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.
"I love Johnny to death," he said of Pinches. "But I think he's all wet."
Marijuana is presumed to account for half to three-quarters of the Mendocino County economy, taking the place of dwindling logging and fishing industries.
Pinches, who grew up in Laytonville, said he watched people turn to pot farming as the sawmills shut down. "It was just a natural evolution," he said.
Liberty, who personally favors marijuana legalization, said Proposition 19 would worsen the county's economic woes.
Experts are at a loss to detail the measure's economic consequences, but they agree on one thing: prices will plummet and pot use will increase.
A RAND Corp. study released in July said the post-legalization retail price of marijuana would fall, likely by more than 80 percent, to as low as $38 an ounce, including retail markup.
Consumption likely will swell beyond the 4.2 million Californians now using 500 tons of pot per year, but the researchers said it is hard to pinpoint the increase, largely because no modern nation has ever sanctioned commercial pot production.
Increases in consumption of 50 percent to 100 percent or more couldn't be ruled out, the report said.
"California would be stepping into uncharted territory," said Beau Kilmer, lead author of the RAND report.Proposition 19 itself promises "billions of dollars" in annual revenues to "fund what matters most to Californians: jobs, health care, schools, libraries, roads and more."