Emerald Cup 2017 review — Requiem for a gray market

Emerald Cup 2017 By David Downs
Emerald Cup 2017 By David Downs

California’s multi-billion dollar cannabis market gets hit with an epoch-ending asteroid of regulations on Jan. 1.

And the shadow of that asteroid gave the annual Emerald Cup cannabis festival — like the Academy Awards for marijuana — a new edge most regular attendees wouldn’t have noticed amidst the massive canna-bacchanalia which engulfed the Sonoma County Fairgrounds Saturday and Sunday.

The Northern California year-end bash drew more than 25,000 people, plus over 400 businesses and some 975 contestants in 11 categories. A who’s who of state and national marijuana industry, and the region’s young urban herb enthusiasts sold out hotels for 30 miles in every direction. The revelers injected tens of millions of dollars or more into the Santa Rosa economy, which remains very visibly scarred from historic wildfires.

Sculptures of a phoenix rising from the ashes marked donation boxes scattered across the sprawling, fragrant, campus-like Fairgrounds. The event raised a combined estimated $92,000 for fire relief.

The weather proved sunny, cool, clear and still, instead of the usual wet December Wine Country dreariness. The Roots played Saturday after Hieroglyphics, which was a real breakthrough in entertainment quality for the event. And an extra half-million dollars in infrastructure made checking in and walking around the enormous Fairgrounds easier than ever for the 17 year-old event, which is in its third year at the Santa Rosa venue.

So it would be easy to overlook the uneasiness amongst many of the sellers, or the 100-plus speakers who know what’s going on in the state. If there is a German word for ‘the party you throw before your potential annihilation’ — we need it right now. That regulatory asteroid is days from impact, and everyone at the Cup will have to adapt. It won’t be pretty.

That’s why one clear theme of The Emerald Cup 2017 was: “make as much money as you can right now,” noted Elan Rae, a veteran San Francisco-based industry consultant and a 2017 Cup judge. Regulatory winter is coming.

The crowd seemed to intuit it was time to make hay while the sun shined. The fairground ATMs ran out of money. The Stripe card readers failed from bandwidth congestion. Shoppers peeled fistfuls of crisp new $100 bills apart to pay for seeds, flower and extracts. The whole plant life cycle was for sale — down to the nutrients and the lawyers — and it moved briskly over the weekend. Noted breeders Aficionado Seeds from Mendocino County released 10-packs of their new cultivar “Tesstarossa” for $400 per pack. They sold out in 30 minutes Saturday morning.

Better-than-wholesale prices made everyone feel like a winner. And in addition to grams, eighth-ounces, and ounces of flower, some menus advertised rates for entire pounds of cannabis.

Unclear if gold-dipped cannabis flower buds will be a legal form of jewelry in the New Year. | Photo by David Downs
Unclear if gold-dipped cannabis flower buds will be a legal form of jewelry in the New Year. | Photo by David Downs

If you read the 300 or so pages of temporary emergency regulations issued in November by the state’s bureaucrats, you’ll see how the next Emerald Cup might not look like this one. Ask Colorado, Washington and Oregon operators — legalization tends to be a mass extinction event. Few operators get through the evolutionary filter.

Maybe that’s why the money-changing didn’t miss a beat Saturday at 4:20 p.m. — that otherwise sacred time to partake in cannabis culture.

I stood in the eye of the hurricane in front of the CannaCraft Village in the smokiest part of ‘medication’ area for the big moment. When my iPhone struck 4:20 p.m. I listened and not a sound of jubilation could be heard through the golden, sun-lit streaks of smoke. I think I heard one woman whoop from inside the village. Somewhere, someone blew a lone hand-whistle.

“I think they’re too high,” some of us wagered.

They were also too busy.

The last theme of 2017 came from the maybe one percent of folks who are already through the evolutionary filter of regulations. They have their paperwork in order. Their local licenses. They’re ready to rock and roll in the legal market on Jan 1.

Rae says he keeps hearing them say, “We are going to kill it.”

Also on GreenState: read about the winners of The Emerald Cup 2017 and the preparations that went into the event.

Cannabis Editor |? | San Francisco Chronicle. Award-winning journalist. Best-selling author.