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Mendocino County's economic future may rest with a marijuana-fueled version of Wine Country, complete with tasting rooms, bud boutiques and pot-garden tourism.

"It's the only thing we have that brings money into the county," said Mendocino County Supervisor John Pinches, who believes that marijuana accounts for at least half of the county economy.

Estimates of the value of the county's pot crop range from $1.2 billion to $4.4 billion. In comparison, the county's total taxable retail sales were $1.3 billion in 2007, according to the Center for Economic Development at CSU Chico.

Pinches is one of many in the county who believe now is the time to start planning on how to capitalize on Mendocino's famous crop, should it become legal.

Local marijuana proponents and opponents alike widely believe legalization is inevitable, that regulation of the plant will be crucial to keeping it out of the hands of children and that taxation could boost county coffers and help offset the criminal and societal costs of making pot more widely available.

A measure that has qualified for the statewide ballot in November would make it legal for anyone over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and to grow it for personal use. Commercial operations would require government approval. It also would authorize local governments to regulate and tax pot, which remains a primarily underground economy despite being legal for medicinal use.

A Field Poll conducted in 2009 indicated 56 percent of Californians favor legalization. But marijuana would remain illegal under federal law, so it's unclear how passage of the measure would play out.

Nevertheless, the initiative has sparked speculation and debate over its possible effects. Some pot growers fear legalization will cause a precipitous drop in pot prices, while others see new business opportunities for counties that have a head start on name recognition.

A public forum on the future of marijuana was held in Humboldt County last week, and another is planned in Mendocino County this month. The two counties, along with Trinity County, comprise the world-famous "Emerald Triangle" and rank among the state's top marijuana producers.

The April 24 forum, "The Future of Cannabis in Northern California," will be held at the Saturday Afternoon Club in Ukiah. It's sponsored by marijuana advocates but will include law officials and business representatives.

"It affects our community, and it's time to have the discussion," said Bert Mosier, the chief executive officer of the Ukiah Chamber of Commerce and a scheduled speaker.

Visions for the future include marijuana smoking salons where people who are 21 or older could sample Mendocino County's best weed.

"I definitely think if they legalize it, that would be a market," said Matthew Cohen, who heads a medical marijuana cooperative near Ukiah.

Tours of marijuana cooperative gardens also could attract visitors to the county, he said.

It would be "exactly like wine tasting," said Wendy Roberts, a Mendocino business consultant and candidate for the county Board of Supervisors. Like many in Mendocino County, she worries about societal problems, including children having increased access to marijuana, but also believes legalization is inevitable and necessary for limiting its use to adults.

Advocates say Mendocino County is ideally situated to benefit from marijuana-related tourism because it's known worldwide for the quality and quantity of its product.

Shelters for Pawnee fire evacuees

Lower Lake High School, 9430 Lake St., Lower Lake, is the official shelter established for people evacuating from the Pawnee fire. It is equipped to handle animals.

The Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge, 15900 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, is not authorized by the Office of Emergency Services but is also sheltering fire evacuees, mostly people in campers and RVs who want their animals with them.

There is an authorized Lake County animal services station in an open field at Highway 53 and Anderson Ridge Road in Lower Lake.

Pot now is cultivated throughout the state, but Mendocino County remains among the top five producers of marijuana seized by law authorities. More than 450,000 marijuana plants were seized in Mendocino County during the state's annual pot-eradication effort in 2009, according to law officials. That's just about 10 percent of the 4.4 million marijuana plants seized in the state.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman estimates that only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the pot grown in the county is eradicated each year. That estimate is widely used to compute the value of the crop. The top estimate of $4.4 billion is based on a conservative assumption that each plant produces one pound of marijuana valued at $1,000, said Ellen Komp, of North Coast NORML -- National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. In fact, they can produce several times that much, she said.

Currently, an ounce of marijuana sells for $150 to $500 an ounce, said Aaron Smith, California policy director for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project.

A California Board of Equalization analysis estimates that legalizing and taxing pot in California could yield $1.4 billion in revenue if a $50-per-ounce levy were to be placed on retail sales in addition to sales tax.

Sales taxes alone would yield $392 million, according to the report.

The Board of Equalization analysis takes into consideration that prices will fall if pot is legalized. It estimates a drop of 50 percent, but states that consumption could increase by 40 percent as a result of the price drop.

The decline in prices is expected to take much of the profit out of pot, a concern for some underground operators. They also fear that big tobacco companies will step in and begin growing pot on farmland in the Central Valley, effectively killing North Coast production.

Smith, of the Marijuana Policy Project, believes prices will drop, but not as dramatically as some growers fear. "There's no reason to be concerned that the industry will go away," he said. Local growers who create niche markets, like organic and hand-picked marijuana, should do well, Smith said.

Many proponents of legalization say a drop in pot prices would be good. "It's way too expensive," said Mike Johnson, who runs a Mendocino County medicinal cannabis club. It would be more accessible for people who really need it for medicinal purposes if it was cheaper, he said.

Proponents of legalization say a decline in profit also would deter pot-related crime. Law enforcement officials don't buy the argument.

"You're still going to have a black market," said Mendocino County Sheriff's Capt. Kurt Smallcomb.

Of the estimated 8.6 million pounds of marijuana grown in California in 2006, only 1 million pounds was consumed within the state, according to the Board of Equalization analysis.

That means most of it is being exported to other states, where it would remain illegal unless the federal government decriminalizes marijuana. The exports will remain illegal and untaxed and continue to attract criminals to the state, law officials said.

"There's always going to be crime, greed and violence associated with marijuana, whether it's legal or not. Anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves," said Sheriff Allman.

Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen, who favors legalization if it's nationwide, said state legalization will not bring the kind of business citizens want.

"The tourists already are coming here. Unfortunately, they're bringing guns with them," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.

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