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For more about pot culture and trends, check out The Marijuana Empire blog here

As millions of marijuana aficionados light up Wednesday at 4:20 p.m. in celebration of “Weed Day,” many are blissfully unaware of the increasing interest that investors with deep pockets are showing in their favorite psychoactive herb.

A green rush is on in the marijuana industry, with legal sales of cannabis rising by a billion dollars or more each year nationwide, according to one report, and venture capitalists pouring millions into marijuana enterprises ranging from computer software and social networks to storage bags, vaporizers and insurance.

The economic trend, which has some North Coast pot growers worried about competition from corporate giants, is already playing out in Santa Rosa, where the City Council voted in February to allow commercial cultivation in industrial areas, a move that could greatly expand the scale of medicinal pot operations.

Joe Rogoway, a Santa Rosa attorney for the cannabis industry, said investors are buying and renovating warehouses intended for marijuana cultivation, creating jobs and boosting payrolls that have a ripple effect through the local economy.

“There is a significant amount of capital going toward the cannabis industry,” Rogoway said. The investments range from smaller family-owned operations and personal savings to dollars poured in by venture capitalists, he said.

The activity has accelerated in the wake of California’s recent moves to regulate and tax medical marijuana. Industry observers see that framework as a potential predictor of the regulatory landscape that could take shape should state voters approve recreational pot use come November.

Sonoma County could have a significant role in the booming business, industry representatives said.

Mara Gordon, founder of Aunt Zelda’s, a manufacturer of three cannabis-based medical products in Bodega Bay, envisions the county as the “medical cannabis center of the world,” strategically situated between the Emerald Triangle pot growing region to the north and the urban Bay Area.

Capital investment is crucial to startups in any business, said Gordon, a former process engineer for Safeway. But she’s also wary of medical cannabis investors intent on a quick buck, a type she refers to as “hemp hustlers.”

“The last thing we want to become is Colorado, which is basically Las Vegas (for marijuana users),” Gordon said. Colorado and Washington voters were the first to legalize marijuana in 2012.

The expansion of the industry presents other risks to longtime local growers, said Tawnie Logan, executive director of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance. She is concerned that businesses with “no connection to the community” will buy up chunks of land for pot farming and gain a competitive advantage.

One of the marijuana legalization measures vying for a spot on the November ballot sets no limit on the size of a growing operation effective in 2023, she noted.

“People are salivating over the California marketplace,” said Hezekiah Allen, head of the nearly 500-member California Growers Association, which also wants to protect the current operators of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 farms. “The product is already putting people to work in communities every day.”

The value of the state’s medical marijuana industry has been estimated by state officials at $1 billion, though pot investment promoters say it is far higher.

Legal sales nationwide hit $5.7 billion in 2015, up from $4.6 billion the previous year, according to a market report by The ArcView Group, an Oakland-based cannabis investment and research firm. Its website touts cannabis as “the next great American industry.”

With more states expected to legalize pot this year, sales should rise 26 percent to $7.1 billion in 2016, and continue soaring, reaching $22.8 billion in 2020, the report said.

ArcView’s network of more than 500 “high net worth investor members” have put more than $70 million into 111 companies “in the cannabis space,” said Troy Dayton, co-founder and CEO of the firm started in 2010.

California currently accounts for 48 percent of national legal cannabis sales, amounting to $2.7 billion in 2015 and expected to swell to $6.4 billion in 2020, when the California’s share of the national market will have shrunk as more states legalize marijuana, Dayton said.

“The trend for investment in California is explosive,” Dayton said, citing the state licensing system for medical marijuana approved last year and the expectation that voters will legalize adult use of the drug.

“Northern California is the spiritual and cultural home of cannabis,” Dayton said. “This is our time to show the rest of the world how it’s done.”

Venture capitalists are turning on to the prospective payoff from legal pot.

CB Insights, a New York-based venture capital research firm, reported investments totaling nearly $322 million in private cannabis companies since 2011, with the vast majority — $215 million — invested last year. In 2011 and 2012, a mere $800,000 was invested, according to the ArcView report published in February.

“Despite being an industry in regulatory flux, investors continue to ramp up their activity in the legal cannabis industry,” the report said, noting that nearly $94 million was invested in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

Gordon, who processes marijuana for her products, said that most venture capital investments have been made in ancillary businesses, such as grow lights, vaporizers and fertilizer. Recently, she said, investors are “touching the plant,” putting their money into cultivation and handling of the weed itself.

“It’s a gray area to be investing in,” she said, since federal law still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug with no accepted medical use, along with heroin, ecstasy and LSD.

Investors are typically interested in a “fairly sure thing,” rather than a commodity “that can be confiscated by the sheriff,” Gordon said.

Another marker of marijuana’s burgeoning economic status is the “Join the GreenRush” job fair set for April 30 at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco. More than 30 cannabis companies will participate, offering employment in traditional pot jobs like cultivation and trimming, as well as regular business positions in marketing, graphic design, customer service and social media management, said Jude Widman, the job fair director.

GreenRush, which operates a technology and marketing platform for cannabis delivery services, is sponsoring the job fair in celebration of its first anniversary, Widman said.

Among the participating companies will be Bud and Breakfast, a Colorado-based booking site that connects travelers with cannabis-friendly accommodations. The company currently lists 160 properties in more than a dozen countries on three continents.

Where legal, properties may offer “cannabis provided” packages, such as “two joints on a pillow,” said Sean Roby, Bud and Breakfast CEO.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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