Medical Marijuana's Eco Boomtown

When Stephen Gasparas arrived in Humboldt County in late 2004, he was driving a VW Westfalia pop-top camper on the verge of breaking down and had only $100 in his pocket.

Gasparas, who ran a flooring business in Chicago before heading west, seems to have found far greener pastures in Humboldt County's medical marijuana industry.

Less than four years later, the owner of the Arcata iCenter, a collective marijuana dispensary, is now driving a new hybrid Toyota Highlander and bringing in about $100,000 a year. (And judging by the foot traffic in and out of the iCenter, that figure is a modest estimate.)

But Gasparas, 38, is just one of many in Humboldt County and throughout California benefiting from the booming medical marijuana industry.

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Exactly how much the Golden State has made in pot profits is a hazy figure, mostly because California doesn't keep exact numbers on the sales tax on medical marijuana.

It's estimated that $143 million in medical marijuana sales have netted $11.4 million in state and local taxes annually, based on registered businesses, California State Board of Equalization spokeswoman Anita Gore said. And those estimates are small compared with those in a 2006 report co-written by California NORML state coordinator Dale Gieringer, which said that Californians consumed between $870 million and $2 billion worth of medical marijuana per year.

Of course, marijuana is nothing new to Humboldt County.

Humboldt, part of Northern California's Emerald Triangle, has long been known for its high-grade marijuana crop, which has been immortalized on merchandise, including "Got Humboldt?" T-shirts, skateboards that feature weed and the words "Humboldt Gold," and an upcoming movie named -- what else? -- "Humboldt County." One recent study by Steven Hackett, an economics professor at Humboldt State University, estimated marijuana brings in as much as a half billion dollars to the county's economy.

Those who believe Hackett's number is much too high probably have not wandered through the streets of cities like Arcata, enjoying the sights -- and scents -- of Humboldt.

At the recent I-Block Party, a fundraiser for Arcata's sister city, Camoapa, Nicaragu, the heavy scent of pot hung in the warm air as the crowd grooved to a reggae band.

Humboldt Glassblowers, a local shop featuring work by local artists, offers a seemingly endless supply of gorgeous swirled glass pipes -- not to mention hookahs, Frisbees and magazines like "High Times" and "420 Magazine." There, it seemed hard to go anywhere without smelling ganga, or at least spotting some reference to it.

For years, Humboldt County has enjoyed the benefits of a booming underground economy. But changes to state laws -- such as the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, when voters approved the medical use of marijuana -- mean that many engaged in cultivation and sales are trying to follow state medical marijuana laws. Or at least some of them are making an effort, and in doing so are pouring money into local and state tax coffers.

The City of Arcata declined to disclose specific taxes paid on medical marijuana sales by local businesses, calling that "proprietary information." But the city's finance director, Janet Luzzi, said one dispensary in town is among Arcata's top 25 producers of sales tax, and has been for several quarters.

"It's not always there," Luzzi said. "But it's often there."

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