On Saturday, a man in a tie-dyed T-shirt handed me a bag filled with 25 different marijuana samples and gave me a week to smoke it all, come hell or high water.
Judging the Cannabis Cup sounded like it was going to be the best time of my life. But as I learned quickly, it's one thing to brag about your weed connoisseurship and quite another to match your nose, palate and sheer THC tolerance levels with the best in the business.
Still, I was determined to try.
For nearly 30 years, High Times magazine has pitted the world's top cannabis growers against one another in ferocious battles to determine whose bud is dankest. The contest began in Amsterdam in 1988, but thanks to the advent of medical marijuana programs, High Times now hosts Cannabis Cups in several cities around North America, as well as in Europe and the Caribbean.
And, as with every contest, they need judges — ganja cognoscente who have significant experience smoking, vaping, dabbing and eating cannabis products, who can spend an entire week sampling a dizzying number of strains vying for a coveted top ranking.
But not just any stoner can qualify: Many have already judged a Cannabis Cup or two in the past; the rest are heavily vetted by the staff at High Times. Somehow, they let me be a judge for the NorCal Cannabis Cup 2017, one of a "Regional Series" leading up to an international championship.
I have never been so high, so down or so done with weed in my life.
But here's what happened.
Saturday, May 27
Following the instructions I'd received an email with instructions to pick up my cannabis samples, I went to Harborside, an Oakland, California, dispensary. I handed over my ID, my medical marijuana card and paperwork I had been asked to fill out in advance and went into a private room.
Inside were two nice gentlemen from High Times, surrounded by dozens of large brown paper bags. One guy logged me into the judging system (I'd been using an app to keep track of my ratings) and confirmed that I was a daily smoker. Since it was my first time judging, I was assigned an easy category: sativa flower.
Cannabis is almost always identified as either sativa or indica, the two different species typically cultivated: Sativa is supposed to give the user a more stimulating, cerebral daytime high; indica is associated with relaxation and couch-lock. Sativa also usually contains less THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol.
I was handed a bag of samples and told to make sure that all 25 were in there. I wasn't sure I'd heard right — but yes, I had to get through 25 strains of marijuana before the following Saturday. Even more staggering was the discovery that I'd been given about an eighth of an ounce of each. For free.
"So," the High Times official told me, "looks like you've got some work to do."
Sunday, May 28
I woke in a panic on Sunday — how many cannabis strains had I tried last night? Only two? Oh, god.
The rules made it very clear that if I didn't finish all my work, I'd be disqualified from ever judging again. As a veteran stoner, I couldn't face that embarrassment.
Worse, for each strain, I had to come up with five separate ratings — visual aesthetics, aroma, taste, burnability/flush, and overall effect — on a 5-point scale with a 0.25-point gradient. In addition, I was expected to write a mini-review in the app's "notes" section, because (as the officials explained) nobody wants to come in 15th place without some concrete feedback.
The trouble, I realized as I started the process, was that I didn't have the right vocabulary. For me, cannabis had always either been "good" or "bad," and now I felt like a guy trying to fake a sommelier's expertise in a wine tasting room. When I took a few strains to social gatherings for outside help, I didn't get much. "It definitely smells like something," one friend said of Sativa 7. "It just smells like weed to me," another said when I asked him what he thought of Sativa 14's aroma.
Even so, some patterns were emerging. Sativas tend toward a citrus tang, often fruity or sweet, and the best ones do bring on a sort of lucid stoniness, rendering colors and sounds a little dreamier without making you sleepy. As my pals and I toked up and settled in for a night of new Twin Peaks episodes, I was feeling pretty good overall. Everything was going to be just fine.
Monday, May 29
When I picked up my sativa bag in Oakland, I had been invited to a High Times Memorial Day barbecue in the Outer Richmond that apparently belonged to Box of Jane, a medical cannabis subscription service.
While a few people smoked joints and ate burgers outside, many more were gathered in a living room around a dozen ornate glass pipe rigs used to vaporize ultra-potent cannabis concentrates — "dabbing," in stoner parlance. We felt a bit out of our depth here, but when a dude in an Oakland A's hat offered to help me take my first-ever dab, I went for it; I got intensely high.
Pretty much everyone present was either a judge, a cannabis company employee or otherwise involved with High Times: a woman in blue lipstick who was judging the edibles category; two people judging concentrates; and a judge who'd tried all 39 samples of indica in a single day.
When a dude in an Oakland A's hat offered to help me take my first-ever dab, I went for it; I got intensely high.
That, it turned out, wasn't uncommon: Other judges recounted taking single puffs of this or that cannabis, coughing it out and shouting, "Next!" Yet they seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of everything they'd tried, even recognizing various strains by smell, taste or sight alone — despite the precautions in place to keep the judging both anonymous and blind.
They also didn't talk about anything besides cannabis, touching on all the hottest trends, especially the study and science of terpenes — a non-cannabinoid component of pot that accounts for its various flavors and aromas, as well as direct effects on the brain.
As we sparked a massive joint with another judge on a side porch (he had come in from Chicago to judge non-solvent hash entries), he told us that the terpene (or "terps") conversation was itself a funny stoner cliché at this point. We all said the word "terps" repeatedly, laughing at the sound.
Then, when I used the word "weed," the judge turned serious, saying that "cannabis" was the appropriate term; "weed" was to be reserved for foul, practically unsmokable herb.
"Marijuana," he continued, was no better, just a faux-Spanish etymology devised by Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who notoriously laid the foundations of the racially driven War on Drugs in the 1930s.
Eventually, we were high enough and had heard plenty. We walked down to the beach for the sunset. For a minute we'd forgotten what it was like to enjoy weed — sorry, cannabis — without an overwhelming amount of context for it.
Tuesday, May 30
I was in trouble. As stoned as I'd gotten on Memorial Day, I'd smoked almost none of the sativas I was supposed to be judging. If I wanted to make up for lost time, I would need to get through six strains in a day.
Never before had marijuana felt like work to me. I opened jar after jar, taking deep, focused whiffs and trying to conjure the words to describe each olfactory hit. Rather quickly I found the worst of the batch, Sativa 1, which smelled a bit like the bile in your mouth right before you puke. The smoke was harsh and gave me a headache.
When I used the word "weed," the judge turned serious. "Cannabis" was the appropriate term, he said; "weed" was to be reserved for foul, practically unsmokable herb.
I pulled out buds and examined them closely under lightbulbs, sussing out hints of color and the density of trichomes, those crystalline, cannabinoid-rich outgrowths on the plant that give the bud its somewhat shiny appearance and sticky texture. The stickiest of all was Sativa 24, which had a pungent lime-and-salt margarita flavor. It burned well, with a smooth smoke, and instantly perked me up at the end of a very long day. Instead of zoning out like I did on a few other strains, I put on a Fleetwood Mac record and read a book.
This, too, I came to see as an essential factor of my judging: Apart from all the technical specs of a sample, which I wasn't necessarily well-qualified to grade, what did it make me want to do? Go outside? Fall asleep? Work out? Have sex? Eat an entire box of Triscuits? Rather quickly, my assessments returned to the basic rubric of any unscientific stoner: Who am I after I smoke this?
Wednesday, May 31
I had to confront the unthinkable: I was sick of pot.
Even glancing at the brown bag holding the rest of my samples, each waiting to be judged, I was riven with a surge of dread. There were nine strains left on my list, and I was starting to think that I'd already tried the really good ones. Nevertheless, it was time to saddle up once more and head into the breach.
Sativa 1 smelled a bit like the bile in your mouth right before you puke.
Only this time, I smoked up and felt... nothing. No euphoria. No true high. Confused and a little scared, I'd take a couple extra puffs and stare across my living room, waiting for some effect. When I didn't glean any, I would give the strain middling marks and move onto the next, desperate for a foothold in the psychedelic realm. Nothing seemed to work. Was it that I still hadn't come down from Tuesday's marathon session, or was I (gasp) becoming some kind of pot snob, immune to the charms of lesser grass? Pretension had long been my least favorite aspect of stoner culture — I didn't want to give in now.
The day passed in a foul malaise, and my apartment was starting to stink.
Thursday, June 1
With the end in sight — but a deadline of noon on Saturday to file my final rankings — I could finally breathe, though just a bit. I even managed to go for a run, though I remained undeniably sluggish. I reflected with some envy on the maniacs who had burned through their entire lineup in a day or two. Sure, they were likely nonfunctional for the duration, but at least they could partake at a saner rate for the rest of the week. I could barely do basic errands anymore.
You know the kid who gets caught smoking cigarettes, and then his parents make him smoke the whole pack so he throws up? That was me.
Again, it was difficult not to turn existential. I started to toy with the idea of quitting weed altogether once the Cup was over, something I would have laughed about with my stoner buddies in my 20s. Was it so inconceivable? Isn't it part of growing up? Could I spend that money on something else, like beer? In any event, one thing was clear: The Cannabis Cup had changed me.
You know the kid who gets caught smoking cigarettes, and then his parents make him smoke the whole pack so he throws up? That was me.
Friday, June 2
I'd done it.
Pretty sure I'd permanently altered my brain chemistry and wouldn't get my rental deposit back with that marijuana fug so profoundly embedded in the carpet, but it was done. After polishing off the final three samples, I got pizza with friends, hit the bar, threw back cocktails, played air hockey and danced to terrible pop music. To rejoin society was a glorious occasion. The only thing I can think to compare it to is taking a long, hot shower after camping in the wilderness for a week.
Saturday, June 3
I slept in and, when I did get the itch to smoke a teensy amount of the mountain of competition-grade bud I had left over, I went with my No. 1 pick. At last I was free to consume cannabis on my own terms.
Sunday, June 4: Welcome to the NorCal Cannabis Cup 2017
The expo portion of the NorCal Cannabis Cup 2017 took place over Saturday and Sunday at the Sonoma Fairgrounds of Santa Rosa, California, in the heart of Wine Country — a region whose culture the cannabis industry plainly seeks to emulate. And why not? Both wine and weed are legal intoxicants, often responsibly enjoyed by adults with sophisticated palates that allow them to discern the finest points of difference in each grape or bud.
But the Cannabis Cup bears zero resemblance to a wine event. Once you got past several rows of tents advertising everything from plastic containers for your marijuana extracts to a cannabis companies focused on helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, you come upon a distinctly popular part of the fair.
"Proposition 215" signs on the fence surrounding this zone — and gray fumes directly overhead — indicated that this was where guests could "medicate" in accordance with California's Compassionate Use Act of 1996. To enter, you had to show your ID and doctor-issued marijuana recommendation and thereby obtain a special wristband.
On the other side of this threshold, hip-hop and dubstep blasted from every other tent, the smell was overpowering. Almost immediately, I was invited by a hype man to take a free dab, courtesy of his concentrates company. Figuring myself up to the challenge, I did it. Then, about five feet farther into the Prop 215 wonderland, I was invited to do exactly the same thing by the representatives of another concentrates company.
These people actually swabbed the glass mouthpiece of the rig with an alcohol wipe, which made me instantly regret taking the first (apparently unclean) dab, but there was no going back now.
After two hits, I was high enough to get completely lost.
In true stoner fashion, I was disoriented enough that I couldn't find the main stage in time to see the Cannabis Cup winners announced and, instead, spent an hour marveling at everything I came across — the tent serving Kush Tacos ("Medicated Mexican Cuisine"), the guy dressed in a giant inflatable joint costume bearing the RAW rolling paper brand name, a shirtless guy getting a massage, the dude hawking novelty joints in the shape of everything from mice and cats to Superman and SpongeBob SquarePants. Someone tried to smear me with a cannabis lotion that they said was "good for the sun."
A DJ's voice cut through the din, announcing a major giveaway, and attendees obligingly gathered around his tent to await the free swag. He then tried to pit the two sides of the mob against one another for the chance to catch the stuff that he and several midriff-baring models — the gender politics on display throughout the day were cause for some concern — prepared to toss out like T-shirts at a sports event. But getting a bunch of stoners to energetically wave their hands in the air and yell at top volume is easier said than done, and he struggled to shake everyone out of their apathy.
On the second day of the expo, in the late afternoon, the vendors and customers alike were burnt out.
Pressing onward, I found a claw-machine game with cannabis prizes inside. It cost $5 to play, but what the heck — some of the goodies in there looked pretty enticing. To my great shock, I successfully pulled a plastic container with the word "WAX" inside, but instead of finding the promised substance within, I discovered only a measly cannabis candy. Someone at a nearby table flagged me down and said they'd get me the gram of wax right away, and that I was also now entered in their raffle. I took my prize and went on my way. Ten minutes later, I got a text saying I'd won the raffle, too. When I returned to the table, the vendor went to fetch and then proudly handed me a giant hookah.
"Seriously?" I said.
"Yeah!" he said.
Great: Now I was the asshole wandering around with a hookah under his arm all day.
Between the heat, the music, the congestion and the sense that every face I saw was covered in that filmy sheen of sweat that comes with taking one dab too many — not to mention the growing impression that both I and the people I spoke with were gradually losing the power of language — the Cannabis Cup was taking its toll.
Thankfully, I was able to take relief in a VIP section that was cool and mostly empty and totally silent but for the chill-out music of another DJ and the slow crunch of other VIPs eating solemnly out of carnival bags of kettle corn.
Now I was the asshole wandering around with a hookah under his arm all day.
Once I felt able to leave, I stumbled to the main stage, where the Wailers — the remaining members of Bob Marley's band — played reggae to a small but appreciative audience bathed in green light. Last night, 311 had done a set, and later on, Sublime With Rome was headlining, but I knew I wasn't going to last that long.
Entering the hangar-like venue, I had to sidle past some EMTs strapping a dude to a stretcher. It was unclear whether his pending ambulance ride had something to do with cannabis, but he looked at least conscious, eyes glassed and shaking his head sadly, as if he couldn't believe it had come to this.
I'd missed the awarding of the Cannabis Cups themselves, the trophies this year designed by artist Alex Grey, whose trippy posters you'd probably recognize from your college drug dealer's hovel.
When I checked the official results later on, I was pleased to see that my beloved and sticky Sativa 24 — aka "L.A. Snow," grown by Lumpy's Flowers — had taken top honors. High Times Cultivation Editor Nico Escondido told me in an email that a few of my other favorites had also made the top 10 in the sativa category, meaning they've qualified for the World Cup competition at the end of the year.
"All fire — it's like splitting hairs the between the top 10," he said. "The difference between first place and fifth place is less than three points!"
It was enough cannabis, money and math to make your head spin, and I was glad my part in it was done — though I also took some satisfaction in knowing I wouldn't have to visit my dispensary anytime soon.
On my way out, I took a last look at sunburnt people sitting dazed on the grass and some cops milling awkwardly in the only shade around. I hit up an ATM and saw from the last receipt that somebody had tried to withdraw $200 but was too high to get their PIN number right.
I left the Cup in awe of how this plant has been transformed from an illicit indulgence into a staggering behemoth of business interests and pharmaceutical power, an irrepressible new force in America.
And on the way home, I stopped for the best chicken nuggets of my life.