What do the best strains in the world have in common – apart from remarkable traits and growth patterns? Many have, at one time or another, some multiple times – won the High Times Cannabis Cup. For the vast majority of these winners, it is after conquering the competition that launched them to the stratosphere.
It is the most prestigious event in the cannabis industry. More than merely a contest and award-giving body, it is also a trade show where the influential leaders, breeders, growers, and enthusiasts converge. The interactions and exchanges are an opportunity to showcase and sample both classics and new hybrids. More importantly, essential knowledge and contact information are passed around.
The Founding of the High Times Cannabis Cup
High Times is a magazine published monthly advocating the legalization of cannabis. Since its inception in 1974, it has been and continues to be at the frontline of the marijuana counterculture.
In 1988, Steven Hager took over as the editor of High Times. He instilled several changes – one of the most drastic is to drop publishing anything related to hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Instead, Hager focused the efforts of the magazine on cannabis legalization, and personal cultivation and consumption. He was also the first editor in any publication to publish the work of Jack “The Emperor of Hemp” Herer since both of them share the same advocacy.
Hager is an accomplished writer, journalist, and filmmaker. His most significant contribution, though, may very well be conceptualizing and founding the High Times Cannabis Cup. Held every November in Amsterdam, this event covers everything from showcasing the best cannabis products to disseminating updated information on the industry. Industry professionals also host seminars and workshops on a wide range of topics, from history to uses and growing.
The Early Years
The first Cannabis Cup was held in a rather small reception room above a bar in Amsterdam, attended by some 50 people and a few seed companies. Skunk #1 had the honor of being named the winner by an expert panel of judges. There was not much fanfare, and in the subsequent years, the awarding committee added more awards. The first ones were “Best Hybrid,” “Best Sativa,” “Best Indica,” and expanded to include 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places.
Cannabis use in the Netherlands is – as many are surprised to know even to this day – not legal. Allowing the proliferation of the infamous “coffeeshops” is a pragmatic solution to a dilemma. Enforce the prohibition, and it drives people to go underground, obtaining dried herbs from dubious characters. Not only is it dangerous, but there is the risk of progressing to hard drugs.
It did not take long for the Cannabis Cup to grow as people talk, and the word spreads. By the 6th year, the number of attendees reached over 800.
Throughout the 90s, the High Times Cannabis Cup kept on growing in prestige. When the Coffee Shop Cup was introduced, the competition also opened to public voting in which a qualified person could buy a ticket to be a judge. These judges then would go on a “coffee shop crawl,” visiting one after another participating shop, sampling their entries, and voting.
By the 2000s, think of the Cannabis Cup as the Grammy or the Academy Awards of the marijuana underground. It had become that huge. From a humble, noble beginning, commercialization took over. To make matters worse, the outdated format used had flaws that were exploited.
The Age of Commercialization
The Cannabis Cup had taken a life of its own – and it was not a pretty picture. First of all, there was no level playing field. There were insinuations that participants who spend the most on marketing and those with connections end up dominating the competition. It also came to a point when some of the losers would accuse the organizers of nepotism.
Sadly, the Cannabis Cup had lost its way – to the dismay of its founder, Steven Hager. Frustrated at how it had become, he embarked on a scheme to expose the weakness of the system.
During those years, some of the entrants bought the flowers from other growers and passed them as their own. So, Hager enlisted the help of two cultivators who submitted entries using flowers they did not grow. After winning the best flower category, he revealed the truth.
There was a lot of backlash. Essentially, Hager sabotaged the Cannabis Cup he founded. Being an employee of High Times, many even saw his actions as making a mockery of the event. It has since been called the Fake Entry Scandal.
That fiasco was not in vain, though, as it forced organizers to reflect on the purpose of the Cannabis Cup. It made them aware of the weaknesses in the system, poor management, and inadequate communication and coordination. Since then, they have introduced measures, adapted computerization, more open judging practices, and rigid balloting. As a result, the subsequent competitions were less chaotic, had fewer delays and cancellations. More importantly, it started to regain trust from both the competitors and the public.
About the one challenge that remains to this day is this. Judges sample the entries, and every year, the average potency keeps increasing. Once intoxicated, and there is practically limitless supply, keeping everything running smoothly becomes more stressful.
The Raid and Globalization of the Cannabis Cup
In 2010, the police raided the Cannabis Cup. It cast a dark cloud on the future of the Dutch cannabis industry. At this time, other countries have overtaken the Netherlands, such as in legalizing medical marijuana.
Since the 1st Cannabis Cup, practically all events were held in Amsterdam. The organizers, though, had to deal with the uncertainty in the Dutch landscape. Hence, they staged the first High Times Medical Cup in the United States, held in areas where medical marijuana is legal. Since then, they also held the US Cannabis Cup in states where recreational use is allowed.
Today, the Cannabis Cup has expanded its categories to include, among others:
- Best Sativa
- Best Indica
- Best Hybrid
- Best Imported Hash
- Best Nederhash
- Best Hash
- Best New Product
- Best Glass
- Best Booth
Outside of the Netherlands, the event is also held in Northern and Southern California, Las Vegas, Colorado, Rhode Island, Portland, and the Midwest. They also staged the competition in Jamaica.
The Implications of the Cannabis Cup
For the participants and stakeholders, it is a chance to showcase their best and latest products to the public. Winning the Cannabis Cup, in any of the categories, is pretty much an assurance of continued success in the decades to come – that is how prestigious the High Times Cannabis Cup is, and how influential.
For the public, it is a chance to see and sample premium quality buds, meet the people who created and grew them. It is also an opportunity to learn more about the benefits of cannabis and growing for personal consumption.
For the industry, it has become the stage from which the stakeholders can present their case – decriminalize and legalize medical marijuana.
Indeed, the High Times Cannabis Cup has become the voice of millions of people around the world who could benefit from the medicinal properties.