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State's pot crop worth $14 billion, dwarfs wine grapes

As cash crops go, marijuana is a whopper.

The value of California’s 8.6 million-pound pot harvest is about $14 billion, dwarfing wine grapes at about $2 billion, according to state reports.

Making it legal, as Proposition 19 on the Nov. 2 ballot proposes to do, presumably would allow banks to lend money, businesses to hire workers and create distribution and retail networks.

“There’s definitely a positive economic impact,” said Robert Eyler, Sonoma State University economics department chairman.

But the catch, as Eyler and others point out, is that no one knows how the ballot measure — the handiwork of Oakland marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee — would play out.

Would the federal government stand by as acres of pot are planted in California? U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that authorities would continue to enforce federal marijuana laws in California.

Would cash-starved California cities and counties engage in a “race to the bottom,” setting tax rates low to woo pot commerce?

Would growers, suddenly confronted with taxation and bureaucratic regulation, elect to remain in a “black market” mode of operation?

“It would tax even the sharpest mind as to what this thing is going to look like,” said David McCuan, an SSU political scientist.

In marijuana-rich Mendocino County, anticipation of a lucrative marijuana tourism trade may conflict with the specter a colossal crash in the price of pot, possibly by as much as 80 percent.

“We have the reputation for the best pot in the world,” said John Pinches, a Mendocino County supervisor and rancher who has advocated legalization since 1995.

Eying the latest report on shrinking county sales tax revenue and the layoff of 376 county workers in the last four years, Pinches said taxing pot is a “no-brainer.”

But Ukiah businessman Ross Liberty said the county’s affection for marijuana cooled as strangers poured in to grow the weed and pot garden violence flared. With pot prices already falling, Liberty said, the county is due for an economic hit, as well.

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