, a cannabis derivative that has become a hot product for its potency, will be the focus of a 6:30 p.m. Saturday panel called "DABS, are they safe?" which refers to the derivative by one of its nicknames.

The panel will discuss safer methods of producing the concentrated formulation other than volatile butane gas, which has led to a string of explosions in Sonoma County this year.

Another panel will explore the use of certain cannabinoids that don't produce a high for children. An 8-year-old girl with leukemia from Oregon and her father will be among the speakers.

But the majority of the event's focus ultimately will be close to the event's ties to the Emerald Triangle tradition of marijuana grown outdoors in the sun, Blake said.

"Wine is a wonderful product, like cannabis; people have a wonderful time savoring it and tasting it," Blake said.

The 10th annual Emerald Cup takes place from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road in Santa Rosa.

Tickets at the door are $50 for one day or $90 for both Saturday and Sunday. For more information visit www.theemeraldcup.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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