It had the makings of a duel in the desert, the first clash between the legion of marijuana lovers emboldened by a surge of legalization and a new federal administration that has pledged to restore “law and order.”
In the days leading up to the Cannabis Cup—which is the pot world’s version of harvest festival, lecture series and outdoor concert rolled into one—it looked like a corner of an Indian reservation an hour north of Las Vegas was going to become a historic battlefield. Nevada had voted last November by a solid 9-point margin to legalize recreational weed, but the state’s top lawman felt it necessary to remind the Cannabis Cup organizers that federal law was not on their side. Letters to High Times magazine, the sponsor, and tribal officials of the Moapa band of the Paiute, who were hosting the two-day celebration last weekend, were full of stern warnings of federal prosecution if anyone was so much as seen passing a joint.
“Marijuana remains illegal under federal law,” U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden stated in a language that perfectly echoed the sentiments of his boss in Washington, the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
So the thousands of weed devotees who rode the free shuttle from the Las Vegas Strip to the reservation had good reason to be paranoid about the possibility they would be met with drug-sniffing DEA hounds when the bus doors wheezed open. Instead, nothing greeted them except a pretty Native American woman in aviator sunglasses named Janine (it was her husband’s reservation), who directed the new arrivals with a smile to the line of thousands of other Cup-goers patiently waiting to get through the front gate when it opened at noon.
Inside the event, some attendees sounded almost disappointed that there wasn’t a fight.
“If the feds come, it would be good for the movement. They’d be taking away from states’ rights,” said Jeff Pender, 37, from Fort Worth, Texas, a skinny white guy with close-cropped hair and a stubbly beard, who had driven 18 hours to be there. He was hanging out in the VIP area with a tattooed guy who introduced himself as Hitman, a seed breeder from just south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who said he had 20 years experience in cannabis genetics and sells 17 strains under the Stank Boyz Seed Company label.
Still, it was evident that the saber-rattling had had some depressive effect on the turnout—and the general plentifulness of the event’s namesake product. Organizers estimated the attendance for Saturday at 7,500 people, below an expected crowd of 10,000.
“It looks like High Times did a good job overcoming the governmental threats,” Jeffery Paul, the vice president and director of sales of Cannabiniers, a cannabis-infused beverage company, told POLITICO Magazine. He noted that the net effect of those threats was “a reduction in the number of exhibitors and attendees.”
However, just because the feds didn’t show up, no one thinks a showdown isn’t still coming. Sessions simply doesn’t like legal marijuana, and he’s giving every hint that he intends to push back. But state Senator Tick Segerblom, the godfather of the Nevada marijuana movement, thinks the legalization folks have momentum on their side.
“I think he’s going to have to back down,” Segerblom said of Sessions.
The Cannabis Cup began in 1988 as an annual contest to crown the best-grown marijuana. For its first 22 years, it was held in Amsterdam, because that was the only place the law would allow it. Then, in 2010, as state laws in America became hospitable to the enterprise, High Times hosted its first Cannabis Cup stateside.
“We did have some concerns with the first American Cup in San Francisco in 2010 because it was unprecedented at the time,” said High Times’senior cultivation editor, Dan Vinkovetsky, who writes under the nom de fume Danny Danko. “However, we didn’t think we would be raided and worked hard with legal advisers and lawmakers to ensure that we remained in compliance with state law.”
Then, after the Obama administration signaled a hands-off approach, High Times turned the Cannabis Cup from a once-a-year trip to Amsterdam to a traveling road show coming to a weed-legal state near you. In fact, High Times has now held 30 Cannabis Cups in the United States. This year, six of the eight events will be in the U.S., signaling clearly that America is the center of gravity for the marijuana industry—$6.7 billion in North American sales in 2016.
“Even when attempts are made to shut us down, we persist. It’s easy when you know which side of history you stand on,” Vinkovetsky told POLITICO Magazine. “The fight to free the flower continues until we can celebrate cannabis in peace and all of the nonviolent marijuana prisoners are released to their families.”
But all this forward marijuana momentum was thrown into disarray with the election of Donald J. Trump as president and his appointment of Sessions, a longtime marijuana adversary, as attorney general. On the topic of marijuana, it was reported in the 1980s that Sessions said he thought the KKK “were OK until I found out they smoked pot”; last year, he said “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Ever since his confirmation as U.S. attorney general, marijuana users have held their breath for a sign on how the Trump administration would handle the marijuana issue, and it didn’t take long for everyone to find out.
On February 16, Daniel Bogden, the U.S. attorney for the state of Nevada, sent a letter to the tribal chairman of the Moapa band of Paiutes to let them know that the federal government was “aware of an upcoming event … that involves the transport, possession, use, and distribution of marijuana … [which] is prohibited by 21 U.S.C. § 841.” In case that wasn’t clear, two paragraphs down, he spelled it out and underlined it: “federal investigation and prosecution may still be appropriate.”
Of course, the idea of a Cannabis Cup event WITHOUT ANY CANNABIS was as nonsensical as Mardi Gras without alcohol. It seemed especially absurd in a state in which it was legal, given the care that organizers took to abide by state and local laws. But none of that seemed persuasive to Bogden, whose dudgeon got a little higher with each successive paragraph. “I respectfully request that you confirm that you have agreed with the tribe not to allow cannabis and cannabis products at the event.”
The same day, back east in Washington, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that states could expect “greater enforcement” of federal laws against recreational marijuana. The following Monday, Sessions reinforced the tough-on-marijuana message: “I’m definitely not a fan of expanded use of marijuana. States can pass the laws they choose. I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout anyplace in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”
At first it looked as if all the threatening talk was having the intended effect. Just three days before the event, High Times emailed an announcement to ticket holders, saying “vendors, guests, performers and attendees are advised to comply with applicable law concerning the distribution of cannabis in any amount at the event. In order for the cannabis industry to continue to earn legitimacy and social acceptance, we understand that rules and laws need to be abided.”
But then politicians started to push back, defending the stoners’ right to party.
The same day that High Times sent its statement to its ticket-holders, Senator Dean Heller, Republican from Nevada, wrote a letter to Sessions, saying: “In light of recent statements regarding a possible change in federal marijuana enforcement policy and knowing your views about and deference to states’ rights, I respectfully ask that you preserve the Cole Memorandum,” a reference to the Justice Department memo that had granted prosecutors discretion not to pursue cases in states that had legalized marijuana. The next day, Nevada’s other senator, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, signed a similar letter with 10 other Senate colleagues, siding with the stoners in the desert.
The full impact of the federal government upon the Cannabis Cup was this: Some attendees from out of state left disappointed that they couldn’t score weed, but organizers say they probably couldn’t have anyway, unless they were in compliance with Nevada law. On the other hand, attendees from Nevada and California with medical marijuana cards had all the legally obtained cannabis products that they could possibly have needed, and they enjoyed it openly, in clear violation of federal law.
The four Nevada Highway Patrol officers parked near the highway exit ramp were too far away to notice or care.
The music headliner was hip-hop performer Ludacris, but the real rock star at the Cup was Segerblom, a Democratic state senator representing Las Vegas and a fourth-generation Nevada legislator in a state where it’s difficult to find a fourth-generation anything. His name has become so synonymous with the cannabis movement that there’s a strain of marijuana named after him: Segerblom Haze. “Everyone who has tried it says it’s great,” Segerblom said. “Very energizing.”
Segerblom (he prefers being called “Tick”) was filing marijuana bills a decade ago that never got out of committee. Eventually, Segerblom’s marijuana legislation stopped being seen as a joke in Carson City, and he began looking more like a visionary.
“We should be leading in this,” Segerblom, 69, told a panel discussion audience of about 100. “We’re Sin City. We should make Las Vegas the marijuana capital of the world.” Segerblom wants visitors to come to Vegas to eat great food, see great shows and get crazy in their hotel rooms while consuming as much legal—and taxable—cannabis as they care to.
“You’ve got to give it up to the senator,” said Joe Brezny, the spokesman of the successful Yes on 2 campaign in Nevada. “He’s the man.” Brezny is a 46-year-old, white, Republican political operative who became a pro-marijuana activist after getting caught smoking a joint by the Secret Service while working on an advance team for the Mitt Romney campaign in 2012. “No one would be here if it wasn’t for Tick,” Brezny said.
“The public is so far in front of politicians on marijuana,” Segerblom said to the panel audience, before adding a statement that would have been career suicide for any legislator just a few years ago: “It isn’t as bad as alcohol. Some people do it for fun. The fact is, marijuana is a great recreational drug.”
“We love you, Tick!” a woman shouted at the conclusion of the panel discussion.
When Nevadans voted in November to legalize recreational marijuana, the law gave the state 12 months to implement regulations for recreational dispensaries. But Nevada officials are planning on beating that deadline by six months, with the first dispensaries opening in Las Vegas on July 1. That rush has less to do with fear of a coming federal crackdown and more to do with money—July 1 is the start of the Nevada fiscal year. Republican Governor Brian Sandoval has already included projected recreational marijuana tax revenue in next year’s budget: A 15 percent wholesale tax and an additional 10 percent requested exclusively for education programs puts projected legal weed tax revenues at $129 million a year, according to Brezny.
In order to generate that tax revenue, Segerblom sees marijuana-themed “smoke lounges, restaurants, hotels, concert venues, you name it, even horse-drawn carriages and massages.” When we spoke on Saturday, Segerblom was two days away from introducing a Senate bill that would allow cannabis consumption at bars, restaurants, smoke shops and one-off events, laying the groundwork for remaking Vegas into an Amsterdam in the desert.
“When there’s a buck to be made, we’ll do it,” Segerblom said.
I asked Segerblom what he thought would happen next in the fight between the states and federal government, and he said, “We won,” citing Heller’s letter to Sessions as a sign that congressional Republicans are coming over to the pro-marijuana side, even if begrudgingly. Segerblom predicted that for Republicans, “marijuana will become like the gun issue,” something they don’t want to get on the wrong side of.
“People have moved on,” Segerblom said. “Why are we even still talking about it?”
One reason is because anti-marijuana prohibitionists like conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt haven’t given up pushing the Trump administration for a crackdown. In a radio interview with Sessions on the Thursday after the Nevada Cannabis Cup, Hewitt pressed Sessions to commit to prosecuting marijuana retailers under the federal racketeering laws. “One RICO prosecution against one marijuana retailer in one state that has so-called legalization ends this façade and this flaunting of the Supremacy Clause. Will you be bringing such a case?”
Sessions demurred—“I think it’s a little more complicated than one RICO case, I’ve got to tell you.”
The next Cannabis Cup is scheduled for April in San Bernardino, California. Mark your calendars.