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The Emerald Cup: Then and Now

The Emerald Cup: Then and Now


This year the Emerald Cup will be even better than last year, with many new wrinkles added to provide everyone a transformational “experience”. We’ve added comedy along with an additional host, Doug Benson, to go along with our very own Ngaio Bealum. Our speaker lineup is longer and better than ever. Our musical lineup is stellar with Gogol Bordello, Big Gigantic, Sound Tribe Sector Nine, Protoge, Margo Price, Rising Appalachia, The Funky Meters, and many more. We will also be honoring Bob Snodgrass for his immense contributions to the realm of glass blowing. All the changes and improvements to the Cup are too numerous to list completely but be assured that everyone will love it.

The Cup this year will look and feel like much as it always has and that has been no small feat to accomplish. With the Cup increasing in size so much each year, the decision to partner up with “Starr Hill Presents” was easy to make. It was clear we needed pro’s to oversee crowds of that size, especially with all the legal nuances involved with the Cup. Everyone attending will still be able to consume and purchase cannabis flowers and products. The contest will have twenty-seven categories this year including products made with hydrocarbon processes for the first time. Shatter, live Resin, and sauce entries will now be welcomed into the fold. 

This years highlight, for me, is that after years of trying to get Willie Nelson to join us and accept our “Lifetime Achievement Award”, we are finally going to be blessed by Willies presence to receive it. While he will not be performing, we are none the less honored to have him grace our stage with his presence. Not only that, but Willie has also granted us the esteemed privilege of renaming the “Lifetime Achievement Award”. From now on, it will be the “Willie Nelson Award”. No one has been at it as long as Willie, who’s shouted from the rooftops for decades about cannabis needing to be legalized. No one’s  stood up for the rights of small farmers more than Willie or has done as many benefit concerts for alternative causes. And Willie has personified how a true outlaw and a “True OG” should look and act. We’re honored and humbled to have this magical moment with Willie this year at the Cup.

I want to tell the story of how the Emerald Cup evolved and how one main person can be credited for the way things have unfolded. Kyndra Miller, a friend and attorney, asked years go if I knew this guy who owned the magazine competing with High Times (at that time there were really only two major cannabis magazines). With traditional print mediums such as newspapers, magazines, and books quickly disappearing in our digital society, it’s amazing how many and how well the growing number of cannabis magazines are doing today. They are probably the only type of magazine that is actually adding subscribers. Well, I told Kyndra that I didn’t know him and she said I should. His name was John Vergados and he published SKUNK Magazine. So, I set up a call to John and we ended up talking like old friends for quite a while.

I was a city guy who had retreated to the mountains to find solace and refuge after my companies went bankrupt, which had led to a divorce with my wife and kids moving out of state. Then, to top it off, I got busted for growing in my now empty family home. After spending six months in the pokey and then working a day job to keep cool with the probation department, I moved up to Mendocino County for good and completed a crop that I had my friends put in while I was in jail. My new publisher friend was also a lifelong veteran of the city streets who had built his small empire with his own hands and was completely dedicated to the righteousness of our cannabis cause. He wasn’t an organic farmer and didn’t live an organic lifestyle, but he respected what I was trying to accomplish… He got it!

John let me know that he had been to Europe many times and had attended a world renowned cannabis gathering in Spain called “Spannabis”. He went on to tell me he really thought The Emerald Cup had a good chance of evolving into an event that rivaled or surpassed it. I didn’t know what this “Spannabis” event was and I was blind to John’s vision of my future. He later became the first real sponsor of the rapidly growing Emerald Cup.

The Emerald Cup was still being held at Area 101, my campground and event center located ten miles north of Laytonville in a remote two-lane section of highway 101 in the heart of the Emerald Triangle. The previous years Cup had been challenging. Snow, rain… you never knew what to expect when showing up for the Cup in late fall, except that it was likely to be cold, nasty, and wet. Us mountain folks kinda take pride in our rough weather with most growers coming down out of the higher (and even colder, wetter, and snowier) elevations. a sign that attending proved you were part of the hardy, hardcore mountain clan of the Emerald Triangle.

For years we didn’t have any vendors but then they started popping up, forcing us to extend the event space with tents outside of each end of the main building. In the past I had always taken pride in the fact that the Cup didn’t have any commercial vendors or sponsors. Every year, at the end of the season, I just put up the thirty or forty grand it took to produce the Cup and hoped to get back as much as I could from the ticket sales. Whatever losses I took were chalked up as a tithing to our community and also gave me the satisfaction of putting on the best contest and party in the hood.

The last year the Emerald Cup was held at Area 101 was a doozy. It was so cold that the water froze, and when I had fresh water delivered, it froze as well. The cooks who showed up the night before the event were stuck without running water; and then it rained so hard it broke some of the supports on the tents. God bless my good friend Dorji for all those years of dragging her tents, that were made for summer weather, out into the terrible winter conditions that we faced each fall at Area 101.

That was the final straw, I gave up and heeded the advice of John Vergados and my co-producer Samantha Mikelajewski (who was threatening to quit, making the decision easier). We started looking for a larger venue for our event and the only place that would have us was the Mateel Community Center in Redway, next to Garberville in southern Humboldt County. We had tried and failed to get the larger county fairgrounds in Ukiah before we eventually excepted the fact that we were moving north to the Mateel with John as our sponsor! 

The Emerald Cup was the largest event the Matteel center had ever seen. We had over fifteen hundred people show up, in spite of our typical annual deluge the day of the event. We lost sound guys and speakers to the bad weather, and many people had to give up and couldn’t make it, which was probably good because there wasn’t any more room for them! John Vergados, now our first and most honored sponsor, had paved the way for our move to the big times. 

Unfortunately, we couldn’t book the needed date at the Mateel for the next year so we had to search for another venue again. This time we were rejected by not only the Mendocino county fairgrounds board, but the Humboldt county fairgrounds also. The Cup was just too radical of an event and still too far from accepted mainstream behavior even in our neck of the woods. This was only seven years ago. My, have things changed!

John, now my good friend and sponsor, recommended we give the Sonoma County fairgrounds a try. At first the very thought of going out of the Emerald Triangle seemed blasphemous! The county bordered the Triangle but no one up north would have been willing to include our neighbor to the south on our map. My friend continued to preach that moving south would be one step closer to seeing the event evolve into the scale he envisioned. Again, my irreplaceable partner at the time, Samantha, threatened to quit on me, which made the choice much easier.

Sam, with a little help from me, put together a twenty-two page proposal that we presented to the Sonoma County fairgrounds. There’s a reason Sonoma County has taken the lead in Micro-breweries, vineyards and wine tourism, bicycle racing, and now cannabis. They’re not stuck in the past fighting old wars but rather forward thinking folks who have positioned Sonoma County to thrive from the many wise choices that have been made. 

Surprisingly, the fairgrounds agreed to our proposal, as long as it was produced strictly as written in the contract. The Emerald Cup would have to be a clean, well run, county fair style event. Moving south also meant we had to deal with the Cup not being in our back yard. Also, we had to market to a different demographic and learn all the ins and outs of managing an event the size of a small city. There were a lot of hoops to go thru though, with approvals from many city and county agencies needed, but we pulled it off with flying colors and became the first cannabis event held at a county fairground in California state history. Our attendance had increased by a factor of ten and we had grasped the cannabis worlds attention!

My sponsor and friend John Vergados didn’t make it though. He wanted to go along for the ride with us but unfortunately he was knocked out of the game, blind-sided with an arrest on his way to the Cup and accused of being a big time seed dealer. They had been focused on him and once they do that, they’re like a tick on your ass. They dig in and don’t let go while sucking you dry. They let him out on bail awaiting trial, but he was basically under house arrest. If he were to get into any trouble at all he’d be screwed. So he couldn’t hit the streets to turn a buck and was stuck in quicksand.

The system knows this and they bleed you dry, leaving you to twist in the wind while they drag you, usually for years, through the court system. By the time they’re finally done with you, you’re broke and in debt from legal costs and you’re ready to commit suicide just to get it over with. I’ve watched this happen to several friends, as well as myself. Its a sick, demeaning and inhumane way of dealing with a still presumably innocent person. To top it off, your business partners and friends have to stay clear of you for everyones sake, leaving you feeling like a pariah. You end up being stripped of any sense of hope and decency.

Roger Christie, the cannabis minister, went through years of the same crap, as did Eddy Lepp. Its a tried and true method for the system to demoralize and destroy the lives of their adversaries. Both Roger and Eddy tried beating the system based on our court decreed right to “Religious Freedom”. The feds are really frightened of anyone declaring and winning any court case based upon this right as it would open the flood gates for spiritual folks of all faiths to claim their right to participate in their “Religion” without interference from the authorities. They took two older men and punished them mercilessly for almost ten years each just for trying to establish this precedent. 

Our criminal justice system has been neither fair nor just to the cannabis culture; being corrupt, biased, and politically motivated. Its way worse than many third world countries, and we imprison a greater percentage of our citizens than any other modern nation (a huge percentage of them for cannabis). We think we’re a humane country.  Go take a real hard look at what we do to our own people. We treat them just like the pigs, chickens, and other farm animals raised in feed lots and factories under insufferable conditions. 

My friend John did get to attend the Cup though the next year and was able to say goodbye to the friends and industry he had helped create and mold. John was also extremely fortunate to have Julie Chiariello, his lover and partner, by his side through out the ordeal. Everyone needs someone in their corner and Julie stood by John through the several years it took to get through the court system.

Even with the challenging and painful legalization of adult use cannabis this year, our community in California has so much to be thankful for. The cops are no longer stalking the highways and pouncing on any dusty vehicle or out of state rental car that might be carrying pounds of flowers or trim. We can now move in the open and do our business without concern for the legal ramifications (we’re now more frightened of taxes and regulations than of the cops). If you, as a farmer, chose to continue working the black market, things are pretty good there as well (at least for now). Mainstream Americans are getting more and more comfortable with cannabis, and we now have access to the other ninety percent of potential consumers that were ignoring us. 

I’ve been involved in the cannabis world since I was fifteen, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch the evolution of our industry since its inception. Name a decade from the seventies on and I’ll tell you how it went. 

Watching the business and property values of our community, family, and friends suffer so greatly this past year has been very painful. Most of these folks who fought for our cannabis rights, many of whom served prison sentences for their efforts, are not going to see the promised land. Most have no desire to struggle with the bureaucracy for expensive and difficult to attain permits so they can hustle cannabis in the legal marketplace, they’re not adept at paperwork or are too private to be social media monsters. We owe them an eternal debt of gratitude for their sacrifices and contributions to this noble cause. Likewise for all the men and women who are still rotting away in some private corporate prison for cannabis offenses. 

I write and interact regularly with Eric McCauley, a federal prisoner serving out a twenty-three years sentence for interstate transportation of cannabis. Eric left the Cup years back and I didn’t see or hear from him for years. Finally his mom contacted me. The feds  initially imprisoned him out in Missouri, and his family moved there to be near him. Then they moved him to Florida making it virtually impossible for his family to visit him. Then they moved him to Georgia. Why? Why can’t a prisoner just do their time in one place, so their families can set up nearby and support them? They do make every step of their time as demoralizing and demeaning as possible? Is that the way to release people back in the general public? Talk about PTSD. These poor men and women are let out to a world thats passed them by. Its no wonder so many have such a difficult time adjusting to “normal” life again. Their idea of normal has been shattered.  

Every year The Emerald Cup gives back to our community. Over the years we’ve supported “Friends of the Eel River”, “The Trees Foundation”, the local Grange schools, all the free booths we give to non-profits at the Cup, funds for fire victims, etc. The theme of the Emerald Cup this year is social justice. We were going to tackle this critical issue last year but the massive fires forced us to turn our attention to the suffering and losses in Northern California. We’ve formed a non profit organization called “Emerald Cup Charities” overseen by the very capable Ginger Dawn. 

We’re collaborating with Stephanie Landa, the founder of “Freedom Grow”, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to raising money to put on the books for cannabis prisoners. Prisons are big business and prisoners have to pay for everything. Anyone thats ever dealt with a state or federal prisoner knows that without money in jail, you suffer even worse. Stephanie is a convicted cannabis felon and understands the challenges confronting every person in prison.  Stephanie has righteously dedicated her life to this cause and we’re honored to have her with us. We have an amazing set of speakers lined up for the panel of this topic, and we’ll have a booth to provide everyone with details about how to get involved. After all, our job didn’t end with legalization. It won’t end until every non-violent cannabis prisoner is freed and home with their families.

John Vergados will finally be off house arrest soon and done with probation in a year. Like so many convicted cannabis felons, it’ll be a long time before John can truly put his life back together. Just getting over all the trauma, depression, bitterness and anger will be a monumental task – let alone the financial ruin. No one who spends years battling the feds comes out ahead, or even broke… They’re all in debt, with their businesses destroyed and most of their relationships shattered. 

I, for one, am with Stephanie Landa and “Freedom Grow” all the way. The battle isn’t over until every last one of our folks in prison are released. We owe that to all of them and their families. And to ourselves! Please find a way to contribute. It means a world of difference to the soul on the other end of every letter or dollar that they receive. 

Without you John, the Emerald Cup wouldn’t have left its cozy cage in the Emerald Triangle and soared to the heights it’s now attained. Thank you for your vision, your inspiration, and your immense contributions to our community. The Feds were right about one thing though… You are, and always will be, a world class hustler and I say that in the most positive way because I can’t wait to get you involved in our legal cannabis businesses.

Item 9 produced the above video interview in partnership with SKUNK TV.

Tim Blake is the owner and CEO of the Emerald Cup.

Julie Chiariello is the co-owner of SKUNK Magazine


Item 9 is a multi-faceted video creative agency for cannabis brands that was born out of the notable production company, Northbound Films. As a San Francisco based company, Item 9 specializes in cinematic video, video content for marketing, sales and social media channels, product photography, and event coverage. From, documentary series to product and company explainer videos, Item 9 is passionate about telling the stories of OG brands and startups who want to elevate their business and thrive in the regulated global cannabis market. Learn more about Item 9.

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