L.A. loves weed and L.A. loves farmers markets. So, of course, the Emerald Exchange, a cannabis farmers market that brings outdoor, artisan growers from Northern California down south, has been a hit among Angelenos since it began in August 2016.
Those who have attended may fondly look back on leisurely afternoons meandering among the various booths, talking to farmers, snagging prerolls, trying new products, rubbing topicals on their hands, sampling medicated goodies and inhaling the sweet, dank aroma of cannabis bud in large glass jars put on quaint, Instagrammable display.
The Emerald Exchange has gone through three iterations so far, twice in Malibu, once in Moorpark. But since the Jan. 1 launch of California's legal cannabis program, the organizers behind the farmers market, like all other cannabis businesses, are tackling a confusing set of new regulations. These rules dictate the most esoteric details of how the event can function, and could change its format altogether.
Regardless, the Emerald Exchange remains committed to bridging the culture gap between NorCal cultivators and SoCal consumers — with the largest market being Los Angeles. After all, your average dispensary experience probably pales in comparison to meeting farmers IRL and having them teach you about the plant you put in your body.
To put on a cannabis event, the organizers need both state and local approval. The Emerald Exchange has secured a state license but still needs local permitting from public fairgrounds to host the event. “Some are open to considering cannabis events, but many of those locations are already outright banning for now,” says Michael Katz, Emerald Exchange co-founder. One fairground told him they weren't “engaging in that genre” and wouldn't for at least a year.
According to Renee Fernandez, a spokeswoman for Pomona Fairplex, L.A.'s own public fairgrounds, the board decided not to host any cannabis events at this point. “They said it's still something they need to look into further,” she says.
As it happens, legalization can have a rather sobering effect when you're navigating the web of new laws alongside the bureaucratic headaches, all symptomatic of regulating cannabis. The landscape of legalization may not look exactly like the promised land of ganja many had imagined or thought they voted for when Proposition 64 passed. Cannabis events producers, cultivators, manufacturers, distributors and retailers alike are all experiencing growing pains.
“People grossly underestimate how highly regulated the system is becoming and how much capital they'll need,” says Aaron Herzberg, owner of Bud & Bloom dispensary in Santa Ana and founder of Puzzle Group, an entrepreneurial law firm advising clients on licensing.
Pre–Proposition 64 canna-business operators now must adhere to a laundry list of highly detailed rules regarding security plans, packaging, where products can be displayed and more. “We had to literally reconfigure the layout of our store,” Herzberg says. “The new licensing is really not well geared toward mom-and-pop operators. It's extremely cost-intensive and time-intensive.” Becoming compliant could cost more than $1 million, he says.
Supporting the mom-and-pops, however, is exactly what the Emerald Exchange aims to do. The event fosters connections between consumers and farmers to show where weed comes from and how it's grown. “We're responsible members of a responsible community, with a focus on lifestyle and education,” says Jessica Cure, Emerald Exchange co-founder. “We're telling [fairgrounds] we're educating on mindfulness and healthy choices around cannabis, so consumers can have a safe place to come together, try things and learn.”
The state law disallowing cannabis cultivators from selling directly to consumers (unless they hold a special license) creates another obstacle. In other words, if your favorite pastime is schnorring free samples at weed events, it's not as simple anymore as talking to farmers and trying their product — as you would at any other farmers market. “We've developed a couple different strategies for this, being that basically we will partner with retailers that do the selling,” Katz says. “Nothing is stopping cultivators and brands from having booths and doing brand ambassadorship, but they can't make the sales directly if they don't have a retail license.”
And because all the farmers participating in the Emerald Exchange will be licensed commercially by the state, they can't give away free samples either (you can only do that if you're not a commercial operator in the industry).
Every product needs to be tracked, traced and accounted for, Cure explains, so the event organizers are considering a couple of systems. One is to set up a local dispensary area, where you would purchase your product after choosing it and taking a ticket from a brand booth. As far as sampling goes, they're considering a system whereby consumers can get a pre-purchased card for samples, so they're not technically free.
“This is the transitional point where the community has to step up and say, 'OK, we're in a confusing situation with some rules that don't make sense,'?” Katz says. “Let's figure it out together and keep sharing the message about the importance of sun-grown cannabis and the small-batch cultivators who grow it.”
The challenge the Emerald Exchange faces exemplifies the confusing policies that other cannabis industry folk are struggling to comply with. But an event such as the Emerald Exchange is particularly important because it bridges that SoCal-NorCal relationship.
“Most retailers down here will tell you there's only a market for indoor flower, but what the new market is going to demand, especially in a health-conscious, eco-friendly community like L.A., is a different approach to their products,” Katz says. “The Whole Foods approach, the high-quality approach.”
The success of certain market sectors in the cannabis industry will depend on an educated consumer: someone who cares about mindful product, a farm's carbon footprint and best cultivation practices. “We believe the new market isn't only interested in the highest possible THC flower grown indoors under lights,” Katz says, “but that they'll respond to a natural product that comes from a gorgeous place that has this incredible heritage and history.”