For reasons not related to sports or logic, I was sent across the country to cover the 2011 High Times Medical Cannabis Cup in Denver this past weekend. The event, held in a place called the Exdo Event Center that allegedly transformed into a gay nightclub once the sun set, featured an awards show for 45 indicas, 36 sativas, 50 hybrids, 26 concentrates, and 25 edibles from Colorado dispensaries. If you don't really know what those terms mean, it's okay: this event was primarily for professionals. And no matter how much pot you smoked in college, bro, I can now say with certainty that it does not make you a professional in the field of medical cannabis. There were seminars for legal issues and consumer rights, cultivation lessons, and a panel discussion on the ins and outs of the "Cannabusiness." And there was a giant tent — which required either a Denver medical marijuana card or a vendor's pass to enter — filled with marijuana for medicating purposes. The only rule, once you were in? No selling and no giving away of the marijuana. The tent was only for sharing. Welcome to the Medical Cannabis Cup.
Because I am not a professional, I went to Denver expecting to see marijuana plants and stoned teenagers everywhere. I expected to capture the essence of the postmodern burnout, and I expected it to be easy. So I felt silly when I entered the first room at the venue and found bubbly nonprofit representatives and candidates for office. This is Barbara Harvey, a dedicated volunteer for SAFER, an organization that is working to legalize recreational marijuana use in Colorado. Harvey believes it will pass legislation in 2012. "We gotta be the first state!" she insisted. "California almost got it, but it's gotta be us." Bennie Linkhart, 80-year-old father of mayoral candidate Doug, was manning his son's table behind Barbara. "It can be abused, sure!" Bennie told me. "But so can eating Twinkies and so can eating Krispy Kremes and so can alcohol." The nonprofit room was, compared to what would come, quaint — but with a comforting element of the bizarre: every time I passed through, the same Hillary Duff music video was playing on four flat-screen televisions mounted on a wall. Every time. Bennie didn't seem to notice.
The venue layout was cold-hot: the further you progressed into the Exdo, the closer you'd come to the plant. After the cheery nonprofit room, you entered a giant warehouse-like room, which usually served as the nightclub's main dance floor, but which here served as the center for the usual legal paraphernalia. There were bongs everywhere, but there were also soil nutrients and hydroponic retailers hawking their product. Ostensibly, it could have been a shopping floor for a fusion gardening and tobacco show. Ostensibly.
But the retail floor was not the heart of the action. There was never a line at the bar, and there were plenty of reminders that there was to be No Self Medicating On The Licensed Premise. Nobody was here to get stoned, baked, fucked up, or blazed. Everyone was here to medicate. "Are you running away?" I heard a young kid ask two new acquaintances at the bar, in one of the most lucid attempts at hitting on someone I'd witness all weekend. "Yeah. We're tryin' to go get medicated," a girl said. I followed them out the back exit, down a ramp and into the purgatory alley that led to the smoking tent.
The tent was not actually a tent, but another warehouse-like space filled with vendors and their goods. It was — and this may as well sum up the entire weekend — overwhelming. Here was the marijuana-plants-everywhere scene I'd expected. Everyone with product was a licensed Colorado distributor, and they were here to share their product. Let me repeat that this was overwhelming. "I don't even know what to do with myself," I heard a middle-aged man say to his wife upon entering the tent, which was perpetually filled with smoke. The pressing issue? Everybody wanted to share with everybody.
A dispensary called Aloha's had one of the more popular booths in the smoking tent, partly because their plants were very beautiful and partly because they gave away free weed leis at the door. "Wanna lei?" grower Chris asked me as I strolled by. Then he giggled a lot. Chris walked me through the four plants they had on display: "Smell the pineapple, man, it smells just like pineapple." I agreed. "And smell the lemon, you'll get the lemon, I promise." I did. "Now smell the ChemDog," he told me. "It smells dope." This is the ChemDog. It also, if I may, looks pretty dope.
This woman introduced herself as Jessica, "The Cheesecake Lady." She has a business card that says just that and she's proud that her wrappers are "compostable, ho!" I just want to say, based on nothing in particular, that if a person is notorious enough to be known for an edible product containing marijuana, it is probably not wise to ingest even a fraction of that product and expect to be coherent for the rest of the day. I ran into a High Times friend the next day and asked him about the best characters he'd met at the show. "Well, the Cheesecake Lady is totally nuts," he told me. "But make sure you stay away from her cheesecake." I just nodded solemnly.
Erica and Katie were manning a booth that shared giant joints all weekend long. I assumed, wrongly, that they worked full-time for the dispensary. "Oh, no," Erica told me. "We know each other from burlesque."
The alleyway that led to the smoking tent was a wonderful source of entertainment all weekend long. Early on Saturday afternoon a man in a green beret came out from the Exdo center, pushing an older bald man in a wheelchair. "Where do we smoke!" he yelled, to no one in particular. He tried again. "Where do we smoke!" He was pointed down the alley, and two hours later, as I took a break at a cafe down the street, I saw them pass by. This time, the bald man was pushing the empty wheelchair. This meditating man was around all weekend. I saw him getting Zen, I saw him adorning a performer named Gemma Star with a sticker ("I trust you!" she told him, "You can put it over my vagina."), and at the Kid Cudi concert that night, I spotted him dancing with a woman dressed head-to-toe in fur who identified herself as Boudicca. I never heard him say a word.
This is the seminar room. The seminar room had sexy red lighting, wall-to-ceiling mirrors, and approximately nine disco balls, because it is normally used for a nightclub. Still, the panels and presentations in here were, again, all business. Even if some of the PowerPoint shows had questionable font selections (my notes: "COM. SANS ALERT"). On Saturday, I sat in on the Medical Issues seminar ("How ridiculous that we're not allowed to manipulate that part of our biochemistry!") and on a talk with High Times cultivation editor Nico Escondido. He talked about proper lighting arrangements for indoor and outdoor growing and showed a 10-minute clip of his short informational film, Grow Like A Pro. The crowd cheered when he dismissed LEDs and when he suggested dropping buds in a glass of grain alcohol. At one point, a young woman in front of me leaned to her friend and, suppressing laughter, whispered, "I feel like I'm watching a smurf!" They giggled.
On Saturday night, Kid Cudi came to a giant empty warehouse in northern Denver and performed. Somewhere through the green and the smoke, he is on stage, singing a song. On Friday, April Fool's Day, Kid Cudi sent out a press release announcing that he'd given up marijuana; High Times assumed it was a joke and provided him with the usual welcome wagon. It wasn't a joke: the rapper is in the middle of a custody battle and wants to project a cleaner image.
I missed the opening act, but I'm told that it involved our friend Gemma Star and that it was so awful that she and her dancers were pulled after just 15 minutes onstage. When I stepped outside for a minute, I looked in on this chihuahua, which was alone in a room with some folding chairs. Like the Hillary Duff video, no one seemed to notice.
The next day, I met Gemma Star, along with her dogs, Charlie the chihuahua and Lilly the bulldog. Gemma Star had positioned herself at the main thoroughfare in the Exdo showroom, and she was giving things away with abandon. She gave me a Buddha Bar, made by The Pleasure Cafe, a signed poster, and a mix CD without my asking. "Put as many tracks on your website as you want!" she suggested. I gave it a listen on the plane ride home and elected against doing that.
There were plenty of people at the Cup that looked like your dad. Most of them were lifelong Coloradans who have been involved with the fight to legalize marijuana for many years. This here is Wayward Bill, chairman of the U.S. Marijuana Party of Colorado. "We represent Americans who are tired of the drug war," he told me, and then showed me his crippled right hand. "I had to become a patient in this state to understand and to become a champion for the cause." Later in the afternoon, I ran into Wayward Bill in the smoking tent. He looked lost. "I found this in my pocket," he said to me, and showed me a cell phone. It was ringing. "I took a photo with someone, and now I have his cell phone!" I decided to take care of it for him.
And then there were people who had "Yo Quiero Toka Bowl" T-shirts. I came across Paul and Jestin just outside the seminar room and assumed they were friends who had come to the Cup together. I asked to take their photo, and Jestin (on the right here) insisted that I capture about six poses. He would turn, flex, point, throw up a gnarly sign, and then cackle. I saw Paul later on — to return his cell phone, actually — and Jestin approached us. "Yo, what's your name again, my Celtic brother?" he asked Paul. So it goes.
This was another popular booth in the smoking tent, hosted by The Cannaseur. There were about five ladies dressed as flight attendants who would welcome smokers aboard the "plane." Inside, a woman in a captain's hat shared the product.
"Welcome aboard, I'll be your captain today," visitors were told. As I took photos the girl to the captain's right repeatedly raised and lowered her eyebrows at me, and then giggled for a while. When that group left, a girl in a flowing patterned dress came into the plane through the wrong door. She was clearly quite medicated, and tried to hug the captain hello, who calmly told her, "Can you please use our regular boarding procedure?"
There was plenty of glass on display in the smoking tent, but most it was for use and not display. Jacob ("my creative name is Blitzkriega") showed me his original spine bong. "My style is impressionistic, and it's almost always inspired by Van Gogh," Jacob/Blitzkriega explained. "Function is very important to my pieces, and without color I focus on use and precision. I consider my pieces lifestyle accessories — or, lifestyle accoutrement. If you will."
Here's a portion of the biggest plant on display in the smoking tent, courtesy of Platte Valley Dispensary, because it's pretty.
I passed this man, dressed as a mime-clown, in the purgatory alleyway. He was in a hurry, but agreed to stop for a photo before turning and hustling towards the smoking tent. "What inspired your outfit?" I called after him. "Edibles!" he yelled back.
One booth in the Exdo room featured a line of New Era style caps with revised pro sports team logos. This was the Lakers (yes, the Bakers) hat in the "Smokin' Trees, Drainin' Threes" line (also featuring the Danker Nuggets and the Detroit Stoners); there were also selections for "4th & 20" and "Throwin' Ks And Burnin' Js." Each had featured a stash pocket in the lining and a number of a player who had been busted for marijuana.
Jamie was at the Cup with his sons, who were selling their glassware. He was dressed as a pirate all weekend, because, he said, he knew it would be cause for conversation. Jamie said he'd been a culinary arts instructor, a cooking professional, a professor, a firefighter, and an EMT, but was currently on disability for a close head injury. "I started smoking weed at age 16, when my dad died," Jamie told me. "My brother had just gone off to college and I was home in Chicago alone with my mom, who was in crisis. So when things got bad I found that if I smoked pot, I could deal with it better." He showed me his pipe, made of meerschaum and amber, that he's had since 1974. "You can't get coloring like that without smoking good marijuana," he said.
I was in the women's room late on Sunday and I overheard someone pick up a cell phone. "Oh, hi mom... Yeah, I'm at the Cannabis Cup... Just trying to move some product..." I was surprised enough at the candidness, and when I came out of the stall I saw that she was one of the vaporizer girls, all of whom were wearing string bikini tops, cutoff jean shorts, and platform heels all weekend. Others just used paint.
The smoking tent shut down at 7 p.m. on Sunday evening. At the legal issues seminar that afternoon, medical marijuana attorney Warren Edson said that he started smoking pot as a kid "because it was a gigantic middle-finger salute to every authority figure I knew." Everyone laughed and cheered, and then he wondered aloud, "Is marijuana going to be as fun when it's legal?" The laughter tapered off. It was a good question.