ARCATA — Stephen Gasparas was destined for this fog-chilled, redwood-shrouded coast — the nation's most renowned region for legal cultivation of marijuana.
He started growing 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 movable 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 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, outfitters such as Humboldt Hydroponics in Arcata stack shelves with growing trays, high-intensity lights and plant nutrients.
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."
Under California law, anyone with a doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana can join a patient cooperative and get compensated for providing the network with pot for its members.
But few envisioned the burgeoning industry that has taken root in Humboldt, where medical marijuana users are marketing their excess plants to cannabis cooperatives and dispensaries hundreds of miles away.
"Many growers are exploiting vagueness in the medical marijuana laws and will continue to do so until the law is clarified," said state Deputy Attorney General Peter Krause.
State law permits nonprofit cooperatives, such as the Humboldt Patient Resource Center in Arcata, to grow medicine for members.
In a fragrant room where he tends plants for hundreds of patients, gardener Kevin Jodrey shows off pot "cultivars" like a winemaker touting prize-winning varietals.
He points out his "Northern Lights Blueberry" plant, a hybrid of Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa strains that patients tell him "is an excellent pain and inflammation reducer and helps people sleep." He talks up his "Train Wreck," a C. sativa plant with "a cerebral effect."
California's cultivation laws are more hazy when it comes to some of the other medical marijuana operations sprouting in Humboldt. Authorities and growers alike report instances in which as many as a half-dozen medical marijuana users join to grow hundreds of plants in a single home. They dry and package exotic marijuana strains they sell to multiple dispensaries and networks in Los Angeles and other cities.
Krause said state law is unclear whether "collectives in urban areas can have remote members in distant counties whose only job is to grow the medicine."
Besides legal growing, Hanson said, Humboldt authorities confront illegal operations, including grow houses that vastly exceed plant limits and have little to do with medical use. He said growers are victimized in home invasions.
Arcata got fed up with stench-filled pot houses disrupting neighborhoods and creating fire risks with grow lamps and dangerous wiring.
Last year, it restricted medical pot growers to 50 square feet of growing space and set limits on electricity use. The county is considering a similar policy.
Randy Mendosa, Arcata's police chief and acting city manager, said the town is sick of its notoriety. The Arts & Entertainment TV network recently dubbed Arcata "Pot Town, USA," and its cannabis culture drew coverage from the Sunday Telegraph in London.
"We have been oversaturated with this," Mendosa said. "It's becoming damaging to the community."
Even Gasparas was shocked by the pot prevalence when he came to Humboldt in 2004.
"I didn't know there was a waterfall of weed," he said.
He got a physician's recommendation for medical pot, citing back pain and congestion, and began growing. His "Purple Hindu Kush" became a hit at dispensaries.
Gasparas' iCenter medical marijuana collective operates dispensaries in Arcata and Mill Creek, as well as Redding in Shasta County. He says the nonprofit network pays him a "compassionate" salary of more than $100,000 a year.
In Arcata, the nonprofit Humboldt Cooperative pays $3,200 a pound to its network of up to 150 growers.
"We're a paradox. We're a legal business in an illegal world," said THC director Dennis "Tony" Turner, whose cooperative has provided pot to 8,500 California patients since its inception in 2003.
Turner figures the collective pays its growers $35 to $60 an hour.
Seeking new line of work
Michele Cotter and Jaye Richards, two 49-year-old Arizona women, would like to try growing legal pot. They moved to Humboldt County this year.
They got freshly minted medical pot recommendations for whiplash and hypertension. Then they stopped at THC, looking over jars of "Pot Pourri" and "Bud Crumble" and buying a few marijuana caramels.
"I've never used it in my life. ... But maybe I could make some money," said Cotter, who is studying at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine.
Richards is trained as a chef. A property manager racked by the economy, she decided becoming a pot grower and baker was an ideal alternative.
"People need to feel better. And there's always a market for that," she said.
There may be new markets. Last year, a state appellate court threw out restrictive plant limits for pot patients that are standard in most counties. If the state Supreme Court upholds the ruling in a decision due in February, Humboldt-style medical cannabis harvests could become more common elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Humboldt medical growers watch anxiously as signature gatherers circulate petitions for four 2010 ballot measures seeking to legalize marijuana for all adults.
Gasparas fears legalization could replace Humboldt's medical growers with big agribusiness and low-grade "factory bud."
But Turner is setting up a computerized "virtual grow room" to organize his Humboldt cultivators to compete in a fully legal pot market.
"The people who do this legally are good people," he said. "We don't want to be outlaws. We want to be survivors. ... We want to avoid seeing our local economy go into the toilet."