Big weekend crowd expected at Emerald Cup in Santa Rosa

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The two-day Emerald Cup cannabis festival at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds this weekend has for more than a decade been a reunion for cultivators and producers, a post-harvest gathering celebrating marijuana.

As the event has grown in size and moved from Laytonville in northern Mendocino County to Santa Rosa, it has evolved into a networking and sampling convention, a chance to smell and try all manner of cannabis-related products and culture.

This year, expect even sharper branding messages, artfully designed logos, more clearly labeled products and a greater variety of wares from salves to vape pens, organizers said. Plus, there’s the music lineup, headlined Saturday by The Roots, and discussion panels focused on everything from farming and politics to labor compliance and cannabis for pets.

“This is no longer people in the hills farming and making flowers; these are master product makers, edibles makers, CBD-rich tincture producers,” said Tim Blake, founder of the Emerald Cup and Healing Harvest Farms dispensary in Laytonville. “You will see national brands coming out of the Emerald Cup. We’re in the legal market now.”

The event is expected to draw about 25,000 attendees, many of them entrepreneurs jockeying for a place in the newly regulated marketplace after two decades with few rules beyond state-defined collective models.

But there remain vestiges of the Emerald Cup’s past.

For one thing, the competition still is for only outdoor-grown and organic marijuana. And, judges gathered this week at the Area 101 property north of Laytonville as they’ve done since 2003 to smell, ogle and smoke cannabis flower entries, whittling down about 500 entries to the top 20 or so. Judges began by examining the buds for color, structure and smell, eliminating ones without aroma or that were poorly trimmed. Then, they divide up the rest and take them home to smoke in batches before meeting again.

“Imagine 15 judges standing around a table with 100-plus jars in front, filled with different cannabis flowers,” said Swami Chaitanya of Laytonville, who with his wife, Nikki Lastreto, has been a judge for the Cup since it started. “Pass it around the table. If it has no smell, what’s the point? If it looks horrible, what’s the point?”

Another dozen or so judges evaluated entries for categories including salves, tinctures and vape cartridges.

A new award will be given to the year’s “Most Innovative Product,” a catch-all category for products that don’t fit into traditional classifications for creations like cannabis-infused sublingual mint strips and postpartum vaginal suppositories, contest director Jane Stewart said.

About 80 percent of contest entries come from producers in the Emerald Triangle marijuana growing region of Trinity, Humboldt and Mendocino counties.

Last year, numerous winners were disqualified when delayed test results found impurities like pesticides and molds. About 25 percent of samples in the concentrates category tested positive for pesticides, and about 5 percent of cannabis flowers.

Blake said they’ve mitigated that issue this year by testing all entries before judging.

Far fewer entries were disqualified this year: less than 5 percent overall, according to Stewart.

“What we hope, and all we can think, is people are learning and waking up to the regulations,” Stewart said, noting the state’s new testing standards.

With some issues fixed, the contest is still experiencing growing pains. Some in the industry have criticized event organizers for allowing vendors with headquarters outside California.

Scott Prosterman, a Bay Area-based communications consultant with clients in the cannabis industry, has been pressing Emerald Cup organizers to clarify the rules for vendors, stemming from concerns that out-of-state companies were getting booth space. Prosterman said that could invite unlawful interstate trade and create unfair competition for local cannabis operators.

“They denied booth space to in-state operators,” he said of two of his clients. “And that’s what’s most objectionable to people who have been burned out (by the October fires) in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.”

Blake said each vendor had to provide proof it holds a California business license and seller’s permit; those that could not were denied booth space. Some companies operate in multiple states and must keep products local to the state where it is made, Blake said.

“National brands, that’s the beginning of what you’re seeing,” Blake said. “That’s going to be the natural evolution. That doesn’t mean they’re not a good company.”

Judge Swami Chaitanya samples a joint of the winning marijuana strain at the 17th annual Cannabis Cup in Laytonville. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

The question for the 2019 Emerald Cup is who will fill the booths.

The nonmedical California marketplace launches in January and the state is rolling out new rules for cannabis-related events. Vendors must have state licenses to bring their wares, and it’s unclear how many producers will have them. But that’s progress, according to Blake.

“If you want to be successful in today’s world, you want to be permitted legal farmer,” he said.

One week ago, Chaitanya and Lastreto received a permit from the Mendocino County agriculture department for their cannabis farm north of Laytonville — Ganja Ma Gardens — where they produce flowers under the brand name Swami Select.

“Next year, the people selling and showing at booths will have to be permitted and legal people,” Lastreto said. “How many people is that going to be? How many will be there? Who knows? It will be different. This is a very special year.”

“It’s a last hurrah,” Chaitanya said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.