By David Bienenstock

They arrive in Amsterdam like the huddled masses of European immigrants who landed at Ellis Island at the end of the 19th century: tired, cold, dazed, confused, sober—and yearning to be stoned. These pothead pilgrims reach the Cannabis Cup registration center in groups of two, three, sometimes 10 or more, often fresh from the airport, all seeking a new life in the land of marijuana freedom, if only for the next five days. Working behind the registration desk, sitting next to a stack of numbered, laminated judges’ badges, each representing somebody’s nice dream about to come true, I have the distinct pleasure of greeting a broad cross-section of humanity, assembled from every corner of the globe: the young and the old; black, white and all shades in between; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Rastafarians, Satanists, agnostics, atheists and those who just pray to God that someday pot will be legal where they live and around the world. All brought together by the simple love of a sacred plant—and to take part in what Cannabis Cup founder Steven Hager calls, with palpable understatement, a “harvest festival.”

“There’s a harvest festival for corn, cranberries, wheat, soybeans, everything grown in the earth,” Hager explains to a reporter from Reuters who’s come to visit the Cup’s massive expo floor. “So why not a harvest festival for cannabis?”

Why not indeed, particularly when you can entice more than 2,000 clandestine farmers and herb aficionados to gather together all at once and sample the goods, which this year include 23 distinct strains entered by Amsterdam’s infamous coffeeshops, plus 18 kinds of hash (both imported and domestic) and an additional 29 seed-company entries, divided into separate indica and sativa categories. And with the quality of smoke rising significantly once again this year, it’s clear that judging the field at the 18th Annual Cup will require some serious sampling stamina from anyone hoping to cast an informed vote at the end of the competition. For instance, Andy from California, a recent college graduate with the look of an honor student gone shaggy, made his first trip to Europe this Thanksgiving in order to “connect with the marijuana community” he’s felt a part of from afar since first lighting up sophomore year. His self-assigned mission: to collect at least one spliff’s worth of weed from each coffeeshop, seal each strain in an individual baggie and staple them all into a copy of the official Cannabis Cup guidebook on the appropriate page in order to create something akin to a smokable museum exhibit. Andy admits to me that he’s having too much fun meeting fellow heads and making new friends to do much serious comparing and contrasting during the Cup’s all-too-brief time frame, but he has wisely budgeted an extra two weeks in town, during which time he plans to judge at his own pace and name his own winner.

Most of the rest of us, unfortunately, have days, not weeks, to reach a final decision on the top herb in Amsterdam. For example, there are the two middle-aged guys from the Midwest in matching black leather jackets who decide to take a walking tour (no trams, taxis, vans, bicycles or canal boats) of every Cannabis Cup coffeeshop listed on the specially marked Amsterdam city map included in the official judges’ packet, a sojourn they complete in just two days, two hours and 45 minutes, including time off to eat, sleep and get stoned, of course. The dynamic duo credits a regimen of juice, water and hot tea with sustaining them throughout their long, thirst-inducing journey.

I also manage to make contact with Crazy Bob from Ohio, who bought the first two tickets sold, on the very day they became available on—one for himself and one for his daughter. I ask the 70-year-old veteran of eight Cannabis Cups what it’s like to live in the state with the harshest marijuana laws in the US. “I grow, but I do not sell and I do not tell,” he says, laying a grandfatherly hand on my shoulder. “And by the way, the only addictive thing about cannabis is the Cup.”