Emerald Cup Blazes Ahead As California Settles Into Recreational Cannabis Legalization

Courtesy of Emerald Cup
– Joint Effort
The Emerald Cup, with an assist from Red Light Management in recent years, has become something of a “cannabis Disneyland” for its patrons.

The Emerald Cup, the California marijuana happening that’s part cannabis competition, part wellness convention, part agriculture summit, part pot marketplace and part music festival, returns to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif., Dec. 14-15. But despite 16 years of operation – and California’s mellowing attitude toward pot, which the state approved for recreational use with 2016’s Prop 64 – the event remains daunting logistically.

“It was so much easier to do an illegal event and be outlawed than it is to do a compliant legal thing,” says Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake, explaining efforts to square the Cup’s mom-and-pop vibe with new state regulations and California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control.

Jim Lewi, who leads cannabis initiatives at Red Light Management, which partnered with the event in 2016, describes himself as the “nuts and bolts” complement to Blake’s role as the Cup’s “visionary,” and has worked tirelessly to ensure Emerald Cup’s legal compliance.

“Getting cannabis products to an event is not a simple process,” and legalization “changed how everything was done,” from cannabis transportation to storage, Lewi says. “It costs us a substantial amount of time and money to make sure that we are 100% legal and compliant.”

Lewi and Dustin Moore, a board member of the International Cannabis Farmers Association who also worked on the Prop 64 campaign, attended BCC meetings and collaborated with the agency to preserve the Cup’s character while staying on the right side of the law. (State law, that is. Marijuana remains federally outlawed.)

“They just weren’t aware of what [cannabis] events really are and how important they are to our industry,” says Blake. “We’re teaching them, they’re learning, we’ve come a long way. The main thing I want to do is just have the same event that people are used to, where they can just come in and they can share, they can participate, they can buy easily and comfortably. We wouldn’t want to take that away, or else it’s not going to be the Emerald Cup.”

Blake and Lewi liken the event to a farmers market, but with cannabis. Like its more traditional precursors, the Cup has championed small-scale farmers – which has become more challenging as recreational legalization’s new taxes and laws have burdened the little guys.

“Everything that we tried to do on a state level, in terms of compliance, tried to make it so that the small farmer … can have a direct conversation with the consumer, just like someone growing a tomato,” Lewi says.

Beyond the marketplace itself, the Emerald Cup’s competition – which recognizes categories from flowers and concentrates to innovative products and eco-conscious packaging – lends winners the same sort of prestige that a vintner might receive at a wine competition.  Tommy Chong will receive the Cup’s lifetime achievement award, which it rechristened as the Willie Nelson Award when it bestowed the honor upon the Red Headed Stranger in 2018.

The Emerald Cup’s ever-growing programming slate has also strengthened its allure. Competitive folks can participate in joint-rolling tournaments, and a robust set of performers, artists and panels makes the festival the nexus of cannabis culture every December.

“Tim wanted us more focused on education this year, and on bringing the community together,” Lewi says of the speaking lineup, which includes talks about topics from wellness to criminal justice reform and features luminaries from politics, business and science.

“When we first started doing the speakers, I was worried nobody would show up for those, because we’re a party,” Blake says. “But over the years, we’ve gotten a great response.”

Still, like any cannabis event worth its salt, this year’s Emerald Cup features plenty of eclectic music, such as Flatbush Zombies, Santigold and Steel Pulse. Says Blake: “The musical lineup, it’s always just a blast.”

Whether jumping through legal hurdles or curating programming, Blake and Lewi have worked to keep the Cup atop the cannabis events sphere, even as it rapidly changes.

“A festival is about a vision, it’s about a vibe, it’s about bringing a community together that shares a common bond; that’s what the Emerald Cup is about,” Lewi says. That’s why the event invests in “things that are not the cannabis market,” like music and art.

With a laugh, he adds, “We’re just trying to make it more like – I know we’re not supposed to say this word – cannabis Disneyland.”