Pot culture grows economy in Calif. county

The legalization of pot for medical purposes has revived Humboldt County.

McClatchy Newspapers

ARCATA, Calif. — Stephen Gasparas was destined for this fog-chilled, redwood-shrouded coast — America’s most renowned region for legal cultivation of marijuana.

He started growing skunky-smelling pot as a young man, in the closet of his mother’s suburban Chicago home. Later he visited cannabis fields in India. Ultimately, he shared spiritual puffs at a gathering of the famous moveable commune, the Rainbow Family, where a grizzled hippie told him Humboldt “is the place you ought to be.”

Today, Gasparas, 39, is a medical marijuana entrepreneur operating legally in Humboldt County. He has moved from cultivating pot for personal use to heading a cannabis growing and buying collective he says has served 4,000 medical marijuana users.

Humboldt County — and in particular the college town of Arcata — has become an epicenter for political and legal debate over the unintended consequences of Proposition 215, California’s “Compassionate Use Act” for marijuana.

Since passage of the act in 1996, medical marijuana users have streamed into this county, a liberal and libertarian bastion that decades ago began attracting pot growers.

Their now-legitimate business — aided, legal experts say, by Proposition 215’s vagueness on personal pot-use limits — has turned a so-called crop of compassion into a lucrative industry.

With the most wide-open cultivation policy in California, Humboldt County allows individual growers of medical marijuana three annual indoor harvests of 100 square feet, 99 plants and up to 3 pounds of dried marijuana at any one time.

In 2003, the state Legislature approved restrictions that limited medical marijuana users to six mature or 12 immature plants and 8 ounces of pot at one time. But the law allowed local governments to approve looser limits.

So in Humboldt, medical-pot users converted small town houses into growing factories — and bountiful earnings from sales to patient collectives and pot dispensaries across California.

In a North Coast “Kush” rush, local outfitters such as Humboldt Hydroponics in Arcata stack shelves with growing trays, high-intensity lights and plant nutrients called “Big Bud,” “Bud Candy” and “Voodoo Juice.”

Pot production — from nurseries that provide irrigation and growing supplies to dispensaries that generate sales tax — is a mainstay of the local economy.

“I would say that in 99 percent of cases, people growing medical marijuana are growing it for profit,” said Humboldt Sheriff’s Sgt. Wayne Hanson, who specializes in narcotics enforcement.

“It is the source of income for the county of Humboldt. Nobody wants to say that,” he added. “But there is no logging here anymore. Fishing is sporadic. And people make their living growing marijuana.”

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