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BENT INTENTLY over the plants, inspecting every tiny leaf and bud, they could be judges at the Chelsea Flower Show. But although they talk proudly about their successes with hybrids, debate the merits of seed catalogues and exchange horticultural tips, they don't quite conform to the strict stereotype of judges at a flower show. For a start, some of them are wearing dark glasses. Then there are their clothes, which involve a little more denim, a little less tweed, than one generally expects from members of the Royal Horticultural Society. There is rather more giggling, too, than one tends to hear at Chelsea. And then there are the exhibits themselves. They may look like common-or-garden plants, but they aren't. The plant which won this year's "Best Overall" category, for example, was neither rose, nor rhododendron, nor even giant cabbage. It was the "Jack Herer" - a huge, healthy and potentially mind-blowing marijuana plant named after a hero of the American pot-smoking world.

Such magnificent specimens are a common sight at the Cannabis Cup festival, which takes place every November in Amsterdam, the Mecca of the pot-smoking world. Every year, up to 700 pot pilgrims, or "Official Cannabis Cup Judges", from North America, Europe and Japan, converge on Amsterdam, where they join 1,000 or more local enthusiasts for the most important event in any serious pot-smoker's calendar. "The purpose of this festival," explains Steven Hager, editor-in-chief of the American magazine High Times and organiser and founder of the week-long event, "is to establish a standard for the quality of cannabis seed and to celebrate the wonderful uses of this plant."

Pot-smokers are supposed to be laid-back types, but one should not underestimate the competitiveness of the cannabis-growing fraternity, or the dedication of the judges. Part- icipants are expected to undergo gruelling sampling tours of Amsterdam's numerous coffee shops, many of which sell a huge variety of cannabis. (Growing and selling the herb are not officially tolerated in the Netherlands, but the police will turn a blind eye if small quantities are involved.) Judges also have to sample products and choose winners in categories including: Best Overall, Best Bio, Best Hydro, Best Import, Best Amsterdam Coffee Shop, Best Coffee Shop Outside Amsterdam, Best Booth at the Hemp Expo, not to mention the Bonus Cup. There are also seminars on various subjects, including, this year, the "Bio versus Hydro" debate. (Traditional marijuana-growers favour "bio", or soil-based, production; modernists say that the increasingly popular "hydroponic" method of growing, in which plants are grown indoors in sand and water impregnated with nutrients, produces better crops.) There are also legalisation meetings, stalls selling various cannabis products (hemp meat substitute, hemp cat litter, hemp clothes, hemp soaps and shampoos), and this year there was a visit to the Dutch countryside to see Cannabis Castle, where the Sensi Seed Company developed its winning "Jack Herer".

It is possible to smoke a different strain of marijuana every hour for a week at the Cup, and failure to observe the restraint of a wine- taster can have interesting results. Some "judges" have difficulty remembering their own names by the end of the Cup, let alone making informed horticultural judgements. But whatever the drug's potentially damaging effects, they all say that they won't forget to come back next year. !