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Emerald Cup in Santa Rosa expected to draw 30,000 amid legal pot’s growing pains

As he waited outside the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Saturday morning, Scott Warner noted the relative normalcy of the line of hundreds of people waiting to enter the Emerald Cup, Northern California’s largest annual cannabis festival.

“The vibe is pretty much the same. ... Law enforcement is familiar with it. The community is familiar with it. It’s just not really that big of a deal,” said Warner, a Petaluma resident who was attending his third Emerald Cup. “It’s cool that you can hang out and just smoke weed.”

The festival and trade show, which continues Sunday, is now in its sixth year at the fairgrounds, and the event reflected the increasing regional acceptance of cannabis - especially after the 2016 state ballot question that legalized recreational use. An estimated 30,000 people are expected to attend the event, which also features musical artists such

as reggae band Steel Pulse and the Brooklyn hip-hop group Flatbush Zombies.

The growing ordinariness was on evident display with booths from the state Economic Development Department and Department of Fish and Wildlife, while Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm appeared on a policy panel. Food trucks were abundant, many offering higher-end meals than what you might find at the Sonoma County Fair. And there were many businesses that had booths within the various pavilions, looking to cash in as the state is on track to reach $3.1 billion in legal cannabis sales this year, according to two research firms.

“The normalization of cannabis is unbelievable,” said Tim Blake, who founded the event in 2003 in Laytonville. “We have gotten rid of 100 years of stigmatization in 10 years.”

To be sure, one didn’t have to walk far through puffs of cannabis smoke without seeing Grateful Dead merchandise for sale, and actor/marijuana activist Tommy Chong was greeted like a rock star among the gray-bearded enthusiasts. This was the second year that attendees 21 years or older could consume marijuana products, within certain areas.

It wasn’t all Deadheads, however, with a morning event to decide who could roll the perfect joint featuring a diverse group of contestants of varying ages.

“I love the difference in age groups that are here. Some old, some young ones,” said Audrey Compas, an employee for Hempire, the company that produces environmentally friendly rolling papers and sponsored the event. “What a time to be alive.”

The event also is where some of the year’s top-?selling flower varieties are set by the dozen-or-so judges who smoked more than 200 entries.

One grower gets bragging rights for the best cannabis flower - last year it was Green Lantern cultivated by Ridgeline Farms in Humboldt County - and that win can allow other growers to charge a premium for similar strains. This year’s winners will be announced Sunday.

“A lot of people are sitting on their crop at the moment, waiting to see who is going to be the winner,” said Swami Chaitanya, a longtime judge for the contest and a Mendocino County grower. “Their price will go up. Those seeds will sell a lot more. That’s the way trends come out of the Emerald Cup.”

This year’s festival coincided with growing pains in the legalized industry, where conversations have been focused on federally legalized hemp and economic pressures - evident in sagging cannabis tax revenues across the state - that have dampened what was expected to be a green rush of investment.

Some of the biggest marijuana companies in the state have announced layoffs, including Santa Rosa manufacturer CannaCraft and Mendocino County marijuana brand Flow Kana.

Many industry leaders have said there aren’t enough dispensaries to get their products in front of customers. Roughly one-quarter of municipalities in California have bans against marijuana retail stores. To make matters worse, state excise and cultivation taxes will be increased on Jan. 1.

“Right now they (regulators) are in the process of wiping out two-thirds of all the companies,” Blake said. “The demand is here.”

Even with the regulatory challenges, the Emerald Cup attracted many pot enthusiasts, including those from overseas. Tom Sweeney from London said he was amazed at the event, which he compared to a big music festival such as Glastonbury, the world-?famous English music festival. The United Kingdom allowed last year the use of cannabis if prescribed by a doctor, but recreational use is still illegal.

“It gives me hope. It gives me a vision of a better future,” said Sweeney, between tokes from a joint composed of the Acapulco Gold cannabis strain. “I’m loving the vibe, especially California. … The smoking community is an amazing thing - no matter your creed or your color or anything. Everyone is sort of one.”

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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