San Jose’s HempCon Expo: Bikini Girls, Bongs Galore, & (Ahem) Medical Marijuana

In California, not only is marijuana on the cusp of being legal (it’s walking a razor’s edge), but it’s big business. Think expo halls full of half-naked females being leered at by middle-age, judiciously stoned men. At this year’s Hempcon 2011 in San Jose, California — the basic conceit of which is, “So, you want to open a marijuana dispensary?” — there was plenty of both to go around. Also on hand were lawyers offering counsel on compliance, doctors looking for a quick buck, support infrastructure (in the form of everything from lamp salesmen to grow-room consultants), people who want to get their products into stores (in this case bong-makers, T-shirt printers, and vending machine salesmen), and swag, or, er, freebies (in this case “Doob Tubes” imprinted with a lawyer’s name instead of the more traditional pens). Hempcon is a bizarro-world version of any ordinary trade show, glimpsed through a thick cloud of smoke — more lost Cheech and Chong footage than gambit for legitimacy. More likely than not, it’s also a glimpse of what’s going to save California’s broken and battered economy in the not-too-distant future.

From Comic-Con to the National Boat Show, uncomfortable would-be models in too-skimpy clothing are a hallmark of tradeshows, and why should Hempcon be any different? The producers of the event, Mega Productions, seem to pride itself on the “talent” it provides. The fabulous ladies of Hempcon come from all walks for a singular purpose: To hand you a business card with a heavily-airbrushed picture of themselves in a bikini on it and tell you that they “do some modeling.”

Nothing says “serious medical issue” quite like boobie nurses.

Remarkably a “lab technician” (she had a lab coat over her green bikini) for one of the many medicinal marijuana referral services refused to be photographed while smoking a cigarette (Marlboro Light, not the funny kind). After her smoke break she was perfectly happy to show off the “420-Approved” patches on her coat, however.

The general public was a bit more subdued in their attire, mostly resembling the crowd at any suburban shopping mall, perhaps with a few more orange “Let Timmy Smoke” T-shirts (a reference to San Francisco Giants Cy Young award-winner Tim Lincecum, who was busted for pot possession in 2009) than usual.

It was easy to forget that the ostensible purpose of Hempcon is to provide information and education on medical marijuana. There were even two or three people with visible ailments among the throngs filling the hall — a man dragging a walker toward a display of Bob Marley T-shirts here, a wheelchair rolling up to a case of light-up neon bongs there. A heating pad manufacturer, however, seemed woefully out of place next to the booth for the Pipe Mug, “the only mug with a pipe in it!”

Nearby, a guy who looks every bit the heavy-toking biker was pitching his “Highway Shooter” joint holders, explicating all the remarkable ways an inch-and-a-half of brass can augment your high. The creator of the Highway Shooter says he’s field-tested the device on a motorcycle at 70 miles an hour with an unlit joint, and while the joint bent it half, it did not come out of the shooter. Ask him why the device is called what it is, and he’ll tell you it’s because “Highway backwards is Way High.” He’s here all night, folks. image By far the hottest item at the expo, judging by the lines at least, were referrals for medical marijuana cards. Festival-goers assembled four and five deep, waiting to get the call for a consultation. The cards went for $50 a pop at the several booths hawking them (most hosted by girls in bikinis or hot pants or nurse’s uniforms). And the expo organizers very clearly pushed this aspect of its “Medical Marijuana Show.” Mega staff even encouraged a visitor from New York to line up and get a card, the legality and usability of which seemed extremely dubious.

The state patient ID’s were required for admittance to the Prop 215 Area of the expo hall (named, of course, for the law that allows Californians with a valid doctor’s referral to possess marijuana for personal use, which voters passed in 1996) where one found booths from dispensaries and actual cannabis products (from lollipops to large plants) with a big draw being giveaways and “extremely discounted meds.” While there was no smoking allowed inside the expo the strong odor of pot filling the hanger-like building was undeniable, and for a $20 admittance fee, one could catch a pretty strong contact high with a few deep inhales.

However, the dingy hall was an altogether unpleasant place to enjoy such a high, despite wafting cannabis odors and the happy smiles of those who’d been lucky enough to win pot plants after spinning the “Cone or Clone” wheel for $5. Music would have helped enormously, and live acts had been planned, but Mega Productions apparently neglected to pay some fee to San Jose, and the acts had to be canceled. A schedule of events had been pulled off the event’s website, and Mega did not return requests for comment. Management for the LA-based rapper A-Game, who was to perform his ode to pot-smoking “I Love You Mary,” confirmed that performances were cancelled the day before the event. image One performer, Jahrahzen, had showed up on Friday night with drum in hand, in full mystical shaman regalia, only to be roughly shuffled to a folding chair in a damp corner of the hall. He took the relative indignity with the good nature you’d expect from a man carrying a feather-festooned staff and wrapped in a blanket covered in images of wolves. Eventually, his small group was given a spot on the floor where they could beat their drums and gourds, though the gentle rhythm was lost in the festival hum for the most part.

As tends to happen at pot parties, a certain paranoia descended. Extremely long and poorly managed waits to get into the Prop 215 persisted throughout the weekend and contributed to the sense of unease. The barker in the top hat at the Pipe Mug booth started to look a little shaky, even as he declared the invention, “U.S. patent pending.” After all, he’d been filling his Pipe Mug with beer all day. He nervously eyed a passerby, slurring, “Don’t I know you?” and then “Didn’t you give me that book in Denver?” only to be met with a shrug. “Are you in the Yes Men?” he asked.

And despite the large signs at the entrance warning of the presence of cameras and recording equipment and telling attendees that by entering they were consenting to be photographed, a cashier at the Be Legally Green (BLG) medical marijuana recommendations booth got a little freaked out by the cameras toward the end of the day. “You have to delete that picture,” she barked at a photographer who had just snapped a picture of her with money in hand, and chased him through the hall prattling on about doctor-patient confidentiality.

Simply put, this likely was not the best place for those suffering from anxiety — one of the most commonly-given medical reasons for marijuana being recommended. Throughout, the event staff was boorish and, to paraphrase, “very undude,” generally speaking to the crowd as if dealing with a bunch of dazed toddlers (probably not far off, actually), announcing directives such as, “Please leave through the exit. It’s the large hole in the side of the building.” image

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