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U.S. Cannabis Cup 2014: A cornucopia of consumption and commerce

A Marijuana plant on display at the Cannabis Cup.
A Marijuana plant on display at the Cannabis Cup.
Mark Schiff

The Mile High City was the epicenter for all things high on Sunday, as the most sacred day on the stoner calendar -- April 20, or 4/20 -- was marked by a host of events all across Colorado, currently the only place in the world where adults over the age of 21 can legally purchase recreational marijuana at retail stores. The fourth annual High Times U.S. Cannabis Cup was one of the biggest events of the weekend, with tens of thousands of cannabis consumers converging on the Denver Merchandise Mart just north of downtown for a two-day celebration that spoke volumes about the shifting attitudes and the propriety of pot.

Pot smokers from across the world converged on Denver this weekend for the U.S. Cannabis Cup.
Pot smokers from across the world converged on Denver this weekend for the U.S. Cannabis Cup.
Photo used courtesy of High Times

The warm, bright weather on Sunday felt like the perfect stage dressing for the event. Colorado’s new recreational sales have brought marijuana culture out into the open light and the massive size and scope of the Cannabis Cup provided a clear sense of scale. The Denver Post reported that over 37,000 people attended the event, an indication that the pot community in America is absolutely huge. It's certainly not getting smaller.

Although its name hearkens back to the original pot competition founded in Amsterdam in 1988, the U.S. Cannabis Cup is, to use an industry term, a hybrid, equal parts trade show and pot festival. Virtually all of the attendees I spoke with were from out of town. They wanted to see what Denver’s newfound marijuana liberation looked like in person and while the event was hardly representative of the average Sunday afternoon in the city (4/20 is to pot what St. Patrick’s Day is to alcohol) the Cannabis Cup proved to be an ideal event for the still novel thrill of smoking weed openly and with impunity.

In the 21-and-up outdoor area where smoking was permitted, the sour scent of pot smoke drifted everywhere. The crowd was almost entirely in their 20s and 30s, and more male than female, though not by as much of a margin as you might think. Shuffling slowly along the crowded aisles between vendor tents, people smoked blunts, passed pipes, shared joints, ripped bongs, and ate edibles.

The most popular way to get high, by far, was by dabbing. A relatively new invention in field of pot tech, dabs are just that -- a dab of highly concentrated pot in the form of a wax or “glass” shatter that’s smoked in a large pipe similar to a bong. Booths offering “free dabs” were among the most well-attended and it wasn’t hard to see why: Hitting the super-powered concentrate is the pot equivalent of taking a shot of strong liquor.

Vape pens were another popular piece of pot technology. Discrete and smoother-hitting than joints, vape pens also run on concentrated marijuana oil and pack a potent punch. Neither of these things were common to the marijuana scene even four years ago, but this weekend they were ubiquitous.

The R&D that’s lead to such innovations was also evident in the potpourri of other pot products available. Hundreds of vendors fill every conceivable niche in and around pot culture, from bamboo joint crutches to pipe cleaning products to smoking tools designed and manufactured by crafty stoners in their basement. The degree of market specialization is impressive.

Chuck T. of Kannastör, which specializes in grinders and other accessories, said he decided to come out from Athens, GA just a few days ago and was rewarded with brisk sales.

“I honestly put this thing together in three days time to be able to ship things out here,” he said. “I had zero expectations. But I’ve sold out of several styles. It’s about the best problem you could have.”

The hustle displayed by some of the vendors could go a long way toward dispelling certain myths about pot users and their work ethic. Scott Miller was on hand with the Ruseter Wallet, a billfold he designed with a secret compartment for joints, while Andy the Writer came up from Arizona to unveil his new comic book, The Adventures of SuperStoner.

Based on the bulging hemp tote bags most attendees were carrying, entrepreneurial zeal was handsomely rewarded this weekend, and not just by those directly involved with the pot scene. Apparel companies like Kush Diet and Weed Tees sold huge quantities of their marijuana-themed shirts and clothing. Booths were packed and the constant transactions were a vivid illustration of the purchasing power of this demographic.

Colorado’s tourism department would do well to remember that. Most all of the out-of-towners I spoke with planned on going skiing, horseback riding, or participating in many of the other outdoor activities Colorado is known for. In other words, their vacations looked a lot like everyone else’s trips to Colorado, only with a side of marijuana.

Yet despite using pot openly at the Cannabis Cup, most of those I spoke with did not want their names to be used on record, an indication of the stigma it still carries for much of the country. A pair of sisters, ages 36 and 34 visiting from Birmingham, AL and Omaha, NE, planned their annual sibling trip around Colorado’s 4/20 festivities. They spoke about the fear they live under when using marijuana in their home states.

“I don’t like driving with weed in my car,” one said. “I don’t like being paranoid about getting pulled over with it. I wish we had it regulated like they do in Colorado, where I wouldn’t have to worry about those stupid things.”

For one weekend in Denver, there were no such worries. This may have been the fourth annual Cannabis Cup event in Denver, but with recreational sales now in place, it took on a unique shape this year. The freedom to buy taxed and regulated marijuana and use it without fear of criminal penalty may still be a dream for much of the country. Today, for the tens of thousands of tourists who visited Colorado this weekend, it probably feels a little less like one.