ARCATA — Stephen Gasparas was destined for this fog-chilled, redwood-shrouded coast — America's most renowned region for legal cultivation of marijuana.
He started growing skunky-smelling pot as a young man, in the closet of his mother's suburban Chicago home. Later he visited cannabis fields in India. Ultimately, he shared spiritual puffs at a gathering of the famous moveable commune, the Rainbow Family, where a grizzled hippie told him Humboldt "is the place you ought to be."
Today, Gasparas, 39, is a medical marijuana entrepreneur operating legally in Humboldt County. He has moved from cultivating pot for personal use to heading a cannabis growing and buying collective he says has served 4,000 medical marijuana users.
Humboldt County — and in particular the college town of Arcata — has become an epicenter for political and legal debate over the unintended consequences of Proposition 215, California's "Compassionate Use Act" for marijuana.
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Since passage of the act in 1996, medical marijuana users have streamed into this county, a liberal and libertarian bastion that decades ago began attracting pot growers.
Their now-legitimate business — aided, legal experts say, by Proposition 215's vagueness on personal pot-use limits — has turned a so-called crop of compassion into a lucrative industry.
With the most wide-open cultivation policy in California, Humboldt County allows individual growers of medical marijuana three annual indoor harvests of 100 square feet, 99 plants and up to 3 pounds of dried marijuana at any one time.
In 2003, the state Legislature approved restrictions that limited medical marijuana users to six mature or 12 immature plants and 8 ounces of pot at one time. But the law allowed local governments to approve looser limits.
So in Humboldt, medical pot users converted small town houses into growing factories — and bountiful earnings from sales to patient collectives and pot dispensaries across California.
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