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.