Today, there are several High Times Cannabis Cup events around the world exalting the best the industry has to offer. But the OG Cup is the one first held in Amsterdam, over 30 years ago. It’s been a long journey, both for the Cup and for cannabis on a global scale. As we prepare to return to Amsterdam July 13-15, let’s take a look back at how we got here.
Cannabis Cup was founded by High Times’ then-editor-in-chief Steven Hager, who was inspired by stories of NorCal harvest festivals at which growers would get together and compare that year’s crops. Hager had previously traveled to the Netherlands in 1986 to write a feature on cannabis breeder Nevil Schoenmakers, who founded the first cannabis seedbank, and his infamous ‘cannabis castle.’
While the United States has made great strides in legalization in various states, it’s still rare to find a place where you can both buy and then immediately enjoy your flower. However, recreational consumption of cannabis in “coffeeshops” has been tolerated in the Netherlands since 1976. Amsterdam has the highest concentration of these shops, with well over 100 operating today. The ability to consume within these social environments—without fear of persecution—was one of the chief reasons why Amsterdam was chosen as the site of the very first competition in 1988, and it remains a huge draw for attendees today.
High Times Senior Cultivation Editor Danny Danko first attended a Cannabis Cup in the late 90s when working a booth for a hemp company. Since 2000, he’s been to a dozen or so Amsterdam Cannabis Cups, and has occasionally co-hosted the awards ceremony. He says he can still remember the freedom he felt his first time in Amsterdam.
“I ordered cannabis from a menu and then just sat down, rolled a joint, and had a cup of coffee and a smoke,” Danko said. “It was quite an emotional experience for me. You think about all the times [people] were kicked out of a venue or mistreated, or went to jail or were separated from their families. All these instances due to the war on [cannabis], and you finally find an oasis where you can actually relax.”
Kyle Kushman, veganic cannabis cultivator and former High Times cultivation editor, attended his first Cannabis Cup in 1994, during which he—a self-described “young upstart” at the time—advocated for organic growing over hydroponic with veteran cannabis growers Arjan Roskam of Green House and Positronics’ Wernard Bruining.
He recalls baking a batch of special cookies for the 12-hour flight, before landing in Amsterdam for the first time.
“Getting off the plane at Schiphol airport and realizing I was somewhere where cannabis was not illegal, I felt like Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. They call themselves that because the only law they break is they smoke cannabis, and that’s how I’d always felt. And here I was in this land that wasn’t going to consider me a criminal,” Kushman said. “And let me tell you, that first joint I smoked in a coffeeshop, I cried. And I’m not the only one.”
While today’s events feature an expo, concerts, panels, and educational events on top of the actual competition, the early days of the Cannabis Cup were much quieter. The first Cup consisted of only a handful of seed companies, judged by a small panel of experts. Among them was cannabis grower and advocate Ed Rosenthal, who was then employed as a High Times columnist and flew over specifically for the event. Cultivator’s Choice’s Skunk No. 1 took the top honors that year. After that, Schoenmakers bought out Cultivator’s Choice and won the Cup the following two years.
In the cup’s fourth year, the event transitioned into more of a coffeeshop crawl with establishments entering their own prized strains. This was due to the DEA’s Operation Green Merchant, which launched in 1989 under President George Bush. The operation, in part, targeted seed companies, which drove them underground. Adam Dunn of T.H. Seeds helped to orchestrate the first public expo and coffee shop crawl.
The addition of coffeeshop entrants prompted one of the event’s most significant and enduring changes: seed companies and coffeeshops were split into separate categories, and the public was now allowed to participate in judging the latter. That year, some 50 civilian judges cast their votes, ultimately choosing Free City’s Skunk as the winner.
Cannabis aficionados can still come to the Cup and cast their votes by purchasing a 3-day Judges Pass for €200.00 ($231), which includes access to the expo and awards, as well as all concerts, educational events, and podcasts. These passes do not guarantee free samples from coffeeshops, so guests should be prepared to purchase the strains they want to try.
Danko said that for these guests, the power to vote on coffeeshop strains provides a tangible way to shape the future of the industry, in part because winning a Cup can be a serious game changer for a company.
“Many coffeeshops and seed companies were made by winning the Cannabis Cup,” Danko said. “They put themselves on the map, literally, and the next year, everyone had to stop at that shop and get what they were selling. Fortunes and legacies have been made.”
Coffeeshops Green House and Barney’s are two such shops which, according to Danko, have become well-known thanks to their multiple wins and their continued rivalry over the coveted Cup. This keeps their shops full, even when the Cannabis Cup is over. Seed companies who got their start by winning a Cup include U.S.-based Rare Dankness Seed and U.K.-based Big Buddha Seeds. And what’s good for them is also good for the consumer, as it pushes cannabis companies to achieve greater heights.
“The desire to win a Cannabis Cup made people hungry to find new flavors, new potency, and new varieties that would help them win, and that’s improved the quality of cannabis worldwide,” Danko said.
Danko named a series of popular strains that have emerged or improved via the competition, including the frosty White Widow (Green House, 1995), and, more recently, Tangie (Seed Company Sativa, 2013). High Times Chief Revenue Officer Matt Stang also points to DNA Genetics, whose 2004 win in the Indica category for their L.A. Confidential strain launched their company. They have since gone on to win over 150 accolades and have operations in Amsterdam, California, Chile, and Canada.
“The Cannabis Cup has defined high-quality cannabis and created the concept of cannabis brands over the last 30 years,” Stang said. “As an attendee, you have the opportunity to find and pick the best product in the world to launch the new best cannabis.”
You don’t necessarily have to be a cannabis company to take home a prize. In 1997, the Counterculture Hall of Fame was founded to, according to Hager, “celebrate the history of the counterculture by recognizing its saints.” Some inductees accept their award in person, while others are represented by members of their family or estate.
The legendary Bob Marley was the Hall of Fame’s first inductee, posthumously, and his award was accepted by his wife, Rita. Other recipients have included beatnik writers Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs in 1999; Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in 2003; “Emperor of Hemp” Jack Herer in 2003; Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin in 2007; reggae musician Peter Tosh in 2008; High Times founder Thomas King Forcade in 2009; and New York rapper Coke La Rock in 2010. The first woman to be inducted was midwife Ina May Gaskin in 2000, who founded Tennessee commune The Farm Midwifery Center. Hager, the man who started it all, was inducted in 2012.
The nights leading up to these awards are full of musical experiences, all hosted at Melkweg (Dutch for “Milky Way”), a former milk factory that’s been operating as a venue since the 1970s. The concerts are always a highlight of the event, and past acts have included Fishbone, Cypress Hill, MF Doom, and Redman. This year’s Cup will see Afroman, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Ty Dolla $ign, Waka Flocka, OG Maco, Berner, and The Original Wailers.
“Not everybody gets to go on vacation these days. You save or you plan for a long time, and [going to the Cannabis Cup] is a really big vacation,” Kushman said. “You get to celebrate your culture and your pseudo-religion along with your vacation. It’s like a pilgrimage to Mecca or the Wailing Wall; it’s really a spiritual place for cannabiphiles.”
This year’s Cannabis Cup is July 13-15 in Amsterdam (the first year it’s been held in the summer instead of in November). Tickets are €70.00 for a single-day pass or €200.00 for all three days.
For more information and updates, follow us on social media and keep tuning in to CannabisCup.com. When you’re buying your ticket, plug in the promo code SMOKERSGUIDE10 for a discount! You can also download our new festival app, which has schedules, updates, and more, available on both iOS and Droid. See you soon!