clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

High as balls: live from the Cannabis Cup

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Here’s a fact: humans love to get wasted. Long before there were laws, long before there was beer, there was marijuana — a drug that had fallen out of legal favor in America completely by the 1930s. Alcohol had a similar falling-out with the Federal Government in 1920, but by 1933 legislators realized that the benefits of legalization and taxation would far outweigh the consequences of continued prohibition. It’s taking America much longer to make the same realization about marijuana. But it is happening, and as it does the country is realizing that a raging stoner is far more tolerable — and maybe more commercially exploitable — than a raging drunk.

In Amsterdam in 1988, High Times magazine staged the first-ever Cannabis Cup, a sort of combined trade show and Olympics for stoners. In 2010, the first-ever Medical Cannabis Cup came to San Francisco under the auspices of California’s Proposition 215 and Senate Bill 420. Like alcohol during prohibition, the law clearly states that marijuana is to be consumed for medical purposes only. But like posted speed limits, the law is in effect merely a suggestion. While there are clearly a lot of folks who do derive a tangible medical benefit from cannabinoids, my guess is that 90 percent of people with medical marijuana prescriptions are using their doses for the same reason 90 percent of people have been ingesting weed for thousands of years: to get high! Anyone who says otherwise is probably a lawyer, a NORML representative, or in possession of some very potent medicine. In February, I drank deeply from the cup, and I remain haunted more than two months later. And when I say haunted I really mean super duper stoned.

QUIZ: What does this poster say to you? A) Healing B) Pain Relief C) Blazin’ With Mr. Cactus

The 2014 Medical Cannabis Cup at the NOS Event Center in San Bernardino was divided into "non-medicated" and "medicated" areas — the former was equal parts food trucks and activist booths, and the latter required a doctor’s recommendation letter to enter. If you didn’t bring a rec, there was a tent full of "Green Doctors" ready to evaluate and prescribe to new patients on-site. Every time I looked, there were at least 25 sick people in line looking to get well, and fast.

Behind the rec wall was a bona-fide weed wonderland, a sort of cloudy mashup of a Phish show, Oktoberfest, and CES. But where a Phish show is polluted by a network of shady dealers, the Cup was jam-packed with vendors looking to cash in on the steady march of decriminalization sweeping the United States. Hundreds of booths sat on a perpetually hazy blacktop trafficked by thousands of red-eyed attendees. Near the entrance was a lavishly designed GFarmaLabs compound emblazoned with a Breaking Bad-inspired molecule logo and their lofty tagline, "Committed to Medical Cannabis Innovation."

On display in giant green cylinders were GFarmaLabs’ high-end G Stiks, individually vacuum-sealed pre-rolled blunts with a color-coding system to alert the buyer to the type of blend contained therein. Tangentially medical, GFarmaLabs employed a swarm of booth babes dressed in a powerful combination of underwear and open lab coats wandering around with hospital-grade stainless steel instruments dangling from lanyards.

"Have you tried Liquid Gold yet?" one of them smiled at me, nonchalantly lifting the tube from between her breasts to my lips. And so began my ascent — not by smoking, as I had assumed, but with a highly concentrated cannabis oil in vapor form. Vaping with a pen has a lot of advantages over smoking: it’s almost odorless, it’s easier on the lungs, and it delivers something of a purer high without coughing and the red-eyed cloudiness associated with inhaling burnt plants. And it gets you very super high.

Sufficiently blazed, I said goodbye to my nurse and wandered from the peak of GFarmaLabs’ Apple Store-style installation, descending into the maze of traditional outdoor booths. Attendees generally fell somewhere on the spectrum that lies between neon-spackled Coachella victim and Nike-clad cellphone salesman, between 18 and 25 years old, at least 80 percent male, with a precious few branching out into pseudo-Rastafarianism or traditional California hippie territory.

I turned a corner and ran into a scene ripped right out of Spring Breakers: atop the DabStix booth was a crew of a dozen bros nodding along to the beat of a hokey white MC with ass-length dreads and orange-tinted Locs. His raps were really bad, but they did manage to incorporate a lot of ingeniously stupid rhymes between adjectives like "blazed" and "dazed." More importantly his cohorts were tossing handfuls of blunts off the stage. At first this struck me as hypocrisy: why was a vape-pen manufacturer chucking out rolled buds? But then the logic of tossing out glass-and-steel tubes into a sea of stoners revealed itself to me. It was the first time I’d ever heard someone say, "It’s raining blunts, yo!" I hope it’s not the last; never before have I seen the American countercultural dream so perfectly encapsulated in a single flick of the wrist.

Deer antler extract is finally available in coffee vanilla, cinnamon, and regular vanilla flavors

While American peddlers covered all conceivable iterations of cannabinoid vaporization, the most bizarre invention I saw in San Bernadino was Aktiv8vapor — a commercially packaged e-cig loaded not with tobacco or weed, but with New Zealand Deer Antler Extract.

Mark Jacob, an avid ultra-marathon runner and the founder of the company, says that athletes and hunters have been consuming naturally discarded antlers for thousands of years to increase stamina. "They were nature’s purest statement of regeneration!" Jacob states on the company’s overproduced website. Vaporized deer antler, it turns out, tastes about like you’d expect — mostly mossy, kind of woodsy, and just a little bit gamey, with a mentholated aftertaste at the back of the throat.

"Oh, and you’re not supposed to inhale," the girl said after I was three puffs in, "just sort of let it sit on your tongue." Whoops! Maybe I did it wrong, or maybe I was already too high to tell what was happening, but I couldn’t discern any skeletomuscular enhancements after hitting the antler. It did make me feel like I was in the future a little bit, though, but the kind of future that created the wasteoid aliens at the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars. Apparently they sell this shit at GNC for $15 a stick now. LOL @ athletes!

After two hours at the Medical Cannabis Cup I was fed up because I hadn’t actually smoked any weed yet! So I turned my nose to the stinkiest breeze I could smell and ended up at the Exoticgenetix booth. Like most of the best things in life, I had no idea how their booth concept would actually financially sustain itself. Exoticgenetix is a seed distributor and prides itself on developing high-intensity strains with high-intensity names like Exotic Fighter, Black Hawk Down, and After Life OG. A dozen different smoking mechanisms, including a comically huge stem bowl and a three-foot bong, were laid out among just as many jars of fat nugs. The hoodied budtenders were eager to please: "Hello friend. Can I pack you a bowl of Blue Angel?" Yes you can!

My sample size was more than generous, and after I took a preliminary toke I blew the haze in his face and smiled, handing the pipe back. "I mean, you probably wanna finish that to get the full effect." So I cleared the bowl, getting so bombed in the process that I really didn’t want to try any more. But the Exoticgenetix representative was insistent that I move onto another full bowl of Purple Pig. How on god’s green earth was I supposed to differentiate between strain effects when I was already in a different dimension? The strangest part of the whole ordeal was the fact that Exoticgenetix wasn’t actually selling anything to consumers: they’re a strictly wholesale business. All those free samples were either a serious attempt to generate widespread consumer demand, or a powerfully simple statement of weed-sharing culture.


Moving on, I was heartened to discover that making transcendentally stupid bongs is still a tenable profession. There was live glassblowing throughout the day at the Lurch Glass trailer, complete with a Fred Durst-looking character shaping new creations until the sun went down. There was a glass trombone that looked exactly like a trombone, except you could smoke weed out of it. There was an amazing piece encompassing a diorama of Animal the Muppet sticking his head inside the glass chamber that I’m sure Jim Henson is smoking out of in heaven. And then there was a shifty character walking around surreptitiously with the most complex dragon pipe I’ve ever seen in my entire life — obviously not a licensed vendor, I asked him what it would take for him to part with the emerald obscenity: "I don’t want to seem rude but this is a part of me and it’s not for sale." He looked at me leadingly. "But…?" I ventured. "Yeah," he conceded, "Two thousand bucks. I take PayPal too." I passed.

As the tide of marijuana decriminalization rolls across America, so too does the commercialization of all aspects of its consumption. I first discovered Weedmaps at the HempCon trade show in 2011, where chesty representatives wearing nothing but painted-on cannabis leaves encouraged patrons to download their surprisingly helpful smartphone app, which helps users locate and review nearby dispensaries and delivery services. Since then, Weedmaps has transformed itself into the Amazon of the cannabis world: their new logo even apes the online retailer’s distinctive "smile" logo.

Raise your hand if you want some free weed.

The scene around their compound looked like it had been ripped right out of South By Southwest. Like the Dabstix booth, they also had an MC shouting over blown-out EDM and throwing out handfuls of blunts to adoring fans. There’s been a huge influx of capital investment in Weedmaps. "Lifestyle" brands, as they’re often referred to, spend tons of money at events like this, not because they’re selling anything directly to consumers, but rather to cement their place in the marketplace that’s unmistakably on the upswing.

The other major digital player at the Medical Cannabis Cup was a new venture called Leafly. Like GFarmaLabs, Leafly is appealing on some level to the new medical marijuana patient who’s looking to know exactly what they’re smoking before they smoke it, with data backed by some scientific rationale. Their design language mimics a periodic table, creating what they call "the world’s largest cannabis-strain resource." Users can search by strain or by purported medical efficacy. If you want to know which strain will put you to sleep, which one will help with back pain, or read a chemical analysis of "celebrity" strains like Blue Dream (it contains high levels of focus-enhancing Alpha Pinene), Leafly wants to be your one and only stop on the quest for enlightenment. The whole thing felt very "Twitter in 2007," a small player looking to become invaluable to anyone entering this world for the first time. The Leafly representative was also the only dude in the whole place wearing a corporate-branded polo.

Trust me, I’m a scientist.

As the day wore on and the free samples began to take a cumulative toll on my mind, I decided it was time to enter the world of super-concentrated compounds.

Dabbling in shatter

At the CES convention in Las Vegas, there’s always one product that drives a resilient secondary industry: it’s almost invariably the new iOS device, with hordes of manufacturers clamoring for the residual business of case manufacturing and other consumerist accessorization. At the Medical Cannabis Cup, that product was undoubtedly giant sheets of sticky resin that are broken apart and consumed in small doses. They’re often called "shatter" because of their glass-like appearance and tendency to break off into tiny pieces called dabs. From what I can tell, dabs are the shots of the weed world. Tiny and super-potent, the consumption process reminds me more of smoking crack than smoking weed. Dozens of booths offered $5 dabs to patrons — the attendant, usually a female, super-heats a titanium bowl with a butane torch and place the dab inside, where it’s instantly combusted and inhaled through a bong-like structure.

A dab’ll do ya.

Although I was originally excited about testing these sticky new waters, a quick conversation with the dabtender convinced me otherwise. "It’s your first time doin’ dabs? Well, what are you doing after this? I’d suggest you have a couch nearby to crash on. And someone to put you on it, because you’re not gonna feel like doing much." Instead I watched as others partook, inhaling the resin clouds with otherworldly expressions of stonedness and making their way to a nearby chill zone to either nod off or gaze out into space.

Super Dab Bros: customized 8-bit high-capacity butane torch.

That little lounge, with its disheveled pleather couches and tables full of half-eaten munchies, confirmed my suspicions that doing dabs is a very different world than the hippie / Rasta stoner culture that came before it. Dabbers are pure 2000s bros, the very purest form of THC enthusiasts: where most smokers get high to enhance other parts of life, this rare breed seems to get high only to stay high. If the Cannabis Cup was Dante’s Inferno, this was its ninth circle, its inhabitants g8-3sisting in suspended animation as the rest of the universe continues revolving. It made me a little bit sad, but at least they weren’t puking on themselves like a bunch of freshman poisoned by self-inflicted cocktail wounds. After peeking my head into a bit of that dark cloud, I was done for the day.

As I made my way back to the parking lot, I passed by the GFarmaLabs compound once again. By this time, everyone — especially the exhibitors — was a thousand percent messed in the head. One of the labcoat- and thong-wearing associates approached: "Try one?" she deadpanned distractedly, halfheartedly extending a silver tray full of exquisitely-decorated chocolate truffles as she tore at a hole in her fishnets. "What’s in it?" I asked, perhaps a little naively. "I think it’s like...40 milligrams, um….40 percent? 40 thousand something? Maybe cinnamon? I don’t know, they’re fuckin’ bomb. Eat it."

Thank you?

As my designated driver headed home and the mysterious truffle did its work, I watched the weed festival recede into the sunset. For $28 I had been given a look into the future of drug buffets: although the medical part of the Medical Cannabis Cup seemed to have eluded its attendees, they had all come to San Bernardino to take part in something larger than themselves. Although I was stoneder than I had ever been in my life I was still nowhere near as incapacitated as I could have gotten at any run-of-the-mill open bar. More than anything, the Cannabis Cup represents a possible future for the inevitable intoxication of America: once conservatives discover how much more peaceful — and marketable — of a drug cannabis is than alcohol, even they will have no choice but to support its continued path towards total legitimacy and — if they’re lucky — total profit.