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The Emerald Cup, a two-day celebration of marijuana culture that also honors the best Northern California cannabis farmers, kicked off Saturday at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds amid the onset of a new era of legal, recreational pot, but also nagging uncertainties over how the industry will be brought into the mainstream.

“Everyone knows we are on the tip of something so big,” said Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake, among the many Saturday to voice uncertainty over how legalization will play out.

But there was also a feeling of elation over the outcome of Proposition 64, which California voters approved last month to legalize adult use of marijuana.

“It’s like Christmas, but it’s not quite here yet,” Blake said.

He had a promoter’s prediction for Sonoma County, saying it would be “the commercial and cultural hub for cannabis in this country,” particularly because of its close proximity to marijuana’s famed “Emerald Triangle” — Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties — where some of the most highly sought herb is grown.

Some of that coveted pot, in the form of bud, resin, hash, edibles, seeds and myriad other forms, was being sampled and sold to the thousands of fairgoers at the Emerald Cup, now in its 13th year and fourth year in Santa Rosa.

“People seem more comfortable," said a Mendocino marijuana farmer who offered only his first name, Thomas. "There’s a little more sense of relaxation."

His Honeybear Hives marijuana collective was set up in a booth with scores of others in the Junior Livestock area of the fairgrounds, selling bud samples with names like “Gorilla Glue” for as little as $10 a gram.

At other booths, people could sample strains with colorful flavors such as Blueberry Cheese and Cherry Slider.

Even though adult recreational use is legal, you still need a medical card until 2018 to legally purchase it, so sales of the cannabis products — and much of the sampling — was confined this weekend to an area where a medical card is required to enter. But there also was a company that offered medical cards for $100 after a brief video consultation with a doctor.

The event comes at a time when the state is launching a regulatory scheme for commercial medical marijuana that will be fully implemented in 2018.

As far as recreational pot, state regulators have said it will take until at least January 2018 before they issue licenses allowing that industry to open for business. The worth of that segment of the industry could swell to $6.5 billion by 2020, according to one market analysis.

“There are so many different products, so many different forms of regulation," Blake said. "It will be a very challenging situation the next few years."

Sonoma County is known for wineries, microbreweries and even staging bicycle races, he said, and now it is poised to take advantage of the lucrative cannabis market because of “forward thinking.”

Blake said Sonoma County “took on the Emerald Cup when Mendocino and Humboldt wouldn’t let me in.”

At the fair this weekend, he said, there were at least five people representing companies or groups looking to invest between $10 million to $100 million in the nascent market, whether to open dispensaries, market products, or open a cannabis cafe and clothing store.

When the Emerald Cup was first held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in 2013, there were about 60 vendor booths. This year, there were 450 vendors.

“There are so many new products, you can’t keep up with it,” he said.

Attendance at the Emerald Cup was projected to reach an all-time high, at 30,000 attendees. Individuals are counted twice if they attend both days.

“It’s 15,000 or 20,000 different people,” Blake said of the actual number present throughout the weekend.

This weekend fair features music, art and panel discussions, including one intended to shed light on government regulations.

In addition to state rules, counties and cities are adopting their own ordinances and taxation schemes.

Jamie Kerr, head of a consulting firm that guides industry operators, local communities and regulatory agencies said it is “a monumental challenge” to bring the multibillion-dollar industry online.

She moderated a panel on Saturday that included state Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg; Lori Ajax, the first chief of the state’s Bureau of Medical Marijuana Legalization; and Fiona Ma, chair of the state Board of Equalization.

Also on the panel were Brian Leahy, director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, and Daniel Arnold, deputy chief of law enforcement for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Ma began her comments by saying “the big elephant in the room” is the lack of banking in the industry, because of federal law that still considers marijuana proceeds illegal.

She said it makes it difficult for growers to do business and the state to track transactions.

Ajax said that just the presence of top state bureaucrats Saturday showed that members of the industry and state officials are listening to each other.

“We want to work with you, do the best for business in California and the environment,” she said.

Wood, who sponsored legislation to regulate the medical marijuana industry, repeated his concern that taxes outlined by Proposition 64 will be too high on recreational marijuana.

Taxes tacked on for growers and dispensaries could drive up the cost to the consumer by 30 percent or more, according to one dispensary owner who addressed the panel.

Wood said the Legislature could reduce the taxes, but it would take a two-thirds vote. Arnold said the industry would need to practice voluntary compliance to ensure marijuana cultivation doesn’t degrade the environment. To avoid streams being drained dry from irrigation and other problems, he said growers need to bring peer pressure on fellow farmers, “to do it the right way with permits.”

Leahy recommended growers talk with their county agricultural officials to understand stringent pesticide guidelines.

Asked by a member of the audience why marijuana growers aren’t being treated the same as grape growers, Leahy said marijuana-growers would need to engage politically to get treated equally.

“Cannabis has a long history, some ingrained nonsense we’re getting over,” he said.

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

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