Swap the Dungeness crab cakes and peasant skirts for lobster rolls and L.L. Bean khakis, and this snug seaside hamlet a few hours north of San Francisco could be a dead ringer for a New England village. (It was a stand-in for Cabot Cove, Maine, in the long-running TV series Murder She Wrote.)
But if California voters approve a controversial ballot proposition in November to tax and legalize marijuana for recreational use -- and it's ahead in several polls -- some local growers say Mendocino, pop. 900, might become better known as the tourist capital of a "Napa Valley of cannabis."
The notion of opening marijuana-tasting rooms, meet-the-grower tours and ganja-friendly "bud and breakfasts" in Northern California's pot-farming "Emerald Triangle" is like "tearing down the Berlin Wall. It's not going to happen overnight," says Matthew Cohen of MendoGrown. His 12-member association promotes a "sustainably grown medical cannabis industry" in the county, where legal and illicit pot -- sanctioned for medical use by California residents since 1996 -- fuels an estimated half to two-thirds of an economy once anchored by fishing and timber.
Still, he says, passage of Proposition 19 would mobilize entrepreneurs and help jump-start a sluggish tourism industry by putting "Mendocino County on the map as a vision of what cannabis country could look like. The vibration is already here, and if you love (marijuana) enough to smoke it in a coffeehouse, why wouldn't you want to come out and enjoy it at the source?"
Efforts to prevent legalization "are like trying to put your finger in a 100-foot wave," adds longtime resident Tim Blake. Host of an annual Emerald Cup cannabis competition that drew 100 entries last year, the medical marijuana producer wants to turn Area 101, his 150-acre "spiritual and retreat center" near Laytonville, into a springboard for hemp burgers and public hayrides through his heavily guarded (and legal) collection of OG Kush and Sour Diesel plants.
Hemp shakes and cannabisseries? They're pipe dreams, counter many Mendocino tourism promoters, law officials and business owners.
While 14 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana use in some form, California's groundbreaking Prop 19 would authorize any adult 21 and older to possess, share or transport up to 1 ounce regardless of jurisdiction, and let each city and county decide whether to approve and tax commercial sales.
Proponents say legalization would weaken criminal activity by Mexican drug cartels and funnel as much as $1.4 billion a year into the state's dangerously depleted coffers.
But opponents, including most state officeholders and candidates, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Police Chiefs Association, argue it would create a hodgepodge of enforcement, boost the ranks of impaired drivers and keep cartels underground to avoid paying taxes.
What's more, they say, it would be in direct conflict with -- and superseded by -- federal law.
Famous for its dramatic headlands, redwood groves and down-home wineries producing world-class Pinot Noirs, Mendocino County draws about 2 million visitors a year, mostly from Northern California, to an area that's bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined but home to just 90,000 residents.