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.
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?
Not likely. "There's a mystique to sitting here, enjoying the experience: the land, the scenery, the grapes," Touzon says. "No one is going to come here to smoke a joint."
Adds Milla Handley, owner of the nearby Handley Winery: "How do you deal with driving and smoking? We try to be conscientious (in limiting wine samples) because our kids are on these roads. You add another drug, and it's a cause for concern."
But Mendocino County fisherman, construction worker and pot grower Tyler Kidwell begs to differ. "When I went to Hawaii," says Kidwell, "I got two questions: Have you ever surfed Point Arena (a famous county break), and did you bring us any pot?"
Whether or not it's legalized for recreational use, "Mendocino is known around the world as a pot mecca," adds Kidwell. "And if you're going to get stoned, the redwoods are a great place to do it."