420 Day: Medical Marijuana's Big Bash

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 a 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 I-Block Party this fall, 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 ganja, or at least spotting some reference to it.

Marijuana Economy

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."

Other medical marijuana dispensaries, however, recently received written reminders from Luzzi.

"Not all of them were paying taxes," she said.

And taxes aside, most here acknowledge marijuana sales have for years contributed to county finances.

Vocal medical marijuana advocate Martha Devine was sitting on a park bench in the flower-lined Arcata Plaza, near a large circle of people kicking around a hacky sack and dozens of dancers. A steel drum band was playing for an enthusiastic crowd, and shoppers were wandering in and out of stores.

"The economy of Humboldt County would have ceased to exist a long time ago without it," said Devine, glancing around the plaza. "This county was built on marijuana."

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