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Inside a set of swinging saloon doors Saturday at a temporary tent at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Ukiah resident Stefanie Chen-Welch sidled up to the bar and asked the tender to pack her a bowl.

Barman Ryan Hunter — who is actually chief operating officer of a firm that manages famed pot-smoking country musician Willie Nelson’s cannabis brands — obliged and handed her a glass bong. Chen-Welch took a deep pull and paused to appreciate both sensation and flavor.

“It tastes almost like you’re frolicking in a garden,” said Chen-Welch, a connoisseur who also works in cannabis regulatory compliance.

The Emerald Cup, Northern California’s pre-eminent marijuana festival and contest, once again drew thousands to Santa Rosa for the annual two-day extravaganza celebrating all marijuana grown under the sun. A combination trade show and pot culture fest, the event is in its fifth year in Santa Rosa after moving south from its roots in northern Mendocino County.

“The Emerald Cup is still about growers coming out of the mountains, seed makers coming out of the mountains, manufacturers coming out of the mountains,” said Swami Chaitanya, an event judge and longtime Mendocino County grower, now under the brand Swami Select. “And now we have all these new people coming to meet us.”

Organizers expected to draw upwards of 28,000 visitors this weekend, with day-of tickets listed online for $80. A judged contest this afternoon features more than a dozen categories including best flowers, concentrates and edibles. Emerald Cup was also set to bestow a lifetime achievement award to Nelson for his work advocating for the consumption and legalization of marijuana.

Inside cavernous tents, neon lights and loud music set the atmosphere around rows of booths with people hawking anything from cannabis branded clothing to therapeutic oils and extraction machines.

This year’s event was the first allowing people without medical marijuana recommendations to consume cannabis at the fair. A sign on a walkway leading toward a series of large tents and event halls read: “Cannabis consumption is all good beyond this point.”

The allowance for adult, recreational consumption was about the only aspect of the event that had become simpler after California legalized recreational marijuana use in November 2016, paving the way for recreational sales and commerce to commence eleven months ago.

Behind tents buzzing with activity, workers managed the flow of marijuana between guarded cargo sheds and public-facing booths and kiosks — part of a system designed to follow the new state regulations for tracking and regulating marijuana. Waste trucks stood by to destroy any unused cannabis products brought into the tents; state law bars cannabis products from being returned.

“The booths are getting bigger and let’s just say the companies are, too,” Sarah Shrader, chairwoman of the Sonoma County chapter of Americans for Safe Access.

For years, the Emerald Cup has been known in the cannabis industry as the place to acquire interesting seeds and tap into a universe of experts breeding marijuana plants to produce different and increasingly precise flavors and physical effects.

Although it is not lawful to bring cannabis seeds across state lines, that didn’t prevent people from outside the state buying seeds to bring home. A Colorado man said he came with $3,000 to spend on cannabis seeds because there were not as many interesting varietals in his home state.

A pack of 10 seeds started at $100 at several vendors.

Fort Bragg cultivator Brett Canady said his company gave him a $2,000 budget and directions to bring back the best seeds.

“You get the good breeders all in one place,” Canady said.

The Emerald Cup started in 2003 as a secretive post-harvest festival for marijuana growers in the famed Emerald Triangle growing region of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. It’s transformed into a major networking event for a cannabis industry, drawing top musical acts like headliner Gogl Bordello, a New York City punk band.

John Sugg, founder of Sonoma Patient Group dispensary in Santa Rosa, said the event is a chance to get his outlet’s name in front of new customers. Looking around at the surrounding booths, Sugg reflected on how far the industry has come since California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996.

“We’ve been trying to make the world safe for hippies and sick people — and we’ve had success,” Sugg said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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