Considered “the Academy Awards of cannabis” by those in and outside the space (and once dubbed such by Rolling Stone), The Emerald Cup is the world’s longest running organic cannabis competition, B2B and community gathering. This year, the Cup celebrated its 19th anniversary, but the event’s founder and producer Tim Blake marked an even more impressive milestone – his 50th as a cannabis entrepreneur.
Watch Honeysuckle's interview with Tim Blake at the 2022 Emerald Cup Harvest Ball:
Emerald Cup Founder Tim Blake: A Legacy in California's Emerald Triangle
“I started out [in cannabis] in ’73,” Blake tells Honeysuckle. “I’ve seen every decade, every change.”
Most of that change began in Blake’s home base of Mendocino County, California. From the 1960s onward, the Northern California region comprising Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity Counties has been known as the Emerald Triangle, the largest cannabis-producing region in the United States. Blake, who calls himself “a cannabis outlaw,” was a key player in the Emerald Triangle’s rise to prominence during the pivotal early decades of the legacy market. As he remembers, it was an exciting time but also fraught with danger.
“In the late 70s to mid 80s, I watched the industry explode,” Blake recalls, “which led to the private prisons [being set up] and the mandatory minimum prison sentences. Instead of six months, you did twenty years. That changed the whole industry to indoor [growing] because they were busting [people].”
How Did the Emerald Triangle Survive California's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP)?
Most of the cultivation throughout the Emerald Triangle switched from outdoors to indoors, Blake explains, because in 1983 California’s government established the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), a multi-agency law enforcement task force with the goal of eradicating illegal cannabis grows. With over 110 government agencies participating in the program at one time or another, CAMP remains one of the biggest task forces in the nation. Though its effectiveness has weakened since 1996, when California passed Proposition 215 to legalize medical cannabis, CAMP still operates to this day.
During the task force’s most powerful era, farmers in the Emerald Triangle suffered greatly for their devotion to the plant. “You couldn’t grow much outside because they had choppers and planes flying over everything,” Blake says. “So people went indoors. Back then you had rights and if they couldn’t get a snitch on you, or they couldn’t see [your plants], which they couldn’t, they couldn’t get a warrant on you. They knew these big indoor grows were going on; they couldn’t do anything about it. Through the 90s and early 2000s, the Emerald Triangle was really 90 percent indoor. People have no idea. We’re evangelizing for sun-grown [now], but I was there. Most of that was indoor.”
To alleviate the pressure on his community from CAMP, Blake worked to reach a compromise with Tom Allman, then Mendocino County Sheriff, by the early 2010s. “[We] devised a plan with 99 plants outside in full sun, with a permit from the Sheriff’s Department. And we actually funded the Sheriff’s Department for a million dollars that second year, almost saved them. Then the Feds came and busted the program. And that’s when Colorado and Washington went legal. If you look historically, before they ever went legal, the little county of Mendocino led the way with that program we did with Tom Allman.”
Creating The Emerald Cup: Tim Blake Takes OG Cannabis From Cultivators To Consumers
A few years before the attempted compromise with law enforcement, Blake got inspired to create the Emerald Cup. Growing up in Northern California, he had loved attending county fairs and local agricultural contests. “It was such a joy for families to see the vegetables and the competition and the animals and stuff, so we wanted to have a friendly cannabis competition,” he describes. “We thought we deserved it too. And we disguised it as a birthday party. Didn’t do a poster. People thought we would still get busted. Two dozen entries; a couple hundred people showed up. Back then, it would’ve had serious prison sentences, but we just did it. It was really revolutionary.”
That inaugural Emerald Cup was focused on the local community and the powerful plants coming out of the Emerald Triangle. However, the Cup’s second year would change direction by spotlighting how cultivators communicated with consumers.
“Instead of a thousand people, it was 15,000,” Blake asserts. “Everybody got to see what kind of business they did, and what kind of interactions and storytelling, and the next year just blew up. We peaked around 35,000-40,000 in 2015. Because pretty soon you’re going to see [more of an international market] – you’re already opening up all the South American countries. As I grew up, there was phenomenal Oaxacan, Mexican weed, Acapulco Gold… Colombian Red. Thai Sticks in Thailand. All over the world.”
Highlights From The 2022 Emerald Cup Harvest Ball
Today, the idea of a World Cup to honor a world market is the next phase in the Emerald Cup’s evolution. Blake now produces the event with his daughter Taylor. The revelries have become so huge and widely encompassing of different aspects of cannabis culture that in 2021, the Blakes and their team split the competition and awards show off from their annual December festival. Launching the Emerald Cup Harvest Ball separately from the traditional contest reflected just how much the cannabis industry itself has expanded in the years since Blake’s outlaw days. 2022 again marked the Harvest Ball and competition as distinctive events, with the Emerald Cup Awards branching off and taking place in Hollywood during May for the first time. Actor and legendary cannabis activist Woody Harrelson was presented with the 2022 Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.
This season, the Emerald Cup Harvest Ball opened with a Small Farms Buyers’ Lounge on December 9th, which hosted 48 craft and heirloom farms from over seven counties across California at the new Mercy Wellness consumption space in Cotati. The intimate event provided small farmers a platform to generate bulk sales with leading retailers including Cookies, Dr. Greenthumb's, Harborside, urbn leaf, and more to support the legacy of the region’s cultivators.
As with all Emerald Cup happenings, Harvest Ball featured exhibitors, guests and special appearances from the industry's most innovative people. Team Honeysuckle was surrounded by friends, such as Richard DeLisi, the nation's longest-serving nonviolent cannabis prisoner. Today DeLisi is the co-founder of DeLisioso, a justice-focused cannabis and lifestyle brand he runs with his family. He and his nephew Ken Darby, DeLisioso's Chief Revenue Officer, had the time of their lives networking at the Harvest Ball. Iconic cultivator Champelli was also on hand - deemed by many to be the best-dressed person at the entire event.
Emerald Cup team members named the 2022 Harvest Ball as their most inclusive gathering to date. A diverse host of performers and panelists drew a crowd of fans from all walks of life, such as hyphy cultural artist E-40 and Compton-based rapper Channel Tres. Harvest Ball also included an Emerald Sessions panel, reflecting the Emerald Cup’s close collaboration with California’s Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) for this year’s festivities. The panel featured Eugene Hillsman, DCC’s Deputy Director of Equity and Inclusion, and Cassandra DiBenedetto, External Affairs, Chief Engagement Officer. The engagement of new consumers, audience members, and speakers with the traditional Emerald Cup community made for a beautiful and fruitful match.
Former NBA player-turned-cannabis mogul Al Harrington, founder of Viola Brands, shared a special moment with Tim Blake at the Compound Genetics booth on Day 1 of the Harvest Ball. As Emerald Cup’s team commented, “It was an honor to see our global cannabis community journey for Harvest Ball, [and gives] us great hope that canna-tourism may be an opportunity [that’s] gaining momentum.”
Who Sponsored The 2022 Emerald Cup Harvest Ball?
2022 Harvest Ball sponsors included Cookies, PUFFCO, Compound Genetics, Humboldt Seed Company, Phinest Cannabis, Symbiotic Genetics, Kalya, CannaCraft, StateHouse Holdings, Papa's Select, Kalibloom, Rebel Grown, Redwood Roots, Ispire, West Coast Cure, CBX/HIGHATUS, Biobizz World, Wide Organics, Waave, Mercy Wellness, and Leaf Magazine.
For 2023, Blake can’t wait to do the process all over again, and bigger. The competition, awards show, and Harvest Ball will return, and he’s particularly looking forward to expanding offerings in Los Angeles. “It’s the biggest media market and the biggest cannabis market in the world,” he notes.
Tim Blake's Predictions For The Emerald Cup and California's OG Cannabis Farmers
But even amid his phenomenal success, Blake’s interest stays grounded in advocating for the local cultivators who made the industry what it is. “Watching the Emerald Cup now, after all these decades, it’s sad and the legacy farmers all deserved subsidies like other farmers,” he emphasizes. “Give all these OG people a quarter of a million dollars, because they basically sacrificed themselves to see cannabis come across the country and the world. ‘Cause if you remember, it was only in the West Coast – Mendocino, Humboldt, the Emerald Triangle people. We were bunkered in trying to deliver everything to the country.”
It's a reality where the inequities continue to plague Blake. “I was so excited about Prop 64 [the adult-use legalization ballot measure],” he says. “I shook hands with [California Governor] Gavin Newsom. I evangelized for it; I didn’t want people [serving] long-term prison sentences. I wanted to see mainstream people use it. My Catholic priest uncle uses it because it’s legal now… But the negative aspect was we were never supposed to have one acre or more growing for five years. They had a cap. Gavin shook my hand and promised they wouldn’t do that. A few months later, properties and farmlands in Salinas are going for $80,000 an acre, property in Mendocino is going bankrupt. There used to be 225-250 outlaw farms up there. Now there’s 25… All the rest of them left; they’re abandoned. Even the traditional black market people couldn’t make any money because underground pounds are going for $400, $350, even they moved out. So you’ve watched the complete extinction of it. Where I live is completely vacated.”
He adds that the Emerald Triangle’s long-running cultivators couldn’t get bank accounts due to their cannabis businesses and how they had to structure their operations. “A lot of the money they were growing with, they took it and put it into their ranches. A lot of these people own ranches and they can’t even rent them. They can’t give them away.”
Mournfully he observes, “It hurts more than the farmers. It hurts the businesses; it hurts the schools. Cannabis is taking its rightful place as an economic force in the world, at the cost of the legacy farmers up here. That’s just the way it is. At the end of the day, when they write history, that’s what’s going to happen.”
But as long as Tim Blake, Taylor Blake and the Emerald Cup’s dedicated staff are there to fight for legacy businesses, these cultivators’ sacrifices will not have been in vain. Their product will have its day in the spotlight, and their wisdom and love of the plant will be shared with the world. As long as Blake is there to tell their stories, the cannabis community will remember its roots.
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Featured image: Tim Blake, founder of The Emerald Cup (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc. @tissuekulture