Marijuana culture took center stage on the first day of a high-profile organic cannabis competition at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, a first for the county and perhaps a harbinger of the drug's eventual outright legalization.
Organizers expected the event Saturday and Sunday to draw 5,000 people daily to toke some of the best marijuana in the world, buy heirloom seeds, listen to music or sit in on panel discussions ranging from plant genetics and breeding to soil types and politics.
For some longtime Sonoma County residents, it was a bit surreal to see the fairgrounds transformed into a venue with cannabis-smoking tents for medical marijuana cardholders, or the Hall of Flowers turned into a showcase for marijuana planting mixes, bud trimmers, compost, glass pipes, vaporizers and hemp clothing.
"This is really pretty amazing. It's come a heck of a long way," said Santa Rosa defense attorney Steve Spiegelman, 58, whose practice includes marijuana cases. "It's moving in a positive direction," he said of societal attitudes toward marijuana, and its increasingly mainstream role.
The Emerald Cup began 10 years ago as a celebration of the outdoor harvest in Mendocino and Humboldt counties — a private event designed to avoid law enforcement scrutiny. Now a premier contest honoring outdoor, organic cultivation, Cup organizers envision it like a country fair.
The Emerald Cup, which Rolling Stone magazine dubbed "the Academy Awards of the cannabis industry," is counting on its largest-ever attendance this weekend. But there have been other, larger cannabis-themed fairs in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Organizers called it a historic moment, emblematic of the exponential growth of the Emerald Cup.
"Considering people were going to jail for serious terms for an eighth-ounce of weed in the past decade, this marks a huge turning point in society," said Josh Gates, a spokesman for the event. "The reality of the situation is people smoke pot, grow pot. It's not going away."
Mary Pat Jacobs, spokeswoman for the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana acknowledged that medical use "is starting to be more in the background and the thrust now is toward legalization for "responsible adult use."
As the industry has grown with the tentative acceptance of medical cannabis, the event also has become a celebration of the entrepreneurial culture that has grown up around the marijuana market.
Booths at the fairgrounds were filled with wares from the long-standing ancillary businesses and paraphernalia, as well as such treats as hash-infused gourmet caramel and cannabis chocolate.
But the industry has matured to include a whole set of businesses, from technological advances in growing techniques to the sophisticated laboratory science around the various properties that give marijuana its wide range of effects on the body. Cultivators are perfecting certain strains of seeds.
"Branding and having your own strain is more important than ever before," Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake said.
"When you say Coppola, it's a brand. You hear Rutherford, you know you will get high-end wines; you know as soon as you hear the name," Blake said.
In the "Breeders" area Saturday, Tara Bluecloud, a Laytonville herbalist, was selling some of the high-end seeds from the Aficiondo Private Collection.
Last year's 2012 Emerald Cup Winner, Chemdawg Special Reserve, was going for $500 — for 10 seeds.
A card handed out by Aficionado describing the strain evoked an oenophile's tasting notes.