On January 1, the first post-Prohibition pot shops opened in Colorado, and other states are close behind. But if you think you know everything there is to know about this ancient plant, think again. There’s a whole new world of cannabis to be explored.

 

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Photographs by Henny Garfunkel

 

At one time smoking pot was as simple as rolling a joint; today, a science degree is helpful to navigate the innumerable names and strains, or to distinguish the difference between an indica and sativa, or to know the optimum temperature at which to “vaporize” your “flowers” or oil (375 degrees Farenheit). And then there’s the “delivery system.” Are you smoking plant matter, vaping concentrates, ingesting edibles or slipping a sublingual under your tongue? Each creates a unique effect and produces a different quality of euphori

To learn the answers to these questions, and for the pure joy of seeing the finest cannabis grown in 2013, I’ve come to The Emerald Cup, the organic grower’s festival that names the best organic, sun-grown flowers and concentrates in Northern California. Part 4H Club, part science expo, part tattoo convention, it’s the premier gathering for pot snobs, science geeks, farmers and of course, all of those venture capitalists who find the scent of dollars as intoxicating as that of burning bud.

First stop is the outdoor smoking area where huddles of scraggly haired dudes and bros, and the women who love them, are indulging the latest cannabis craze: dabs. A dab is a pinhead-sized drop of concentrated hash oil. When the dab is placed upon a heated titanium nail head nestled in a massive bong, a plume of smoke floods the pipe and delivers a mind-stinging and intoxicating high. This, apparently, is why most dabbers here have extremely silly smiles melting across their faces.

These farmers are the last embodiment of the American frontier spirit—counterculture but struggling to maintain high standards.

Like most everything in the new world of cannabis, dabs are controversial. Because of their potency critics decry them as the crack of cannabis (an unfair characterization since cannabis is neither physically addictive nor toxic). Others, including some medical practitioners, praise them for being able to immediately blunt acute pain. Whatever one thinks, they make those old-school fatties seem quaint by comparison.

The Emerald Cup was started in 2004 by Mendocino master grower, Tim Blake, to celebrate the autumn harvest. Until last year, Blake hosted the gathering on his 145-acre property just north of Laytonville in the mountains of Mendocino. The weather in the Emerald Triangle (which embodies Mendo, Humboldt and Trinity counties) in December is rarely hospitable. It’s either raining, snowing or both, and the ground is typically a goulash of ankle-deep mud. It’s like Woodstock without the music, as one longtime attendee put it: arduous, messy and huge fun.

 

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In its inaugural year, 22 strains of flowers were submitted for judging. This year, the judges somehow sampled 273 strains plus 57 hashish concentrates in six weeks leading up to The Cup and lived to tell about it. They graded each strain on smell, looks, taste and “effects,” freely borrowing the language of wine to describe the “underlying undertones,” “nose,” or “aftertaste” of each skunky sample.

And this year The Cup has also relocated to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, an hour north of San Francisco, where the sun is shining, the terra is firma, and the thousands of visitors in attendance are happy and unashamedly high.

But they’re not all smoking. Making a big splash this year are edibles, drinkables and “medibles,” which means many participants are sampling sweets, from cannabis cotton candy to “hand infused 22% THC caramels” in Pumpkin Pie, Cinnamon and Salted flavors. At one booth I’m handed a small bag of caramel popcorn which I down without asking about its cannabis content. “Don’t worry,” the dreadlocked woman at the booth tells me, “It’s just a little lift.” An hour later I see (happily) that she was right.

 

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Inside one exposition hall is a maze of booths where one can learn about composting systems, NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) soil mixes and mechanized bud trimmers that cut the tedious job of hand trimming from hours to minutes. Not too long ago many of these folks were called crackpots; today they’re cannabusinessmen and women. James Slatic, the founder of the O-pen electronic pen, has invented an elegant vaporizing pen that makes it easy—and discreet—to “vape” hash oil with no smoke or smell. The stealth pen charges in a USB port and is so thisminute that people are wearing them in their shirt pockets as fashion accessories. I’m sure someone is already designing a nifty pocket protector to complete the vapernerd look. Oh, and did I mention that the electronic cigarette business is a $1.7 billion industry and growing exponentially? “Yeah, I stopped smoking analogs last year,” says one dedicated vaper, referring to those rolled joints.

Then there’s the nutty stuff that always seems to show up at all events aimed at the cannabis green rush. The Ferrari 420 Tours, for instance, provides guests with “Medical Marijuana Concierge Services” to the Dispensaries and Vapor Lounges in Bay Area. The fast talking schmoozer at Mama P’s Wholesome Grinder Company delivers a pitch on his $150 grinder—“the Harry Winston of cannabis accessories”—in 89 seconds. But it’s Ellie Green, founder of docGreen’s cannabis infused body lotion, who really made me laugh. Ellie is hoping to spark a “revolotion” among smoke-averse seniors with his pain relief product. “There are a lot of seniors who don’t like to smoke or are afraid to, so if we can get them to use our lotion to take away their aches and pains they’ll be hooked!” His marketing campaign relies on his father, a 70-something retired rabbi, to deliver the spiel.

 

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The many shapes and sizes (and stamps) of the Emerald Cup’s water hash contenders

 

The real stars of this event are the growers, small-scale producers who painstakingly tend to their flowers. Many talk to or play music to their plants in the fields, sincere in the belief that good vibes make better highs and more potent meds. I’m skeptical about this, but I’m certain that these farmers are the last embodiment of the American frontier spirit. They are defiantly counterculture but at the same time struggling to maintain high standards in the face of the industrial indoor grows starting up in Colorado and Washington. After all, NorCal cannabis is arguably the finest in the world. It’s also California’s Number One cash crop, which brought in an estimated $14 billion in 2010. (So much for that old Reefer Madness fiction about cannabis being “anti-motivational.)

At other industry conventions men and women carry laptops for impromptu power point demos; here, backpacks are full of buds, some tight and dense, others the size of large sex toys, all impressive and impossibly fragrant. Those lovely aromas are an amalgamation of molecules called terpenes, and it just so happens that Alec Dixon and Josh Wurzer, the co-founders of a cannabis analysis laboratory called SC Labs, have set up a test tube display to demonstrate the smell of each terp and how it works.

 

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A few strains and their chemical profiles on display. Note: plastic bags for cannabis distribution are so 1990s

Myrcene—an essential oil in mangoes—has a deep, loamy smell, sort of like hops. It contributes to the sedative effects of Indica strains and is partly responsible for that condition that stoners lovingly refer to as “couchlock.” Limonene provides a brighter note of citrus or pineapple; it’s uplifting and more often associated with a sativa dominant strain like Super Lemon Haze or OG Kush. Beta-caryophyllene is peppery and sharp like cloves, and protects the stomach lining, which is one reason cannabis is effective against nausea. It’s also what dogs were trained to recognize in airports back in the day when they were crawling with DEA officials rather than bomb detection squads.

 

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I’m fascinated by this lo-fi science display, but most attendees pass it by in pursuit of other, less esoteric activities. Alec and Josh note this and fill a 4-liter beaker with green liquid and steaming dry ice as a last ditch attempt to grab attention. “It’s gimmicky but its hard to compete with free dabs,” Alec explains. Of course, curb appeal doesn’t really matter to their business. They’re not here to sell “product.” They want to educate growers and customers about the benefits of knowing exactly what’s in their smoke. After all, cannabis has been around for 10,000 years, but there’s an entire world within the plant that’s just beginning to be understood.

P.S.: A few days after The Cup I got the flu and applied docGreen’s lotion to my aching back. It worked and alleviated some of my pain. Viva the revolotion!