Cannabis legalization has happened in three main waves.
First, there were the outlaws, people who grew cannabis outside the realm of legal protection and risked jail time in order to be close to this transformative plant. Then came the next wave of cannabis activists, who demanded changes to America’s failed drug laws and championed the movement for cannabis legalization and prison reform. Finally, there came the wave of investors, largely devoid of attachment to the plant, who have flocked to the cannabis industry with money in order to make more.
Tim Blake has been growing cannabis for over 40 years now, since before it was an industry, and before many cannabis activists were even involved with the movement to legalize. He has seen all kinds of changes take place in California’s shift from the unregulated Wild West to one of the most restrictive cannabis markets in the world. Yet Blake is most widely known not for his growing, but for his founding of the annual cannabis competition and celebration, the Emerald Cup, which is celebrating its 15th year.
In a far-ranging interview, Blake told Cannabis Now about the changes in the cannabis world he has seen over the years and shared some advice for other cannabis event producers.
An Outlaw Becomes a Political Activist
Blake and I spoke at length about the differences between the old days of the unregulated market and the new era of regulated cannabis. Blake said he “grew up in the times when we were rooting for every outlaw to make it.” Back then “it was us against the cops” he said and unlike today, “there was never a competition because we would all be able to sell our bud.” Now that the market is regulated and fiercely competitive, licensed companies beholden to investors have a vested interest in alerting the BCC to any unlicensed competitors; in other words, snitching has become a standard operating procedure.
“When people used to snitch on each other, it wasn’t really so much a company being competitive, it was somebody snitching on a friend to avoid a prison sentence,” Blake said. Rather than it being a business decision, it was personal, because people were ratting on their friends. “It changed with the federal mandatory minimums,” said Blake, when a “six-month sentence turned into 10 to 15 years.” Blake said he “faced that twice and never snitched on anyone” but he can see why people might, especially if they have a family to take care of.
Blake remained an outlaw for many years until about 10 years ago when he jumped into the political sphere. Blake jumped in head first and sponsored the first sheriffs debate up at Area 101. Thanks in part to Blake’s efforts, Tom Allman was elected sheriff for Mendocino County in 2006. Those efforts also led to the Mendocino County ordinance that allowed growers to have up to 99 plants. Then, when the DEA came in and busted people for growing those 99 plants legally Blake said, “Tom came out and pointed out that the DEA had big cartel busts they could have made but they went for 99 plant semi-legal growers.”
Blake is very pragmatic, saying that progress with cannabis legalization is the result of “incremental change,” which is why he voted for Prop 64 despite its shortcomings.
“We needed to stop putting people in jail and get good quality medicine for patients,” Blake said, things which are now happening thanks to Prop 64 passing.
Blake also spoke of “the gauntlet” of undercover cops he used to have to slip by to transport cannabis from the Emerald Triangle to the Bay Area.
“Now, there is no gauntlet anymore,” he said.
The Creation of the Emerald Cup
Blake took me back to the cup’s humble beginnings in Laytonville. “It started out as under a couple hundred people,” said Blake. “You look at Area 101, it’s not a very big building, so we would attach tents on it, and they stretched all the way out.” Eventually, the cup “was bursting at the seams with well over 1,000 people,” he said and it had to find a new home.
For one year they moved to Humboldt’s Mateel Community Center where Blake said they hosted “the biggest event they ever had.” Unfortunately, “both the Humboldt and Mendocino county fairgrounds” passed on the cup moving to either site permanently, which was when the move south to Santa Rosa happened. The first year there Blake said “a lot of farmers didn’t come down,” but once they saw how well people did there, they came rushing back. Like those farmers who were initially skeptical, “Mendocino could have had the tax money, but they passed on it,” said Blake.
When asked about the connection between the cup and music, Blake said musical performances were always a core part of the event. “The music was always there, it was a cannabis event celebrating music, or a music event celebrating cannabis,” Blake said. In fact, the cup was so music-focused that it “didn’t have vendors for the first five or six years,” it was just “the contest and music, then we added more over the years.”
When asked who gets to pick the music, Blake lit up. “I used to do that, and it was a really joy-filled moment,” he said. “But kind of crazy, because you’re trying to find musicians at the end of the year when they aren’t touring.” Currently, Red Light Management (RLM) handles the booking. Over the past half-decade the cup has taken place in Santa Rosa, their music budget has quintupled to nearly $600,000.
The major acts on Dec. 15 include the New York-based folk-punk band Gogol Bordello, whose hits include raucous songs “Start Wearing Purple” and “Wanderlust King.” But more than just punks like cannabis, so if you’re more into hip hop, Chali 2na (of Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli) might be more your speed. Other than the music, fans of “Dogma,” “Clerks” and “Tusk” can rejoice to see Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes do a live recording of their #1 ranked comedy podcast “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old.”
While the big names on Dec. 16 cater largely to the electronic music crowd, with headliners including Big Gigantic and Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9), the cup has something for everyone. Sunday also features the rising country star Margo Price. Price, who has played with Willie Nelson, recently released a strain of cannabis under his Willie’s Reserve brand.
One can only hope that Nelson and Price get together on stage after Nelson receives his lifetime achievement award on Dec. 16. The cup is hereafter renaming the award the Willie Nelson Award in his honor.
A Cancer Survivor on a Mission for Clean Living
Blake is a cancer survivor who said he “used cannabis to heal three rounds of metastasized bone cancer.” Now he helps “teach people to lead a gluten-free, sugar-free lifestyle and use cannabis to supplement it.” His personal philosophy carried over to the cup, which began as a competitive for organic, outdoor cannabis. “The first couple of years, people thought I was just some hippie organic guy,” Blake said.
Blake’s family also did not take his lifelong career in cannabis seriously for many years, but they too have come around. “I had a felony charge, and that kind of thing will make you a pariah,” said Blake. “I was the black sheep of my family for years, but now they are looking into using cannabis for my uncle and they want me to educate them about cannabis.”
Blake’s uncle is a 90-year-old priest, and according to Blake “all the medication he is on is making him go crazy.” Despite Blake’s views on cannabis and politics, his family is made up of “lawyers and conservative people,” but he said even they are now onboard with taking his uncle “off the meds and to let him use cannabis.” They first started him with CBD, slowly stepped up the dose and even introduced THC, which Blake said his uncle “loves.”
A Problem with Pesticide Testing
The cup, like the cannabis industry itself, did not always require lab testing. And Blake said once the cup began lab testing in 2015, they were surprised by what they saw. According to the East Bay Express, at the 2015 cup, “about one in six entries failed lab tests for pesticides or pathogens like mold, bacteria, and fungi.”
The Emerald Report spoke to SC Labs about their testing for the 2016 cup, where they found “about 25 percent of 263 samples in the concentrates categories submitted from producers across the state were disqualified, mostly because they tested positive for pesticides.” The concentrates category was comparably the dirtiest category that year, and only “5 percent of cannabis flower samples showed evidence of pesticides.”
Blake feels that those pesticide-testing issues are now a thing of the past. “The first year we did it, people weren’t really aware, so we had a high failure rate because they didn’t expect it,” said Blake. “Now people have gotten much more aware and they are putting better quality entrants into the cup and it has gone way down over the past couple of years to less than 5 percent.”
The issue he pointed to now was with state testing, specifically calling out the stringency of homogeneity testing in edibles, and plants having traces of pesticides due to soil contamination. Blake also noted the double standards being applied to cannabis. “Compared to traditional agriculture there is very restrictive testing and nothing could pass it,” he said.
Advice for Other Event Organizers and Future Plans
With 15 years of experience hosting the Emerald Cup, Blake is an expert with cannabis events. Given the major recent regulatory changes around cannabis events in California, there are a lot of gray areas event organizers need to navigate in order to stay compliant.
“The first thing is to get a good attorney,” Blake said. Or if an attorney is off the table, at the very least “a compliance person or a lobbyist.” Blake said the cup has a lobbyist working with the BCC to get some changes made to the regulations and they have gone to all the BCC meetings. They also have plans to “form a trade association to teach the other event organizers how to do it right.”
Beyond forming a cannabis event trade association, Blake has plans to grow the cup beyond the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and “do other Emerald Cups around the state, country, and the world.” Blake said the cup’s partnership with RLM will be crucial in growing the event, as they “own Outside Lands, Bonnaroo, and South by South West,” and came in to build the cup “into an international show.”
TELL US, will you be at the Emerald Cup in Santa Rosa this year?