The smell of pot hung heavy in the air as men with dreadlocks and gray beards contemplated a nightmarish possibility in this legendary region of outlaw marijuana growers: legal weed.
If California legalizes marijuana, they say, it will drive down the price of their crop and damage not just their livelihoods but the entire economy along the state's rugged northern coast.
"The legalization of marijuana will be the single most devastating economic event in the long boom-and-bust history of Northern California," said Anna Hamilton, 62, a Humboldt County radio host and musician who said her involvement with marijuana has mostly been limited to smoking it for the past 40 years.
Local residents are so worried that pot farmers came together with officials in Humboldt County for a standing-room-only meeting Tuesday night where civic leaders, activists and growers brainstormed ideas for dealing with the threat. Among the ideas: turning the vast pot gardens of Humboldt County into a destination for marijuana aficionados, with tours and tastings — a sort of Napa Valley of pot.
Many were also enthusiastic about promoting the Humboldt brand of pot. Some discussed forming a cooperative that would enforce high standards for marijuana and stamp the county's finest weed with an official Humboldt seal of approval.
Pot growers are nervous because a measure that could make California the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use will appear on the ballot in November. State officials certified Wednesday that the initiative got enough signatures.
The law, if approved, could have a profound effect on Humboldt County, which has long had a reputation for growing some of the world's best weed.
In recent years, law enforcement agents have seized millions of pot plants worth billions of dollars in Humboldt and neighboring counties. And that is believed to be only a fraction of the crop.
"We've lived with the name association for 30 or 40 years and considered it an embarrassment," said Mark Lovelace, a Humboldt County supervisor. But if legalization does happen, he said, the Humboldt County name becomes the region's single most important asset.
"It's laughable at this point to try to be hush-hush about it," he said.
Humboldt County's reputation as a marijuana mecca began in the 1970s. As pot users began to notice a decline in the quality of Mexican weed, refugees from San Francisco's Summer of Love who moved to the forested mountains along California's conveniently remote North Coast began figuring out better ways to grow their own. The Humboldt name soon became a selling point for marijuana sold on street corners across the country.
These days, the small towns in this region about five hours north of San Francisco are dotted with head shops and garden supply stores.
Not Everyone Can Grow the 'Holy Bud'
California is one of 14 states that allow people to grow and use marijuana for medical purposes, but recreational use remains illegal. (And will remain illegal under federal law, regardless of how California votes.)
For decades, the outlaws, rebels and aging hippies of Humboldt County have been hoping for legalization. But now that it appears at hand, many clandestine growers fear it will flood the market with cheap, corporate-grown weed and destroy their way of life.
About 20 pot growers gathered on a patio outside the meeting Tuesday to discuss the dilemma posed by legalized pot. Many wore baseball caps and jeans, just like farmers anywhere else in America. No one addressed anyone else by name, a local custom driven by fear of arrest, but that didn't stop some in the group from lighting up their crop.
Many complained that legalization would put them in the same bind as other small farmers struggling to compete against large-scale agribusinesses.
A dreadlocked younger grower who said he had already been to prison for marijuana objected that no one could replicate the quality of the region's weed. When he was a kid, he said, "Humboldt nuggets — that was like the holy grail."
"Anyone can grow marijuana," he said. "But not everyone can grow the super-heavies, the holy bud."
Under the ballot measure, Californians could possess up to one ounce of marijuana for personal use. They could cultivate gardens up to 25 square feet, which is puny by Humboldt County standards. City and county governments would have the power to tax pot sales.
Some growers Tuesday fantasized about mobs of tourists in limos streaming to the county. Others were not thrilled with the idea of paying taxes on their crop.
Many agreed with the sentiment on a sticker plastered on a pizza joint's cash register: "Save Humboldt County — keep pot illegal."