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At the Cannabis Cup: 48 Hours of Potheads and Would-be Marijuana Magnates

High Times Cannabis Cup DenverHigh Times Cannabis Cup Denver
A man samples the product at the Green Tree Medicinals booth during the High Times Cannabis Cup in Denver, ColoradoPhoto by Seth McConnell—DP/Getty Images

In his new book Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America, journalist Bruce Barcott traces the recent spread of legalized marijuana across the U.S. while dissecting the social, political and financial implications of the drug’s march toward mainstream acceptance. Barcott, who calls himself a “pot skeptic,” traveled to Denver to attend the 2014 High Times Cannabis Cup, a two-day event that drew tens of thousands of pot enthusiasts and industry vendors. While there, Barcott met several so-called “ganjapreneurs” looking to benefit from the growing market for legal marijuana, which is expected to top $10 billion in sales by 2018. The annual Cannabis Cup returns to Denver next week, and High Times plans to host five more Cups in cities across the U.S. before the end of the year. It’s part of a growing events business for the magazine, which is now one of many cannabis industry publications benefitting from America’s increased demand for marijuana media.

The following is an adapted excerpt from Barcott’s book, which was recently published by Time Books (Fortune and Time Books are both owned by Time Inc.):

I flew to Colorado last spring to attend the High Times Cannabis Cup. It was being held on April 19 and April 20, the traditional stoner’s holiday. I had been poking around marijuana and the cannabis industry for more than a year. It was time to enter the belly of the beast. In pot culture, the core doesn’t come any harder than Cannabis Cup.

In 1987, High Times editor Steven Hager got the idea for a cannabis harvest festival during a visit to the Netherlands. Part competition, part tribal gathering, the Cannabis Cup grew to become an international pot convention, with thousands of cannabis connoisseurs descending on Amsterdam during late November.

When Colorado and Washington went legal, the Cup finally came to America. In April 2013, High Times put on a Cannabis Cup in Denver. When the doors opened, 17,000 people poured in.

In 2014 the Cup opened at the Denver Mart, a downscale meeting barn. Sold out—37,000 people each day. Lines wrapped around the building. Two hours just to get in the door. I did a rough calculation. Thirty-seven thousand people at $75 a day, for two days: let’s say $5 million, give or take. Vendors: 600 at about $2,500 per booth. That’s another $2 million. Let’s say you’ve got $2 million in costs: hall rental, deposit, security, administration. You do the math.

“Is this your first Cannabis Cup?” Melanie Holland shouted at me.

I nodded. House music thumpa’d my skull.

“Great,” she said. “You’re gonna love it. You might get a contact high. I’m just warning you.”

I followed Holland, High Times’s media manager, to the magazine’s booth at the edge of the outdoor smoking area. She wrapped a red media band around my wrist and bid me follow. “Let’s introduce you to Michael,” she said.

We threaded through the crowd, sweaty under the Colorado noonday sun, into a side door and down a warren of corridors strung with wires and empty boxes. Melanie caught sight of a shadowy figure in a doorway.

“Michael!” she cried.

We approached. Melanie hung back a respectful distance as a tanned old man in Florida casual wear—Michael, apparently—concluded a confidential consultation. Melanie introduced me as a writer. This displeased Michael.

“A writer, eh?” he said, sizing me up. “Whattaya writing about?” He shot Melanie an annoyed look.

“Marijuana,” I said.

He nodded, taking this in as if I had suggested a new and devilishly clever angle.

We exchanged semi-cordial phrases. It became clear to me—I have a nose for these things—that Michael had no interest in being interviewed, quoted or identified with the magazine or the Cannabis Cup in any way. This despite the impression that Michael seemed to be the owner, or part-owner, or financial partner in some kind of way, of the magazine and the marijuana show. The guy radiated all the warmth and fuzziness of a Mafia don.

“What exactly is your role with the magazine and the show?” I asked.

He glared at me.

“I’m in . . .” He paused.

Construction? I thought. Waste management?

“Let’s just say I’m an advocate for the magazine.”

We parted in a this never happened kind of way, and I returned to ye merry cannabis faire.

The bloom of youth had long since abandoned the Denver Mart, a sad old barn stuck out by the Union Pacific rail yard. The walls wanted paint. The carpet shouted, “Go ahead! Stain me some more.” The choice of venue puzzled me until someone mentioned that at the previous year’s Cannabis Cup, attended by some 17,000 partakers, the organizers had neglected to properly clean up after the party. Word got around. Planners of the 2014 event didn’t just need a space rugged enough to handle a surging and moderately sloppy crowd. They needed a venue desperate enough to take their money. Hello, Denver Mart!

It took me a while to get the lay of the land. According to the Cannabis Cup map, there was an indoor (nonsmoking) area and an outdoor (smoking) area. Inside featured a stage where leading cannabis industry figures engaged in panel discussions on issues of the day: Dabbing in Denver, Legal Cultivation, The Art of Edibles, The Future of Legalization. Indoor booths tended toward the industry’s ancillary businesses. Potting soil. Grow lights. Synthetic urine.

Wait, what?

“The Whizzinator Touch!” featured a disturbingly lifelike schlong attached to a reservoir of drug-free pee. “#1 Synthetic Urine in the World!” boasted the company’s banner. Which demanded the question: Had there been a judged competition? Obviously I had to know more. “Very quiet, fast acting, warm synthetic urine instantly,” the company’s literature promised. It was the adjective warm that turned my stomach.

The most popular booth inside the Mart was the one that offered a ticket to exit the Mart. By law, only those with proof of over-21 status could enter the outdoor smoking portion of the show. Cannabis Cup organizers employed three young women to stand behind a table. Their job was to individually verify the IDs of 37,000 people and band them with Tyvek bracelets. It’s a shame the Guinness people weren’t around, because I’m sure there was some sort of world record involved.

Once accessorized, Cannabis Cuppers streamed through a chain-link gate where security guards shouted, “Wristbands up!” and scanned to make sure everyone bore the plasticky-papery ring of approval. I stood and panopticonned the carnival around me. Clearly this was where the cool kids were hanging out. Across the warm blacktop stretched row upon row of vendors hawking product. There were glass pipe makers, botanical extraction machine manufacturers, cultivation soil sellers, mechanical trimmers, vape pen designers, -cannabis-infused skin-care lines, grow room showrooms, T-shirt designers, seed sellers and dab stations. Many dab stations. The outdoor smoking area was essentially a dab tasting fair, with people lining up to sample the highly-concentrated form of cannabis that usually takes the form of a sticky, wax-like oil. Colorado law prohibited the unlicensed selling of marijuana and dab tokes, but it remained technically legal to freely share such things. So it was like attending an Oktoberfest where all the beer was free.

Here are more things that I saw: Neck tattoos. Electric-blue sneakers. Competitive beards. Flat-brim caps, often black. Blunts, vape pens, joints and more blunts. Young women in pot-leaf-patterned yoga pants. Tie-dyed knee socks. Old dudes with long, stringy hair and leather vests. Many young adult men wearing camouflage cargo shorts and extra-large T-shirts. Dogs: Pomeranians, Afghans and bull mastiffs. (Who brings a dog to a marijuana convention?) I saw a short person wearing a full-body reefer costume modeled on Doonesbury’s Mr. Jay. T-shirts with half-clever dope references: a milkishly fonted got vape?, a Smokey the Bear logo, “The Cat and the Hash,” Darth Vapor.

As I strolled the grounds, a curious realization came over me. Marijuana had become strangely absent from the marijuana scene. By marijuana I mean the plant itself. For the hard-core cannabist, the scene had shifted. Everywhere I turned, braceleted Cuppers queued up for their turn at the red-hot dabbing nail used to heat the oil for smoking. Vegetable matter had become the wooden tennis racket of hard-core pot culture. It was all about carbon fiber now.

Nowhere was the line longer than at the dabbing tent sponsored by Mahatma Concentrates. I fell into talking with Shannon Wilson, co-founder of the company. She sat on a stool at the head of the line, checking IDs. “Of the first hundred people I’ve checked, only one was from Colorado,” she told me. “How about that.”

I asked why she saw the need to check IDs, given the bracelet system. She responded with a raised eyebrow. You think I’m gonna trust my livelihood to ‘Wristbands up’? Shannon was kind enough to walk me through her operation. “We’ve got four stations here,” she said, indicating a bar with four stools and a budtender servicing each. At one station, a budtender named Nick waved his next customer in. Nick offered the young man, who had driven here from Atlanta, his choice of Kings Kush wax, Gucci OG wax, Trainwreck shatter or Hindu Kush shatter. (Shatter is a solid cannabis concentrate, named for the way it resembles shards of amber glass.) Atlanta chose the Kings Kush.

420 rally Medicine man
Medicine Man CEO Pete [f500link]Williams[/f500link], right, and his brother and president Andy Williams celebrate Cannabis Cup in Denver, ColoradoPhoto by Hyoung Chang—DP/Getty
Photo by Hyoung Chang—DP/Getty
“Usually we like to check and see if they’ve done this before,” Shannon told me. “If they haven’t, we suggest they have a friend stand behind them in case they get a little lightheaded.”

Nick loaded the rig with the Kings Kush wax. Instantly, a puff of smoke appeared in the glass chamber. Atlanta inhaled it all. He closed his eyes, allowed the molecules to sprint from lung to blood to brain and exhaled the satisfied whoosh of the blissed. He nodded in thanks, then pushed himself away from the bar.

Nick offered me the next dab. I politely declined. I would do a lot of polite declining over the course of the 4/20 weekend. This wasn’t out of some sort of moral stance but because I knew that a dab or even a hookah puff would close down the writerly portion of my brain.

After an hourlong meander down the outdoor pavilion, I aimed my compass at the Dixie Elixirs & Edibles booth. Or rather, the Dixie Tower. Dixie CEO Tripp Keber had erected a three-story platform that reminded me of those scaffolding towers college football coaches use to oversee practice.

“Bruce!” he shouted from somewhere in the sky. “Come on up!”

I climbed to the second floor, which contained a DJ station and a wet bar. Up one more level I found Keber surveying the grounds from a black leather couch.

“How do you like our DJ deck?” he said. He slapped my palm with a cold Bud Light. “One of our new guys built it for us out of some shipping containers. We’re going to start marketing them.”

Of course they were. If Tripp Keber’s business philosophy could be summed up in a phrase, it would be this: never stop expanding. Wants and desires came to him like hunger pangs, and when they struck he noted them and rationalized that others probably shared the same cravings. Voilà: a market. Just a few hours into the Cannabis Cup, Dixie Tower had become the envy of every merchant in the joint.

I emptied the beer and caught up with the edibles king. “We’ve started up an event-planning division,” he said. “We usually have others produce shows for us, but I figured we could do just as well ourselves.” He pressed a ticket on me. It was for a show the following evening at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium featuring Matisyahu, the Jewish reggae rapper. “Can you make it?” he said.

“I’ll try,” I said.

There were questions that needed putting to Mr. Keber. Two recent deaths that made headlines involved people who had consumed marijuana edibles. In once case, a college student died after falling off a balcony, while another man shot and killed his wife. “We’ve got a kid who freaked out and fell off a balcony,” I said. “And a man who murdered his wife. Both had reactions to infused edibles. How are you handling this?”

Keber nodded. After the death of Levy Thamba, the college student, Keber and other Dixie executives addressed the issue with local reporters. “Our company was the only one that stepped up,” he said, even though a Dixie product wasn’t involved. “It’s incredibly tragic. It makes me stop and think about a few things.” Responsible consumption, he said, “has always been one of the foundations of Dixie.” Had Levy Thamba or Richard Kirk, the man accused of murdering his wife, purchased Dixie products, they would have seen an infograph on the label advising them on proper dosage. A toxicology report found that Thamba had 7.2 nanograms of active THC in his blood, slightly more than the legal limit for drugged driving in Colorado. “That’s the equivalent of a couple glasses of wine,” Keber said. “So I’m not sure what the story behind that is.”

Both incidents, he told me, brought home the fact that during these early months of legalization, marijuana was being held to a standard of purity and scrutiny that few other products could withstand. “How many people died across the country last weekend under the influence of alcohol? How many overdosed on opiates?”

As Keber left to attend to business, I spoke with Dixie’s new marketing director, Joe Hodas. Hodas was a middle-aged father of three. Six months earlier he worked at a Denver ad agency. Dixie Elixirs was one of his accounts. Keber liked Hodas’s work and offered him a job. After much discussion with his wife, Hodas accepted. Now his job involved meet-and-greets on the DJ deck at Cannabis Cup 2014. I asked him what he made of the scene.

“It’s my first Cup,” he said. “I come at this from the perspective of moderation. And from up here, I see a lot of excess.” His arm swept over the crowd. “That concerns me.”

“Tripp talks a lot about Dixie reaching the mainstream,” I said, “but it seems like you’ve got to do it without losing this hard-core portion of the market.”

He nodded. “That’s the challenge we have. Ice Cube opened the show last night. And it made me think. He’s a performer who’s taken a unique path. He started out in hard-core gangsta rap. As he matured, he began to make more mainstream movies. Now he stars in family comedies like Are We There Yet? That’s a long way from Straight Outta Compton. Yet somehow he hasn’t lost his street cred. He can still come here and jump onstage and be accepted as the hard-core rapper.” He turned and gazed at the hard-core cannabis crowd milling below him. “That balancing act is a tough one.”

That night I sorted through data on alcohol, crime, overdose and death. I wanted perspective.

In the 2000s the U.S. Department of Justice commissioned a number of studies to look into the influence of alcohol on crime. Here’s what they found: More than one third of state prison inmates convicted of violent crimes were using alcohol at the time of the crime. One in four victims of violent crime reported that the perpetrator had been drinking prior to the act. More than one third of all victims of sexual assault reported that the offender was drinking around the time of the assault. Two thirds of domestic abuse victims reported that their abuser was using alcohol when the abuse occurred. The data on homicide is a little more varied. The Department of Justice estimated that alcohol was involved in one third to half of all murders in the U.S.

One third to half. There were 14,196 homicides in the U.S. in 2013. To be conservative, let’s figure that booze was a major factor in one third of all murders that year. That means alcohol mixed into the murder of a person somewhere in America every two hours of every day in 2013.

According to the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries. That’s five students every day. From 1996 to 2008, students in six separate incidents suffered severe injuries after falling from college windows, balconies or roofs. All were drunk or had been drinking prior to the fall. Three of the six students died. Here’s the thing. That data doesn’t cover the United States. Or even one state. It’s taken from a single college: my alma mater, the University of Washington.

Does that mean we should encourage college kids to get high instead of drunk? No. It means we need to consider marijuana within the context of other inebriating substances and their effects on society.

At 4:18 on the afternoon of 4/20, hundreds of celebrants packed themselves like pickles in front of the DJ booth. A stack of speakers bumped the bass line to Afroman’s stoner classic, “Because I Got High.” Everyone was grooving. “I was gonna clean my room, until I got high / I was gonna get up and find the broom, but then I got high . . .” It’s possibly the greatest anti-drug anthem ever written. By the end of the tune, Afroman is sleeping on the streets, lamenting having “messed up my entire life because I got high.” I found myself smiling. It was a nice reminder that stoner culture wasn’t just about the stupid. There were admirable parts to it, too. Like its eagerness to laugh, and laugh at itself.

“Thirty seconds!” the DJ announced.

More people pressed into the crowd.

At 4:19, I overheard a young woman behind me ask her friend, “How’d 4:20 start, anyway?” I didn’t answer. It would have taken too long to explain.

Here’s the deal. In 1971 a group of friends at San Rafael High School in Marin County, the affluent suburb north of San Francisco, began meeting at a statue of Louis Pasteur after school to light up. They’d gather around 4:20 in the afternoon. Before long, the meeting time became code; “4:20?” could mean anything from “Do you have any?” to “Shall we gather at the feet of M. Pasteur for weedly fellowship this afternoon?” The phrase was adopted by local Deadheads, who spread the custom nationwide as they followed the band on tour. Eventually the time became the date, and the date became a globally observed cannabis holiday.

The DJ counted down. “Ten! Nine! Eight!”

At exactly 4:20, everybody lit up, inhaled and blew a fog into the blue yonder. It was kind of anticlimactic, actually.

I made another spin of the outdoor smoking court. At a booth on the far side of the grounds, I spotted Ross Kirsch, president of the marijuana packaging company Stink Sack. “Ross!” I called out. “How’s business?”

He smiled. “Very good, thank you.”

In late 2013, he told me, an infusion of investment cash gave him the opportunity to develop a childproof package for the Colorado recreational market. Working with a manufacturing plant in Guangdong, China, he designed a zip-close bag that retailers were now ordering by the thousands. “We’ve even got a special design for Cannabis Cup,” he said.

Across from Kirsch I spotted Andy and Pete Williams, the Medicine Man brothers, who own Denver’s largest pot store. It took me a while to realize it was them, because they were all done up as characters from Alice in Wonderland. Pete was the Mad Hatter, and Andy was Tweedledee. Both wore the sunburned cheeks, permagrins and glazed eyes of men who had been hitting the company hookah all afternoon. They smiled and said hello, but I don’t think they recognized me. Frankly, I’m not sure they would have recognized their own mother.

A curious thing happened around 4:40 that afternoon. Time slowed. Everybody at Cannabis Cup began moving in . . . slow . . . motion. Overbaked men found patches of shade and rested their bodies. Clumps of four to five friends, or new acquaintances, formed napping circles. As I moved through the grounds, I felt as though I had acquired the superpower of speed. I had, after all, spent the day not partaking.

That mind-space allowed me to make this observation. Here I was, hanging out with tens of thousands of testosterone-heavy young men in a hot, packed space, and I saw no violence. I saw no conflict. For two days I heard zero angry words and saw not a single clenched fist. At 4:20 nearly everybody at Cannabis Cup took long, strong draws of THC, CBD and a host of other cannabinoids. By 4:40 most of them were pleasingly high. Many adopted positions of repose. The scene made me think back to the 1944 La Guardia report on marijuana, when researchers had dosed Rikers Island inmates and observed the effects. The pot, the researchers found, “produced a euphoric state with its feeling of well-being, contentment, sociability, mental and physical relaxation, which usually ended in a feeling of drowsiness.” All across the Denver Mart, as the four o’clock hour gave way to five, bedtime beckoned. I stepped carefully between the supine Cuppers and caught a cab back to my hotel. Then I took a long, hot shower.

Bruce Barcott's Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.
Courtesy of Time Books
Courtesy of Time Books

Bruce Barcott is the author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America (Time Books), from which this article is adapted.

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