As the cannabis-centric Emerald Cup prepares to celebrate its 13th year, founder Tim Blake and booker Dan Sheehan talk with Pollstar about the event’s unique mix of marijuana, music and speakers.
Planned for Dec. 10-11 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif., this year’s Emerald Cup will host Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, Dirty Heads, Stick Figure, Tribal Seeds, California Honey Drops and many more.
But it’s the pot that separates The Emerald Cup from other music festivals.
California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana usage when voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996. Blake launched The Emerald Cup seven years later. He was a member of the California Cannabis Policy Reform which eventually became CA Reform and is a founding member of the Mendocino Cannabis Policy Council. Blake, who grew his first crop of cannabis in 1975, is also the author of the book “The Cannabis Crusader.”
Originally designed to bring growers together for a friendly competition of picking the top buds, the Emerald Cup has grown over the years to become a weekend filled with music, speakers and medical marijuana users sampling the many and varied wares the festival has to offer.
We spoke with Blake and Emerald Cup booker Dan Sheehan of Ineffable Live just days after California residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana use. Needless to say, the pair have big plans, not just for this year’s festival, but for the years to come.
Reggae artist Collie Buddz inspects the offerings at the 2015 Emerald Cup at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Ca.
When it came to creating The Emerald Cup, were you thinking of it as primarily a cannabis event with music a side attraction, or did the music come first?
Blake: I wanted to create a cannabis country fair and just have a friendly celebration and competition of the fall harvest, like they do in every country in America with fruits, agriculture and animals. … The music just got added in. We actually disguised it as a birthday party that first year because it was so illegal back then and we had two people having birthday parties.
Was the music provided by local bands at that time?
Blake: It was all local bands. … The second year we actually started hiring bands that were a little bit larger.
Was it still kind of a secret event in the second year?
Blake: The second year was definitely an underground event. It did not really break out into a larger event until the year Rolling Stone covered it. We were on the inside cover and had about a six-page spread. That kind of really blew us up. That was the fifth or sixth year. … 2008 or 2009.
What was the relationship between the festival and local law enforcement during the Cup’s early years?
Blake: There was no legalization here. It was completely illegal. We just went ahead and did it. Most people thought we were going to be arrested. … There wasn’t any relationship [with] law enforcement. As the years went on, because we got so big so quickly, the California Highway Patrol had to get involved. Nobody knew what we were really doing there. The CHP showed up one night because we had cars all over the highway. He saw people driving out, he could smell the cannabis and was like, “I could arrest these people in their cars. I don’t know what’s going on here.”
And right then they were announcing the winners over the microphones. “Number 6 is this purple kush!” And he was like, “I just want these cars off of the highway and you guys all to disappear. And I’m gonna arrest all of you guys.”
I thought that was the end of the show. II went down to the CHP and Sheriff, but they wouldn’t let me put signs up or give me a permit. I was just trying to do an innocent thing here.
It’s funny. I had this experience with a CHP [officer] where my car had rolled over. He came upon me and helped me roll the car back up. He was really a friendly guy. So we kind of had an adversarial relationship between the police and myself.
The next year we had too many cars on the highway and the CHPs pull up. I’m thinking, “This is it.” He comes out of the car, rolls his shades up, looks at me and says, “Remember me? I was the guy that helped you.”
And I was like, “Yeah. I do.”
And he said, “We’re not here to hassle you. We just want the cars out of here. We don’t know what to do with you. Just get the cars out of here.”
So they just kind of backed up and allowed it to happen. All those years they knew it was going on but never made that effort to come after us.
Rocking the Emerald Cup at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif.
December 12, 2015
Did the festival’s visibility increase greatly after medical marijuana became legal in California?
Blake: Yes and no. The festival exponentially took a big jump when we moved from Area 101 [In Laytonville], the year they came after the 9.31 [permit] program and they really hit hard in California, about five years back. That’s when we moved to Mateel and did the biggest show at the Mateel Community Center [in Redway] that they ever had there. The following year, four years ago, we moved to Sonoma. At that point we went from 1,000, 1,500 people to 7,500 that first year there, about 15,000 the second year, about 22,000 last year, and we’ll have about 30,000 for the weekend this year.
Other than bands that have a cannabis-related identity, what do you look for when booking for The Emerald Cup?
Sheehan: I do a lot of research on social media and on the demographics of the people coming. I look at last year’s ticket sales and see who these people are and where they’re coming from. The last couple of years it has definitely had a reggae-dominate style lineup. This year we have a variation with The California Honeydrops. Last year we had Beats Antique and Nahko And Medicine For The People. I think a lot of like the jammy bands work because it’s tied into, not just the cannabis movement, but the movement of counterculture and the way people live their lives.
This year we looked at … bands that kind of have the organic lifestyle. Michael Franti and stuff like that. It’s not reggae, it’s not necessarily out there promoting cannabis, but that healthier lifestyle. As a cannabis event goes, this event pushes that more than pretty much any cannabis event out there. Which allows us to be unique with the lineup and not be so pigeonholed. A lot of the cannabis events do some of the bigger hip hop artists but this isn’t the vibe of this event. So I’m taking all of that into consideration.
Did knowing Proposition 64 (legalizing recreational marijuana) was going to be on the California ballot influence the planning of this year’s Emerald Cup?
Blake: Not really because we’re already a medical-cannabis competition, so everyone is coming with their licenses. Next year it will really impact because we won’t have to have the licenses and the challenges we have. This year we’re still going forward. We are realizing this will be the first [cannabis] event after legalization so we’re going to have a tremendous turnout. But we were almost sold out last year. So we’re just going forward as always and putting on the best event we can. I think the things you’re talking about will really impact us next year. Dan has been with us for a couple of years, helping us out with the music. This year we’re looking at doing a long-term relationship with Dan and Thomas [Cussins] at Ineffable Live and Dan’s co-producing the show this year has gone way beyond the musical production and into the other elements of the show.
Ranking medical marijuana entries during the 2015 Emerald Cup at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Can ticket holders purchase and consume onsite?
Blake: They can consume onsite. They can do limited purchases but the main emphasis is that they can consume and enjoy the festival. [They] can check out everybody’s products. We have well over 400 vendors. It’s really about people coming together and seeing all the different types of products people are making all over this state and all over the country. The come to participate and share in them. They bring their goodie bags and fill them up.
What are some of the more popular ways to consume cannabis at Emerald Cup?
Blake: The concentrates are really taking over. The little vape pens have become the preferred choice for all the people coming in. … About 60 percent of the market is moving into concentrate. Edibles and other forms are also growing quickly, too, with flowers diminishing by the day. It used to be 6-8 people sharing a joint. Now people are getting their vape pens out … or they’re sharing dabs off of these $3,000 pipes. Rosin coming in has made a big impact. The BHO [Butane Hash Oil] was what they used for the dabs but now that they’ve made solventless rosin, what they’re doing is an organic process, becoming so large, so quickly, we may end up having more rosin entries than flower entries in the years to come.
How many entries do you get?
Blake: We had 800 last year. We peaked out at about 1,000. We charge for testing. We do pesticide testing now. We put a little bit more emphasis on the testing and we’ve asked for more products so we try to hold down some of the entries. Last year we had over 420 just for the flowers alone.
What are some of the qualities you look for when picking the top bud?
Blake: We do a contest on a best score of 50. You get a 1-10 score for the smell, taste and look, and a 1-10 on the high but the high gets a double score. All the elements come into play but the high, the effects, do get a double score. You can have a beautiful bud but it still has to get you high. … This isn’t just a beauty contest. This is about something that’s gotta be special.
Those judges go through that. They only get a sample and a number. They don’t get any testing results, they don’t get any names. They spend a six-week period going through all these flowers, getting it from 500-600 entries down to a top 50 the week before the finals. Then the judges all go home with the top 50 and spend five more days, then come back to Area 101 for about a 10-hour session to whittle that down to a top 20. So it’s a pretty laborious process.
Is there a waiting list to become a judge?
Blake: Absolutely. And most of those people don’t come back the second year. I had a kid once who thought I had a bunch of old-schoolers and he was going to smoke them out and show them what was up. At the end of the judging he was bowing to them. He didn’t realize how hardcore they were.
You get out and get high a couple of times during the day, you don’t have to think of every aspect of what’s happening. When you have to sit down [and] get the look, the smell, the taste, and then get those effects down, and do that 7 to 8 to 9 times a day for weeks at a time, it becomes a very challenging job. There’s a lot riding on it and people are very excited about who’s going to win. You got all of these people that don’t want to disappoint anybody. The judges find out this is a really challenging scientific process.
We get together on the first of December and go through all of it. Then we get back together on the 6th or the 7th and then we get back together before the finals. Usually we have three all-day bouts with the judges in the first two weeks of December. … It’s a lot to ask for the judges. They don’t get paid. They get hotel rooms and some perks but it’s really a labor of love. And it’s a lot to commit. Most of the judges find that it’s so much to commit that after a year or two, they can’t do it.
Do you have some judges who have retired from the working life and have the time to spend doing nothing but judge entries?
Blake: It’s a balance. You can do that … but they end up being a little long in the tooth. On the other side you gotta have a bunch of younger people who know the new strains and what people like. We try to balance that where we have some old-school people who have been doing it for a long time. Then we try to bring in the buyer from HarborsideGold, the buyer from Peace In Medicine, the buyer from HPRC [Humboldt Patient Resource Center] up here. We try to find some of the buyers in local collectives to come do it so it gives us that authentic validation of being professional.
Performing at the 2015 Emerald Cup at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif.
On the business side, how do you move past the image that this is run by, presented by and staffed by stoners?
That’s why Dan’s here with us. (laughs)
Sheehan: I think that was one of the things coming on board that I really wanted to help facilitate. When I first started working with this event, I had booked for a bunch of festivals and produced a bunch of festivals. This is not a music festival. This is such a different animal. It’s a music festival / trade show / contest / gathering of vibes. I think the team Tim built around him, the production crew and event management, they’re all really on top of their game. We’ve all been to, not just cannabis events, but other music festivals that have been run by stoners [where] there’s no attention to detail. What really attracted me to this event is that it was already a well-established event. It really had a purpose behind it.
When Tim first started, it was just that cannabis country fair. As it’s grown over the years, it’s really turned into an industry leader in the marijuana world. Now, with Prop 64 passing and what’s going on in Colorado, Oregon, Washington … I think we’re going to see more and more companies trying to get their feet in, like your AEGs, Live Nations, C3s and stuff like that. I can see them already kind of looking at what’s going on. We want to make we have a stronghold in this. Obviously, the Lollapaloozas and stuff like that are definitely more music-driven but what we’re trying to create is this entire vibe of cannabis-driven events that are put on professionally, generating great revenue and sponsorship dollars, and selling a bunch of tickets.
Once you get to a certain level … we experienced the same thing at California Roots. We went from grossing $500,000 to grossing over $3 million dollars. Once that much money starts getting involved and you get bigger and bigger, it’s like, “All right. This is something we really have to put a lot focus into and make sure all of our business dealings are in place.” Which are some of the things I’m working to bring to the table with the established Emerald Cup family.
How big is the crew on site while the festival is running?
Sheehan: I’d say about 200 plus people if you’re counting security.
Blake: That number has also expanded each year. I think the first year we went in there we thought we could do it with a dozen [people]. And we realized it takes more than a dozen to do 7,000 [capacity event]. Then when it went up to 15,000, 22,000, we just added on each year. I think we pushed close to 200 last year. We might even go over this year. And we have the Friday Night Free Party, which has a whole other set of staffing.
For the people working on site: are there rules regarding their own levels of cannabis consumption?
Blake: In the past we’ve asked them not to consume alcohol on site or during their shifts. It depends on the jobs. Obviously the people that are running the stages have really been clear because they’re doing a very professional thing. Some of the people who are doing low-level work on the back end, we haven’t been that [concerned] if they take a puff now and then. We’ve told everybody not to get too high, that’s it’s actually a professional show. As we’ve gone on we’ve had to tighten that up more and more. It is very seductive and people can get really high. All of a sudden you can have people getting really high over the course of a couple of days.
We don’t have anybody doing edibles. There’s nobody really getting high. People are taking a couple of puffs and that’s about the extent of it. I haven’t seen one case in the last four years where we’ve had somebody who was too high that we had to deal with.
You’d think we’d have more issues than we really do. We’re all working so hard that you almost don’t have time to get high until the end of the day when the party’s slowing down.
Is alcohol sold at the festival?
Blake: It is sold. It’s controlled by the fairgrounds. They take all the profits in that and run it through their organization so we don’t have any issues with the ABC.
Is alcohol consumption anywhere close to cannabis consumption at Emerald Cup?
Blake: No. You don’t get as much alcohol. I told the people who run the fairgrounds that they weren’t going to do anywhere near the alcohol sales for their racing shows. And they found that’s true. People smoking cannabis tend to do less alcohol anyway. It’s not an alcohol-driven show. We haven’t had one physical altercation where the police have had to be called in 13 years. And we’ve had no DUI arrests with people leaving. The Santa Rosa Police have said it’s the most well-behaved show that they’ve ever been to. They realize that a bunch of people getting high and hanging out are not usually a heavy alcohol drinking, brawling crowd.
Not all counties in California are welcoming legal, recreational marijuana. Are local Sonoma County officials a bit more flexible?
Blake: We’re very fortunate. I couldn’t get the Mendocino County Fairgrounds to let me move The Emerald Cup to the county seat in Ukiah. They turned me down. We wrote a 20-page proposal to Santa Rosa four years ago and they said, “If you do this, we’ll let you in here, we’ll take the heat and stand in front of you and do this.”
Now they have taken us off probation and have given us a five-year schedule because we did everything they asked us to. Sonoma County is so forward thinking. They’ve taken over the country’s tourism for vineyards, they’re the leading place for bicycle racing, they have the most microbreweries. They’re very forward-thinking in Sonoma County and they realized several years ago that they wanted their piece of the cannabis pie. The Emerald Cup brings in $20 million into that area for the weekend. People are already out to Healdsburg trying to get a hotel, one month before the event.
Blake: The county knows what we’ve done. We bring a tremendous amount of money to them. They’ve seen we’ve had no DUIs, no issues, and we’ve really done this right. One of the things they did ask us was not to have any hip hop, rap or electronic music because they wanted to keep it as a cannabis country fair. So you have either the old rock ’n’ rollers or the new music with the Cali Roots. It’s given us a great place to work within that framework. It’s been good for everybody.
Emerald Cup at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif.
December 13, 2015
Dan, what was the biggest surprise for you during the first year of working The Emerald Cup?
Sheehan: The biggest surprise was how active the 215 Zone is, where all the cannabis vendors are. It’s still jaw-dropping to me. There’s so many vendors … so many people engaged. Coming from the music festival world … this was something I had never seen before. It’s pretty cool to see it’s at that level in our state.
When December 2017 rolls around and it’s been one year after the passing of Proposition 64, what do you think will be the biggest difference with The Emerald Cup?
Blake: We’re probably going to have to find a raceway or go to Sonoma Speedway or somewhere so we can get 100,000 people in there. People will be able to come over from Japan, Europe, all over the world and won’t need a license to participate. Right now we have a 215 Area that’s separate from the general public. If you don’t have a 215 medical license, you can’t go in there. So it’s really only for medical patients. Next year that designation will be over and it will be a recreational adult-use festival.
Festivals like Dan’s Cali Roots are going to change. You’re going to have cannabis first and foremost in front of these things. You’re gonna want cannabis integrated into every festival in America. At least on the West Coast right now until they legalize it throughout the rest of the states. It’s going to be a major part of every festival in California.
Are you planning on expanding The Emerald Cup brand to other states?
Blake: We’d love to. That was one of the reasons we got together with Dan and Thomas, because of their expertise in doing Cali Roots back east in South Carolina, and all the shows they do, the merchandising expertise they have and their management backgrounds. It’s not my background at all. I have a small events center up here doing shows that are under 500 people. I think Dan and Thomas are perfectly situated to help us do other events in this state and in this country. That’s part of the reason why we’re doing this partnership. So we can present professional, well-run shows.
Every bit of what’s happened over the last 10 years to make this a success, Prop 64, Florida and all these states, has been about massive education. What I’m proud of most about the Cup is we started out as a kind of a wild, all-night party. Now we’re going to have almost 100 speakers, three stages of panels and workshops, and we’re going to have the best educational forum in the world going on. It’s really about educating people on the science, the medical, the cultivation aspects, and getting people up to speed so they can do this the right way and get the right medicine to people. We’re going to be really looking forward to being able to expand our breadth into other parts of the state and this country so we can continue that. Continue educating people and taking them for a good ride and a nice party at the same time.
Sheehan: I think expansion is something that is inevitable for the event. Look at states like Colorado, Washington and all these states going recreational and medicinal, I think, are prime for events like this to come in, to educate and entertain.
“I wanted to create a cannabis country fair and just have a friendly celebration and competition of the fall harvest …”
Music lineup for the 13th annual Emerald Cup:
California Honey Drops
Arden Park Roots
For more information, please visit Emerald Cup’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and Instagram account.
Dan Sheehan of Ineffable Live also books the California Roots Festival in Monterey. Check out Pollstar’s 2015 interview with Sheehan and Cali Roots founder Jeff Monser via this link.