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.
Despite its reputation as a refuge for "back-to-the-landers" who took advantage of the rugged terrain and skimpy population to grow high-quality and highly profitable strains of pot, "I'd hate to see people coming up here because of what they think we are, instead of who we really are," says Lark Melesea. She sells hemp clothing at a Mendocino shop called Twist and wants the "sacred herb" used for healing rather than "getting blotto."
If Prop 19 passes, Melesea adds, "the last thing we want to be is a pot-based Disneyland."
Marijuana "is part of the social fabric of our nation, one way or another," says Sheriff Tom Allman, and "the days of sending people to prison for a seed are over. It's the green rush of the new millennium." But he says Prop 19's inconsistencies and loopholes doom it to failure, and it wouldn't stem a growing wave of cartel-related violence that has included multiple armed raids in the vast, deceptively scenic reaches of Mendocino National Forest.
"We're entering uncharted territory," says Visit Mendocino County's Scott Schneider, digging into a Thai burrito with organic tofu at the Mendocino Café. "But we're certainly not going to promote something that's still illegal at the federal level." Weed aficionados "are not our target audience," he says.
Right on cue, diner Matt Kotlarczyk lowers his fork to join the debate. A Cincinnati-based sculptor who's winding his way up the California coast, Kotlarczyk didn't choose Mendocino for its counterculture, ganja-friendly ambience. But, he says, "it's definitely an enhancement."
Mendocino isn't the only California destination calculating whether, and how, to attract similar-minded travelers.
Joey Luiz, a winery sales manager who's running for city council in neighboring Lake County, says marijuana tourism could be a plus: "We've struggled to find any kind of industry, and the more bodies you can bring in, the better." Farther north in Siskiyou County, Dunsmuir Mayor Peter Arth has been nicknamed "Mayor Juana" for his support of a downtown pot garden, across from the sheriff's substation, to draw visitors and provide organic marijuana to patients.
And in a hardscrabble swath of downtown Oakland dubbed "Oaksterdam," Segway tours already cruise by Oaksterdam University (a trade school that has trained more than 12,000 students in how to grow marijuana), medical dispensaries stocked with pot-laced Belgian chocolates, and a souvenir store that peddles ganja-themed boxer shorts.
But marijuana doesn't always translate to a tourist pot of gold: Though Amsterdam's laissez-faire coffeehouses have drawn smokers for decades, the Dutch border city of Maastricht recently voted to ban sales to foreigners in a bid to stave off an influx of weed-seeking backpackers.
Along Mendocino County's Anderson Valley wine trail, Raul Touzon of Miami and Andree Thorpe of Bermuda sip glasses of Pinot Noir rosé on a sun-dappled lawn at Goldeneye Winery. Would they return for a few tokes along with their liquid relaxers?