The legendary pot-judging contest called the Cannabis Cup has somehow managed to flourish under prohibition. Maybe because prohibition was relatively simple.
High Times magazine brought the gathering to at least one U.S. city each year for most of this decade, even when recreational pot was illegal in all 50 states.
Local opposition was hardly an obstacle then. The cup drew thousands to a Detroit jazz club in 2011, even though suspicious police officers repeatedly intruded on what the Detroit Free Press called its “sealed medicating tent.”
Flash-forward to 2018: Pot has been legalized in nine states since, including California this year. You’d think this weekend’s Cannabis Cup in San Bernardino, Calif., would be a smokeout to remember.
It’s scheduled to begin Friday — 4/20, the high holiday for stoners — and High Times has estimated at least 20,000 will attend the event, to celebrate their drug’s newfound legitimacy as they sample gourmet weed, pet baby goats, get high on a Ferris wheel and see Rick Ross and Lil Wayne perform onstage.
Well, that was the plan.
Barely a day before the event was supposed to begin, High Times’s event director found herself in perhaps the least mellow place on earth, a city council meeting, as she tried desperately to bring the festival into compliance with a confusing suite of new regulations that accompanied pot’s legalization.
And she failed. After a nearly 45-minute debate on Wednesday, the San Bernardino City Council voted unanimously to deny the Cannabis Cup a marijuana permit — forcing it to begin on Friday with no drugs, or not begin at all.
The shock vote also suggests that the once-underground pot movement, which kept U.S. cannabis culture alive through years of prohibition, may face even larger threats in the age of legalization.
“We want to learn how to work with these new rules and regulations,” High Times event director Sameen Ahmad told San Bernardino council members at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting. “We’ve been here for a very, very long time. We’re a community ourselves, as are you.”
High Times, which this newspaper once compared to a “Playboy for drugs and the counterculture,” launched the Cannabis Cup in the 1980s in Amsterdam — one of the few countries where it was broadly legal. The magazine has been holding the event in various U.S. cities since 2010 — occasionally moving it when the contest offended local laws or sensibilities.
The cup was forced out of Los Angeles in 2013, for example, and out of Denver three years later — ironically after Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana.
“The event was tolerated for years as it served as an outlet to protest federal law,” Inc. observed at the time. “But now as Colorado’s legal marketplace enters its third year, state laws like the ban on public consumption are being enforced.”
San Bernardino, in contrast, became a reliable haven for the cup. The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher visited the event in 2014, when it operated under California’s medical marijuana laws, and observed what looked less like a medical convention than a days-long party.
“In the ‘medication area’ of the nation’s biggest marijuana exposition, scantily clad young women hand out marshmallows they’ve dipped into a rushing fountain of pot-laced chocolate,” Fisher wrote. “Everywhere, growers lovingly explain the virtues of dozens of plant strains such as Gorilla Glue, Silver Haze and Crystal Coma.”
And so it went in San Bernardino, year after year with no major complaints. Until this year.
In January, a 2016 proposition legalizing recreational marijuana across California finally went into effect.
With new freedoms came, of course, new rules and regulations — and a sort of Catch-22 for High Times.
As explained at Wednesday’s meeting, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control won’t approve a marijuana event unless the local government issues organizers a permit first, two months in advance.
But San Bernardino didn’t even have a system to issue marijuana permits until early April. High Times, meanwhile, said it was confused by the new laws and had been trying to negotiate with the state before the city.
That left Ahmad, the magazine’s event director, standing before the council on Wednesday evening, pleading at the last minute to let the contest go forward — because several famous rappers and several thousand attendees were likely already on their way.
“We have nationally recognized acts coming, and this is all associated with [the] city of San Bernardino,” she said. “It would be very unfair to all those people … to be denied because a company is coming to you to try to do the right thing.”
But the council members, who apparently had not been consulted about any prior Cannabis Cup, turned increasingly hostile to the event as the meeting dragged on.
“Is it possible this event will go on illegally without our permitting it?” asked council member Fred Shorett. “We’d have to shut them down.”
“Would we be in fact somehow aiding and abetting in this, um, yeah,” said John Valdivia, before trailing off. “How do we reconcile the state law versus the permit processing?”
There were no great answers.
City staff members had been working with High Times since learning of the company’s dilemma and proposed at the meeting a sort of Band-Aid solution: San Bernardino could issue a medical marijuana permit for the Cannabis Cup and impose a surcharge on each ticket sold to pay for police who’d be needed to guard the event.
But by this point several council members were worried about passing an ordinance that might conflict with the state’s rules on short notice.
“I feel like it’s being shoved down our throats at the very last minute,” said Virginia Marquez.
“I’m sitting here and being asked to break the law,” added Bessine Richard.
Before the meeting, a High Times spokesman had told NBC News that he expected the special permit to sail through.
But by the end of the night, a clearly distressed Ahmad watched as every single council member came out with a reason to vote against her — from legal concerns to what one member called “crap on the floor from attendees.”
Only two audience members appeared to be watching the meeting — one of whom worked at a U-Haul center across the street from the event and complained that it would block the parking.
Ahmad tried one last time. She admitted that High Times might have erred in interpreting the new laws but implored the council to reward its good intentions.
“There have been events going on this year under the new law that never filed for this permit, that you let happen, that were not shut down,” she said. “We’re the first ones here asking you to do this properly. We’ve done this for so long. We’re asking you to let us do this.”
The council voted 6-0 to deny the requested permit. A member asked if the cup, set to begin on Friday, would now be canceled.
Ahmad had no answer but seemed uncomfortable with the idea of a Cannabis Cup without cannabis.
As of Friday, tickets were still on sale for the events, though its advertising had changed subtly to reflect that it now has no permit to conduct commercial cannabis activity. “Our event follows California state regulations,” reads the Cannabis Cup FAQ. “So BYOB — Bring your own Bud!!!”
“There’s new regulations that go into the recreational cannabis market,” High Times chief executive Adam Levin told Cheddar in an interview Friday, a few hours before the event was set to begin. “So we’re dealing with those, and dealing with the intricacies of those.”
But if Levin was worried about the prospect of a cannabis convention with no cannabis license, he didn’t show it: He more than doubled the event’s previous crowd estimate — from 20,000 up to 50,000 over the 4/20 weekend.
Another company executive, however, released a long and significantly more dire statement after the vote, calling the San Bernardino City Council’s decision “deeply regrettable.”
“High Times has worked for years with San Bernardino city and county planners and leaders to help make our annual Cannabis Cup event there the state’s biggest celebration of legalization,” Brian Rucker, senior vice president of events, said in the statement.
The Cannabis Cup, he said, “has become a remarkable cultural celebration featuring amazing music, vendors of a wide range of products, food and more. It’s also a major boost to the San Bernardino economy, drawing thousands of visitors from across the state and beyond.”
But, Rucker continued, “new laws and provisions are impairing the rights of commerce and free expression for those lawful companies and citizens. These new provisions stand in stark defiance of the people’s will, as ratified by Prop. 64’s full legalization of Cannabis use and sale in 2016.
Further, the Cannabis Cup is held on fairgrounds governed by the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone, under long-established provisions protecting farming and agriculture events. Those laws prevent local municipalities from blocking or obstructing such gatherings.
Based on the Agriculture Incentive Zone laws, we did not pursue a city license until this week, as the city adopted an ordinance requiring municipal approval only 8 days ago. Given the 60 day lead time required for approval, the Board’s basis for denying the application, this put our brand in an impossible spot to meet all the required prerequisites.
Rucker added that “High Times has a long history of orderly, safe cultural celebrations that follow the law while allowing citizens to exercise their legal rights. The 44-year-old magazine was the first focused on the Cannabis industry, and has been sponsoring Cannabis-related events nearly as long. We will continue to be a beacon of freedom and progress, while respecting the laws of the State of California.”
And, he vowed: “The Cannabis Cup will proceed this weekend. As organizers, we will emphasize to vendors the continuing need to respect current laws and codes. This event is about much more than buying and selling marijuana. It celebrates the people, music and medicine that heal so many, who are part of a culture that unites millions. The movement will not be stopped.”