SANTA ROSA — Rejoicing in the end of marijuana’s prohibition, a once-quaint gathering of the cannabis tribe is now a weekend-long lifestyle event, where legions of hobbyists, farmers, businesses, investors, and stoners gather to celebrate a weed.

The Emerald Cup, created by Tim Blake in 2003 as a small and clandestine evening competition in a Laytonville campground, attracted 30,000 people to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds this weekend, up from 25,000 last year — from homespun Humboldt County dirt farmers to savvy urban Los Angeles dispensaries, promoting their wares to the throb of hip-hop and the sweet aroma of smoke.

[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section” curated_ids=””]But behind the gaiety is apprehension. Few businesses, yet, know if they’ll qualify for interim licenses when commercialization becomes legal on Jan. 1 under Prop. 64. Only an estimated 28 percent of California’s municipalities are allowing commercial activities. And the cost of compliance could be budget-busting for many small businesses.

Meanwhile, the price of cannabis is plummeting, as supplies swell. A year ago, Blake said, a pound box of flower was worth up to $1,400; now, you’re lucky to get $700 to $800.

“Everybody is growing so much,” he said. “It will never go back. That is the way it is going to be.  It is the way of the world. People will get better access for better prices.”

But hopes are buoying by the imminent opening of a new consumer market, estimated to be worth $20 billion or more.

Next week, the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control will release the number of applicants for new state licenses, Bureau chief Lori Ajax told the convention. The state will not limit the number of licenses.

Attendees of the Emerald Cup wear colorful costumes and makeup. (Lisa M. Krieger)

The state’s “emergency” licenses, good for only six months, are more lenient than the future permanent licenses. It offers, in essence, a phase-in period. For instance, package requirements are less rigorous; it must only be child-resistant and labeled correctly, disclosing THC content.

In the first six months, weed that was intended for “medical” use can be moved to the “adult use” market, Ajax said.

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Legalization triggering a modern-day Gold Rush, with companies hoping to find their niche in the ever-expanding cannabis marketplace.

The festival attracted not just Californians, but also out-of-state merchants, such as a seed company from Alaska, Colorado greenhouse specialists and the breeders dubbed the “Swamp Boys,” Florida natives “Cornbread Ricky” and “Krome,” with strains called Georgia Pine and Old Florida Orange Skunk.

“Every year, business gets bigger and bigger,” said Jeff Cassetta of Seeds Here Now, founded in a Seattle suburb and now expanding into Oregon and California. “Legalization gives us more customers because more people want to grow.”

Joel Klein, a sales rep for the cannabis manufacturing company called AbsoluteExtracts, said, “We just keep growing into different categories and offering more stuff.”

To prepare for this year’s surge, Blake spent an additional $1 million, adding three large tents, he said. He rented 30 golf carts, up from five. He added $2,000 extra to the lighting budget and budgeted for a new media tent, special signage, plastic floors and other improvements.

Vendors offer samples and wares at the Emerald Cup, Northern California’s premier cannabis contest and festival. (Lisa M. Krieger)

An estimated 2,000 vendors asked to attend; only 500 were selected.

The Emerald Cup is an exalted cannabis contest. A winning entry means a big surge in sales for the grower, as well as sudden popularity in that strain’s clones and seeds.

The cup’s first contest attracted 23 entries. This year, there were 975 entries. Of the $400 contest fee, $50 is donated to a relief fund for victims of October’s Santa Rosa-based fires. A team led by judges Nikki Lastreto and partner Swami Chaitanya sampled an estimated 3,000 entries.

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For the first time, the contest included a “light deprivation” category, featuring weed grown using a new technique that allows outdoor growers to boost production by darkening greenhouses and triggering flowers. This boosts yields — for instance, a 10-acre farm can increase their crop from 500 pounds to 2,000 pounds a year, said Blake.

Innovations in cultivation practices are changing entries in the contest. Plants are bigger; they’re no longer just 8 feet, but can reach 14 feet in height. Their psychoactive properties are also higher, packing a powerful punch. Levels of the chemical that produces a high — known as THC — used to average 3 percent to 4 percent. At the festival, a Humboldt County-grown “Nor Cal Diesel” measured a stunning 30.7 percent THC.

A vendor talks with a cannabis enthusiast at the Emerald Cup in Sonoma County on Sunday. (Lisa M. Krieger)

For those hoping to cash in on the fast-moving industry, there were panels on regulations, intellectual property, fertilizers and other topics.

But most came just to party, try samples and catch a buzz.

“Ozi,” who runs a Sacramento-based cannabis extraction company called CubanTech, admired the crowds who waited patiently in line to test products. Of Cuban heritage, he ran cannabis businesses in Washington and Oregon but didn’t feel comfortable there, he said.

“In California, there are more people here who have more understanding of cannabis culture than anywhere else,” he said. “Here, people have a real passion.”

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