Marijuana samples are divvied up at The Green Solution booth during the High Times Cannabis Cup at the Denver Mart on April 20, 2014. (Seth McConnell, Denver Post file)

No free pot samples, or sales, allowed at this year’s Cannabis Cup in Denver

The free sampling of businesses’ marijuana, edibles and concentrates — a tradition that has long been a primary draw for fans of the annual Cannabis Cups that happen around the world — will no longer happen so freely at the Denver event.

The U.S. Cannabis Cup in Denver is High Times magazine’s largest event and likely one of the biggest ticketed marijuana parties in the world; the trade show, expo and festival takes over the Denver Mart in unincorporated Adams County every 4/20 weekend. But when the Cup opens its doors on Saturday at noon, it’s going to look and feel very different when compared to the sampling free-for-all of last 4/20.

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“Licensed cannabis businesses are not allowed to participate in the transaction of sampling or giving marijuana away at events like the Cup,” said Rhett Jordan, founding partner at the Native Roots chain of pot shops, interpreting an April 3 bulletin from Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division. “It’s going to be a little tricky … In the past, (businesses giving away cannabis) were definitely the main reason people came to the Cup, to experience the cannabis community in one place at one time and to try all your favorite companies and favorite strains for free under one roof.”

The MED’s landmark April 3 bulletin answers questions legal cannabis businesses have been asking for more than a year, and some in the industry argue that it may squash future Cannabis Cups and other related marijuana events in Colorado.

The bulletin explicitly says that “marijuana produced within the regulated system must remain in the closed system … until final sale to a patient or customer” and that license holders cannot sell their pot “at any off-premises site.” The MED’s bulletin also strongly encourages license holders “to locate any booth or exhibit table in an area away from and separated from any area designated for consumption of marijuana.”

Attendees, however, can still bring their own marijuana — up to an ounce — and legally share it with friends.

To understand the magnitude of the MED’s bulletin, it helps to know what the Cup has looked like in the past. A stroll through last year’s Cup at the same venue felt like another country altogether. Rows and rows of vendors were peddling glass pipes, T-shirts and vape pens in an outdoor parking lot that was permanently hot-boxed with pot smoke. Lines formed at all the sampling booths for cannabis flower, high-percentage concentrates, glass and dab rigs. A food truck gave away hundreds of pot-infused sandwiches, and the Incredibles booth hosted a surreal fountain of melted, infused chocolate that served more than 30,000 fans’ skewered marshmallows and pound cake.

“For months and months, even last year, we’ve been asking the MED for clarification on events like this,” said Bob Eschino, a partner at Medically Correct, which makes the popular Incredibles edibles in Colorado and hosted the spiked fountain at the 2014 Cup. “What is acceptable? What are you guys OK with? We want to do the right thing. All the licensed people here want to make sure we’re doing things that won’t get us in trouble.

“So we’re happy they came out with a bulletin that tells us what their expectations are. But the timing (of the April 3 bulletin) is terrible. Everybody has already spent tens of thousands of dollars on promotions and booths, so now we’re all rethinking our involvement. We’re actually trying to sell off our booth. We don’t want to be there. We don’t want there to be any sort of question on the legality of what we’re doing.”

While Incredibles was aiming to sell its Cup booth earlier this week, other businesses had already decided not to participate entirely.

“We’ve got a lot of members who decided not to participate this year because they want to make sure that they’re doing everything right, and they are also worried about how the Cannabis Cup affects the image of the industry,” said Mike Elliott of the Marijuana Industry Group. “These events have not had a lot of controls in place in the past, and the MED is making it clear that these events are not the exception to the rules that all licensees have to comply with.”

The new directions change the game for the businesses, but they will change the entire experience for the attendees who are expecting to get their fill of free samples for their $45-per-day tickets.

“It’s going to put a big damper on the Cannabis Cup,” said Andy Williams of Medicine Man, which has pot shops in Denver and Aurora. “It’s not going to be the same Cannabis Cup this year, which is a shame. It’ll be something we look back fondly upon years from now, because the sampling was a big part of it. It was one of the key reasons people went — where else can you go to get such a wide variety of things under one roof? It’s kind of like (the Consumer Electronics Show) for the marijuana industry: If you have a new anything, you’re going to be there.”

With no open sampling of marijuana and pot products, Williams wonders if Denver’s Cannabis Cup will return next year.

“I’m not sure the event will survive over time,” said Williams, who this year will hand out “golden ticket” coupons and offer a free shuttle from the Denver Mart to his Montbello location instead of operating a booth inside the Cup. “This year it’ll happen because a lot of people haven’t gotten the memo in terms of what’s happening. The industry got the memo from the MED, but the people driving in and flying in for the event might not understand the impact of what this all means. Maybe next year they’ll choose to go to a different event?”

The Cup also offers seminars on growing, the future of legalization and starting a cannabis business. (Full disclosure: The author of this piece will sit on a Cup panel this weekend.) It will also host on-site conversations (with Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann), on-site film screenings (“Super Troopers,” with some of the cast there) and off-site concerts (Snoop Dogg at Fiddler’s Green, Nas at Red Rocks). But in terms of the on-site activities, most agree that the sampling of marijuana is the primary reason people flock to the Cup.

“People are absolutely coming to the Cup for these free samples,” said Amy Dannemiller, who runs her cannabis businesses under the name Jane West. “I saw that when I was out at the consumption lot last year. The Cannabis Cup is based on utilizing and sampling these products.”

Cup presenter High Times didn’t have much to say about the MED’s bulletin and its potential implications on the event.

“Every Cannabis Cup has different rules and different roadblocks,” Dan Skye, High Times’ editor-in-chief, said generally before directing specific questions to the magazine’s attorney Cristina Buccola.

While Buccola said “the rules are very clear,” she said she couldn’t interpret the MED’s bulletin explicitly without subjecting her own legal license to certain liabilities.

“The MED has come down with a bulletin as recently as April 3 explaining its stance on marijuana events outside of immediate dispensary areas,” said Buccola. “We anticipate full compliance with the MED on High Times’ front, vendors’ front and attendees’ front. Compliance involves each vendor reading the regulations and guidelines.

“I don’t think that anyone who is going to come is going to walk away unhappy.”

The state’s MED will have investigators at the Cannabis Cup.

“While MED’s focus has been on proactively reaching out to the industry and stakeholders to reduce the likelihood of violations,” said Daria Serna, communications director with the MED, “investigators will be on site to continue that educational effort, monitor compliance and take enforcement action as appropriate.”

The Adams County Sheriff’s Office will also be on site.

“We’re going to deal with issues as they arise,” said Sgt. Aaron Pataluna, a spokesman for the Adams County Sheriff’s Office. “We will deal with any underage consumption or illegal sales that we observe. But our biggest concern is clearly public safety and intoxicated participants leaving the event, in traffic or on foot, and making sure everyone is safe.”

Meanwhile the Denver Mart staff is looking forward to one of its busiest weekends of the year.

“Anytime you pull 40,000 to 50,000 people into one space and have a captured audience, there’s going to be people making money, so you know it’s a very good event for us — and for pretty much everyone else involved,” said Ken Williams, director of event sales and operations at Denver Mart.

Williams added that the venue welcomes this year’s regulatory changes.

“Last year, dispensaries were able to bring some (marijuana), and it got shared freely amongst everybody,” Williams said. “(This year) the vendors are not able to share … and they can’t give samples either. At the end of the day, it’s probably better for us. It’s a worthy regulation to have in place.”