Marijuana is cash crop in Humboldt County, Calif.

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.

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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