Tolkien fans who can't afford to visit Middle Earth in New Zealand should mark their calendars. In December 2013, The Emerald Cup in Humboldt County will offer an enchanting, primeval forest adventure with no small number of stout, hairy gentlemen jovially puffing away on sweet herb.
At this year's cup, held last Saturday at the Mateel Community Center in Redway, several hundred of the world's best pot growers, activists, lawyers, merchandisers, and weed aficionados gathered for the ninth annual event. Billed as "the world's only outdoor organic cannabis cup" and sponsored by Skunk magazine, the two-hundred-strain pot contest was the biggest annual gathering of growers from the Emerald Triangle, which is considered to be the largest and best pot-growing region in the world.
The daylong event went down in a huge wooden community center amid towering redwoods and was marked by copious amounts of rain, fog, and mud — with some snow mixed in. All in all, the event felt like a weedy county fair from The Hobbit.
First there's the drive: It's two hundred miles north of the Bay Area up Highway 101 to where it eventually narrows to two lanes and weaves between the tall trees. Last weekend, it was a perilous trip — rainy, foggy, snowy, and spooky. A couple miles off 101, the hamlet of Redway looked like an exterior shot from the movie Twilight. Evergreens surround the tiny village. Everything was soaking wet and freezing cold.
Up on a hill above the main road, the Mateel Community Center stood out like an old-school mead hall out of Beowulf. The wooden, circular building had 25-foot-tall ceilings, hardwood floors, and a fire roaring in its stone hearth. Beginning at noon, the place filled up with folks from all walks of life, although there was a distinct demographic bend toward stout, hairy gents layered in dense, dark clothing. Every kind of beard, mustache, and dreadlock combination was on display. The crowd was all smiles as longtime friends caught up with each other and showed off their kids.
Down a soggy hill, in a huge tent, the adult smoking party raged. Stoner dudes and ladies hit joints, bongs, pipes, and vapor pens all day long while chatting and nodding their heads to the live MCs or ogling a display case of the year's entries.
The Emerald Cup was co-founded in 2003 by weed activist Tim Blake as a very low-key affair with just 23 entries. By 2010, it was up to 150 entries. This year's two hundred entrants signified the growing comfort of the scene, and the cup's first appearance in Humboldt County. (Typically, it's been held in neighboring Mendocino County.)
After smoking two hundred strains in fourteen days, judges gave the grand prize to local breeding company Cannabis Aficionado for its Chemdawg Special Reserve. The company won a trip to Jamaica and the notoriety of having the best "beans" in the biz.
Judges said The Emerald Cup of 2012 was really the first upbeat one in the last three years. The year 2010 saw the defeat of Prop 19, which a lot of locals wanted to pass, even though they considered it flawed. Then 2011 yielded a terrible, soggy growing season, and the beginning of the federal government's crackdown on medical marijuana businesses.
Conversely, 2012 was a gorgeous year for growing outdoors, and Colorado and Washington legalized pot. Many in the Triangle hope those two states will take some heat off Humboldt County, even as they fear that California legalization in 2013, 2014, or 2016 could destroy their livelihoods.
Colorado has banned outdoor growing and Washington does not allow home growing at all. A big chunk of the Triangle economy is based on indoor or outdoor home growing. The Humboldt weed scene was also founded in the Seventies by hippies and back-to-the-landers who hated government and crony capitalism, and still do.
"We're threatened!" said Robert Sutherland, a "reverend activist" who opened the proceedings Saturday. "Greed owns this country and it is out to crush our way of life, out to push our growers down to a social novelty, like moonshiners.
"Hear me! We work together from the heart, or it's over," he continued. "Let's have an industry for the many, not the few."
Sutherland also pushed for local standards for organic outdoor weed that "can stand as a seal of excellence and preserve our way of life."
Lawyer Edie Lerman fears that Monsanto or private equity firms will raid the weed industry, and called for new county laws to keep pot organic and boutique. "I think that it needs to happen on a grassroots level," she said. "Make sure in your county — [a corporate takeover of pot] can't happen."
Others, meanwhile, advocated that the California marijuana industry should strike now, while the legalization movement is hot. "Attack! Attack! Attack!" advised San Francisco lawyer Matt Kumin. "This is big. This is the moment. We can drive a stake through the heart of prohibition in the next few months. ... The federal government is vulnerable. We're going to make them cry uncle."
"Cannabis regulation is going to happen. It can happen to us or it can happen for us," added Dan Rush, a union organizer. "We got to be prepared — pragmatic and unified in our approach. If we do ... regulation will happen for us."
But many eventgoers on Saturday were content to simply stay warm, compare weed, and catch up. And plenty remained skeptical about their fortunes — at least in the short-term. "A whole lot more of us are going to go back to jail," said one Northern California grower. "That's what's going to happen."