Next to the screaming children on carnival rides, the foot-long sausages, and the pens crammed with prized pigs and cattle, the Oregon State Fair in Salem, Oregon, is starting a new fair tradition: a display of top-notch marijuana.
It's the first state fair to show off live cannabis plants, which pot growers and spectators alike say is proof of the changing times and attitudes toward legal weed.
So far, about 1,000 people have passed through the exhibit each day since the fair started last week, according to Don Morse, chairman of the Oregon Cannabis Business Council, which is sponsoring the exhibit. A security guard protects the nine-plant display, which runs from August 26 through September 5 and is only accessible for those 21 and up. When people file into the greenhouse, many whip out their phones, asking others to take photos of them posing with the plants.
"My end goal is is to destigmatize cannabis to make it just like any other plant," Morse told me. "I want people to leave that room going, 'I don't see what the big deal is about cannabis.'"
Recreational marijuana was officially legalized in July 2015 after Oregon voters approved a ballot measure the year before. That means anyone over 21 can use and possess up to eight ounces of marijuana, while adults can grow up to four plants at home as long as they're out of public view.
Right now, there are about 400 licensed pot retailers in Oregon, but the state estimates that number will grow to 550 by 2019, according to the Oregon Department of Revenue. So far, the program has been an economic success, generating more than $25 million in tax revenue in the first half of 2016.
After recreational weed was legalized, the Oregon Department of Agriculture said it considered Oregon-grown cannabis to be an agricultural crop—but getting the live plants into the state fair was still tricky. Morse said it took six months of negotiations before he successfully made the case for cannabis to be treated just like the other crops—sweet corn, giant squash, and heirloom tomatoes—that are entered into state fairs across the country.
And the nine plants on display are special: They were dubbed the winners of the Oregon Cannabis Growers' Fair, a contest held about two weeks ago to select the best plants that would go on to the state fair. Most marijuana contests grade the flower—the part of the plant that you smoke—but the growers' fair was among the few to judge the plants in the "veg" stage, before they start to bud.
Growers from around the state submitted about 60 entries in the competition, which scored the plants based on characteristics including the aroma, leaf structure, and shape of the plant. The contest was divided into three categories (indica, sativa, and hybrid), and first, second, and third-place winners earned a spot at the state fair.
Ed Rosenthal, who calls himself the "guru of ganja," oversaw judging at the contest. Compared to more traditional flower competitions, picking the best vegging plants requires much more subtlety and observation because each strain looks different, he told me. And when it comes down to it, a slight wilting and dulling of leaf color could make or break a grower.
"You know how when somebody is ill their skin color changes a little bit?" said Rosenthal. "It's on that kind of subtle gradient."
Daniel DeMeulle took first prize in the hybrid category for "Whitaker Blues," a strain known for producing a calm and lazy high. DeMeulle said he's been growing for more than 13 years and put about 70 hours of work into his two-month-old, female cannabis plant. Although he's overseen grow operations for a number of dispensaries, this plant came from his personal collection.
"It's a really finicky plant," DeMeulle told me. "So if you don't have everything just right, it won't come out the best it can be."
At the state fair, DeMeulle sipped a neon-green slushy while explaining how he checks on all of his home grows at least twice a day for humidity levels and temperature. Since he farms cannabis in soil instead of using a hydroponic system, he has to keep a close eye out for pests such as spider mites, gnats, and fungus.
"Pests can be a big problem," said DeMeulle. "If you don't know what you're dealing with, they can ruin your crop in a number of days."
Danny Grimm, owner of a pot farm called Uplifted, took home blue ribbons in the two other categories—Granddaddy Purple for indica, and Super Sour Diesel for sativa. He grew the plants using a hydroponic system and has been checking on them about every two hours since they arrived at the state fair.
"It is kind of a lot of work to [maintain] the temperatures because it's hot here," Grimm told me. "But we haven't had anyone, like, pull the leaves or hurt the plant at all."
Grimm said he's been growing medical marijuana for the last 12 years but plans to shift to recreational pot in the future. Right now, medical marijuana dispensaries in Oregon can sell recreational marijuana products, but only until the end of the year, when the first licenses for recreational-marijuana stores are made available.
If flowered, Grimm said each of his plants could yield between one and one-and-a-half pounds of bud—roughly $2,400 to $3,600 per plant. From the "veg" stage, it would take another 55 to 70 days to produce mature flowers.
Despite the cash value of the plants, Morse said many of the winners don't plan to bud them. Instead, some growers will probably opt to clip off leaves in order to clone the prize-winning plants' genetics.
"After 10,000 or more people have been through the fair, who knows, that's a lot to put on the poor little girls," Morse said. "One guy said he's going to feed it to a goat—seriously."
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