15,000 cannabis fans turn out to celebrate all things weed at Emerald Cup in Sonoma County

The event had been held six straight years at the fairgrounds before it was canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19. Attendees were glad to back — under COVID protocols.|

As he methodically rolled a large marijuana cigarette of 8 grams just outside the gates of Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Saturday, Robert Zapien said he was amazed at how cannabis culture has become such a part of the mainstream.

A Shasta County resident, Zapien was attending his first Emerald Cup Harvest Ball, Northern California’s largest annual cannabis festival, slated to attract 30,000 enthusiasts over the two-day weekend event. A single-day admission ticket on Saturday was at $75.

He noted the Santa Rosa police car nearby, which in years past would have triggered an instant reflex by Zapien to bolt from the scene

“Compared to five or 10 years ago, we would have been freaking out,” Zapien said of the posted officer as he prepared to smoke the cigarette with his friends.

The event had been held six straight years at the fairgrounds before it was canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19. Attendees were glad to be back under health protocols that included vaccination verification or rapid tests to confirm they were negative for the coronavirus.

The festival now resembles part county fair with food trucks; part music festival with members of the hip-hop group Wu Tang Clan scheduled to perform; and an educational seminar with a significant focus on public policy given tax and regulatory issues that cloud the industry.

But mostly it's a vast marketplace of all things cannabis that has become decidedly more commercial in recent years because of investor money that has flooded into the industry since it was legalized for recreational use by California voters in 2016.

That retail influence could be seen at the booth for Stiiizy, a Los Angeles-based cannabis company that now has 20 dispensaries across the state and its own product line. The company had young women handing out promotional bags to attendees and its booth at the fairgrounds resembled more of a corporate tent at a PGA golf tournament.

Customers could buy their products, inhale a concentrate of Apple Mintz cannabis through a contraption called a dab rig and then chill on the second-story deck to relax. The Apple Mintz product was touted to bring on a euphoric, uplifting feeling.

“This is my first big event like this. I’ve been smoking cannabis for most of my life,” said William Valencia, a brand ambassador for Stiiizy. “This is a great culture.”

This year’s festival featured one big change as organizers moved the awards program honoring the best marijuana strains and other cannabis products to Los Angeles for an event held in March. The move was intended to obtain more media coverage in the nation’s entertainment capital. Organizers then renamed the Santa Rosa festival the Emerald Cup Harvest Ball.

This weekend’s gathering also was held at a time when many small growers in the state are struggling amid what they contend is exorbitant state and local taxation. They are pressing elected leaders for a reduction on those levies. At the state level, growers face a cultivation tax that will go up on Jan. 1. They also pay local cultivation taxes, which are not assessed on other agricultural products.

“In Sonoma County, you would be hard pressed to find a parcel where you can grow cannabis,” said Joanna Cedar, a board member with the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, a trade group.

Echoing others involved in the local industry, she blamed inflexibility from the county government, singling out zoning rules that have limited where new cannabis farm operations can go outside city limits.

Many rural residents have called for those limits to be stronger, citing impacts on their neighborhoods. But cannabis representatives say the regulations are hampering business growth.

“It’s really quite sad,” Cedar said.

The Harvest Ball established a special program this year for almost 30 small growers from across the state who were able to sell their crop to visitors through a special distributor established just for the event. State law does not allow them to sell directly to consumers.

That opportunity was a financial lifeline for Ben Grisso of Flower Lady Farms in Lake County, which grows on a 10,000-square-foot plot near Cobb. The farm was allowed to sell a total of 2 pounds to customers at the festival over the two days.

“The retail prices are so much higher than wholesale, it’s potentially huge,” Grisso said. “Allowing us to retail any amount and get the kind of publicity and exposure is a godsend.”

The event continues Sunday, when gates open at noon for those with general admission tickets. For more information, visit theemeraldcup.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.