Emerald Cup marijuana festival draws 21,000 to Sonoma County Fairgrounds

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The Emerald Cup, the celebration of cannabis culture now in its third year in Santa Rosa, wrapped up its two-day run at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Sunday with its biggest attendance ever, showcasing some of the best outdoor organic marijuana in the world and the industry the plant has spawned.

The weekend event drew more than 21,000 people, according to organizer Tim Blake, compared to 13,000 last year and 7,000 in 2013, the first year it was relocated from Mendocino County, where it had its humble, more clandestine beginnings 12 years ago.

Billed as the equivalent of the Oscars for the cannabis industry, the event draws many producers from the so-called “Emerald Triangle” of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties, a business that organizers claim is the largest agricultural crop on the North Coast, and will grow even more with outright legalization — perhaps as soon as next year.

A sort of evangelical rally to spread the gospel of marijuana, the Emerald Cup is not only a contest to choose the best bud, but a community event for growers and pot aficionados, with business exhibits, educational seminars and music.

“Saving the planet, using the cannabis plant,” is how Mikki Norris, a longtime cannabis-reform activist, described her mission and that of others seeking the decriminalization of marijuana.

In a gesture that was perhaps a joke about the stereotypical “stoner” mindset, Emerald Cup Founder Tim Blake was presented with a telling award for his contribution to the cannabis revolution — a portrait of Jesus holding a marijuana plant and exiting a space ship.

Norris and her husband, Chris Conrad, were presented Sunday with lifetime achievement awards for their contributions to “the cannabis community and the culture.”

She told the crowd in the fairgrounds’ Grace Pavilion the plant provides meaning in life, inspiration, fun, relaxation “and the healing we all need ... making us work for the betterment of humankind and the planet.”

Her husband said that people used to say it was impossible to legalize pot.

“Today, people say it’s inevitable,” Conrad said of the likelihood that California voters might soon OK the recreational use of marijuana, as other state have done recently.

“It’s the dawn of a new era,” he said, noting that even some prominent Republicans are coming out in favor of marijuana reform.

But the heart of the Emerald Cup is the judging competition. More than 420 entries were submitted in this year’s contest, with the winner receiving a trip for two to Jamaica along with the ability to charge a premium for the chosen marijuana strain and its seeds.

This year’s winner was Jackson Zenter, aka “Mean Jean” of Laytonville, whose “cherry limeaid” bud was described as sweet and fruity, albeit with a “paint thinner and Bain de Soleil” essence.

Like a wine contest, the judges stretched their imaginations and vocabularies to describe the top selections.

Some descriptions of taste and smell for some strains included comparisons to bathroom cleaner, inner tube, new shoes or lemon vodka.

“Sour milk and honey, mind opening with a clear trajectory” was the description judges had for an entry christened “Gorilla Glue No. 4.”

Another entrant dubbed “orange dank” was described as having a “super strong grapefruit” essence and the judge’s note: “I got a bump right away and a clear mental high.”

This was the first year that entrants had to pay a hefty $250 fee to cover the cost of testing their samples for pesticides, fungicides and other chemicals.

About 7 percent had pesticides and were disqualified, organizers said. Another 8 percent had microbial issues.

One of the bigger draws in one pavilion was the cannabis buds representing the contest entries, on display in a lighted circular glass display case.

Festivalgoers crowded around, studying the hundreds of verdant buds and taking pictures with their cellphones.

“I want to be on the panel that gets to choose,” Freeman Young of Berkeley said as he eyed the entries.

“The variety, the size, the sheer volume, the beauty,” he said, listing the qualities he admired. “These things smell wonderful. When you go to a dispensary, you won’t see buds like that.”

“It’s impressive to see the quality of medicine that’s being grown and the variety — the depth that the horticulture has reached,” said a man who identified himself only as Spencer from Mendocino County. “I appreciate good-quality outdoor cannabis, something grown from the sun without unnecessary things added.”

Blake, the event organizer, said he already has a date confirmed for next year’s Emerald Cup at the fairgrounds and hopes to get permission for a larger crowd.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or On Twitter@clarkmas

Editor’s note: Emerald Cup honoree Chris Conrad was given the wrong last name in an earlier version of this story.

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