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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.

"The absolute most definitive form of Chemdawg," the card reads. "Deftly balanced notes of citrus and jet fuel woven with intense layers of lemon zest, key lime pie and fresh cut pine."

Bluecloud said she also was working with seeds that do not produce the high, or "psychoactive" effect, for people suffering a range of illnesses, from epilepsy to cancer.

"I think it is so exciting," she said of this weekend's big public event. "It's become so accepting and open. This couldn't be a better place to do it. And it's closer to the Bay Area."

"Most collectives take real pride," said Donny Gonzalez, who was offering buds from RedMan Medicine in Sebastopol.

"Sonoma County is an extension of the Emerald Triangle. There's so many marijuana cultivators here," he said.

He looked around at the stoned patrons in the "215" smoking area, named for the 1996 California voter proposition that legalized medical marijuana. "Everybody's happy, relaxed, nonviolent," he said.

Sonoma County's largest dispensary, the 11,000-square-foot OrganiCann Foundation, presented a new "reserve" brand of cannabis flower it intends to market as high-end artisanal, said managing member Dona Frank. The dispensary boasts 25,000 members from across California, primarily the Bay Area.

Frank said that customers who look for marijuana grown outdoors in the sun want to know the pedigree, including where it comes from and the techniques used.

"We equate our cannabis industry to the wine industry, that's how OrganiCann works," Frank said. "Whatever we do, it has to be perfect. We test everything that goes on our shelf."

Marijuana already is putting its mark on the region's main economic sectors — health, retail and tourism, said Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. About three years ago, a group of investors proposed a marijuana-friendly spa and resort in Sonoma County. Although the project fizzled, Stone said it signaled to him that it would be just a matter of time before marijuana would follow the path wine has taken from prohibition to the vast industry it has become today.

"I can't say if it's good or bad, but it shows there's a business there," Stone said.

Blake said he has received an overwhelmingly warm response from area hotels and the visitors welcome center.

Some have long said the value of marijuana cultivation rivals Sonoma County's $400 million annual wine grape crop. But solid estimates are hard to find.

Statewide, the wine grape industry is about $2 billion. The value of California's yearly marijuana harvest has been placed as high as $14 billion. Dale Gieringer with California NORML put the figure closer to $3 or $4 billion. "It depends on how you price it," he said.

Surveys consistently show that between 2 and 4 percent of the adult population report using medical marijuana — leading to an estimate of about 1 million medical marijuana patients in the state, he said.

Gieringer, who spoke on a panel about legalization, said he expects 2016, the year of the next presidential election, will bring a strong offering of legislation proposing pot legalization.

Defense attorney Spiegelman said it feels like "we're still way behind the times" in Sonoma County with the way law enforcement and prosecutors "treat legitimate patients wrongly. A lot of these people are sick." And, he said, the federal government has got to come out and acknowledge the medicinal benefits.

On Saturday, members of a panel discussing the "current political landscape and what legalization might look like" said there is a signature-gathering effort underway to put a legalization initiative on the 2014 ballot. It's known as the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative and would allow nonmedical use of up to 12 pounds per person.

Another effort expected to be launched at the end of January is the Marijuana Control Legalization and Revenue Act, which would allow adults to grow up to 12 plants for personal use.

The panel discussion touched on a range of topics, including: the price of marijuana, which has gone down dramatically; the need to protect genetic diversity; and the need to protect small growers and not let corporations take over upon legalization.

Speakers noted that although voters in Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana use this year, there are still many unknowns about how legalization will play out.

Another topic is the scope of marijuana cultivation, which has taken its toll on the environment — a factor that Blake said even small-time growers cannot ignore.

Indoors, the energy put into a single marijuana joint represents two pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, which is about the same as running a 100-watt light bulb for 30 hours in California, according to a UC Berkeley energy analyst's report.

Outdoors, rampant marijuana cultivation in California's rugged northern counties is said to have caused widespread habitat destruction and water contamination.

Oakland horticulturalist Ed Rosenthal described marijuana as "among the most ecologically harmful industries in the U.S."

"It was forced that way by the government rules. Can you imagine? You're growing billions of dollars of plants indoors under lights," Rosenthal said. "When you're growing outside, you're growing in areas that shouldn't be used by crops."

Rosenthal wrote the Marijuana Growers Handbook, the textbook used at Oakland's marijuana training school Oaksterdam University. He was scheduled to speak Sunday at a panel on bud curing.

Promoting sustainable farming practices falls on the shoulders of Emerald Triangle growers, according to Blake. "It's important for us to police ourselves," he said.

"We never thought of it as a branded name, something commercial," Blake said of the Emerald Cup. "But now we're proud of it. We stand for integrity, we stand for organic, sustainably grown medicine."

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.