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Blurred lines in California's cannabis capital

9 May 11 10:55 GMT

By Vishva Samani
BBC News, Garberville

The aroma of marijuana is rarely far away in the town of Garberville, in northern California's Humboldt County, but as a topic of conversation it remains taboo - at least for outsiders.

It feels like a 1960s hippie town that never quite grew up. Garberville nestles in the thick of the mighty redwood forest to the north of San Francisco - but it isn't just the ancient tall trees that draw people to these parts.

This is the marijuana heartland of the US. So I anticipated an openness among people when broaching the subject of weed. But I was mistaken.

Locals I spoke to discreetly said they either worked as "farmers" or sold fertiliser, without elaborating much further.

Cash crop

So I visited a newly established so-called Cannabis College nearby, where I assumed they would be happy to talk frankly about the sole subject they teach.

On the way, I spotted three large gardening stores, one of many clues which suggested a lot of planting takes place here.

You can smell marijuana in the air in these parts.

The area has an ideal pot-growing climate, and under California laws it has been legal to grow and buy marijuana here for personal medical use since 1996 - as long as you have a permit.

But the state law directly contravenes America's federal drugs law. Growing even a single marijuana plant is a federal crime.

A person can serve five years in prison for cultivating 100 plants. That's longer than the average sentence for car theft or manslaughter.

Those who want to relax the laws on cannabis claim that it's America's leading cash crop - worth more than wheat and corn put together. Others dispute those figures.

Pearl Moon and Kellie Dodd are the two ebullient co-founders of Garberville's Cannabis College. Pearl is evidently passionate about the healing potential of pot. "We are not just smoking it any more. We are heating it, eating it, juicing it and rubbing it into our skin," she says.

Constant fear

The college strives to bring together legal, scientific and horticultural cannabis experts.

In a recent culinary class, students were taught how to make cannabis-infused pasta and butter.

While this is an educational institute with real intentions to inform medical marijuana users, I found it hard to engage in a serious conversation on this lingering taboo topic.

Weed remains entangled in international organised crime and illegal trade, in spite of its widely endorsed medical benefits - and few here want to talk about its alleged harmful effects on mental health.

It became apparent very quickly that even those who grow pot with a permit live in constant fear of the Feds.

Dedicated newspapers such as the West Coast Leaf report the minor changes to cannabis legislation with enthusiasm and local radio stations broadcast public service warnings if the cops are coming.

Cannabis continues to stir caution in people.

Pearl and Kellie mentioned obstacles they faced getting a licence under the name, Cannabis College. "The problem was with the word 'cannabis'. They thought we were going to distribute it," Pearl explained.

Later, I went to a hemp store in Garberville.

The goods on offer reflected the blurry line between holistic living and illicit activity that I sense all around this sleepy town.

It was in a cafe that evening that a waitress echoed the one thing everyone seems to agree on here: "Without weed - this town would go down."

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