DUNSMUIR, CALIF. — Peter Arth doesn't mind being called "Mayor Juana" for his flamboyant advocacy of medical marijuana in this tiny town a little more than halfway between Medford and Redding.
The mayor is all too aware he has become a lightning rod for a pot war in Siskiyou County that is not being waged in the forests, but in the minds of local residents.
Californians will vote
Nov. 2 on Proposition 19, which would legalize possession and cultivation of marijuana. If Proposition 19 is approved, anyone 21 or older could legally possess, share or transport up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use and grow plants in a space of up to 25 square feet at home.
Cities and counties would be authorized to regulate and tax commercial marijuana production and sales.
Dunsmuir and Mount Shasta are the only two cities in the county where medical marijuana dispensaries can operate. Elsewhere, government leaders have banned selling pot in their communities.
Intensifying the debate is Proposition 19, an initiative on the Nov. 2 California ballot that would make it legal to possess an ounce or less of marijuana for recreational use.
Decriminalizing marijuana already took a major step forward Thursday when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law that reduced possession of an ounce or less from a misdemeanor to an infraction with a maximum $100 fine.
Arth, 64, a retired lawyer from San Francisco, is the subject of a recall election on the same ballot led by residents outraged over his pot advocacy and his support for a rate increase for sewer and water to pay for infrastructure improvements.
A local group known as Citizens for a Better Dunsmuir has its own slate of candidates. It hopes to oust the mayor over his support of a pot garden downtown, across the street from the sheriff's substation, to help promote tourism and provide organic marijuana to patients.
"If the old expression, 'I dipped my foot in the pool' applies, the shark bit my foot off but I didn't die," said Arth, who smokes two joints a day for anxiety and depression.
Chris Raine, one of Arth's chief critics and a recall supporter, said the mayor's proposal has drawn criticism and unwanted publicity, and rightly so.
"It's going to cause him to get recalled this November," the local business owner vowed.
The proposal to put a marijuana garden in the historic district, even if it is on Arth's own land, would turn off new businesses in a town that is mostly conservative, he said.
"A lot of people don't like marijuana in any shape or form," Raine said.
He conceded that marijuana might have legitimate medical uses in some cases, but he believes most users don't treat it like a prescription.
"The first puff is medicine, then everything else is just abuse," he said.
Arth became mayor almost by accident. He moved to Dunsmuir about two years ago, ran for City Council two months later and was then appointed the city's mayor. "No, they didn't know what they were getting," Arth said.
Now the town, a mixture of conservatives and liberals, appears split over his leadership.
Arth said Raine often goes to the extreme in his comments, sometimes likening the mayor's unabashed fervor over the value of medicinal marijuana to someone who is trying to kill children.
Arth believes it is a little hypocritical that Raine recently has started selling beer and wine at his business, the Burger Barn, about a block from the pot garden. It is Arth's belief that marijuana is a much mellower drug than alcohol.
Instead of embracing his idea to boost tourism, Arth said, Raine and others seem content to leave half the town's stores empty.
"If this community doesn't do something soon to make itself attractive to businesses and visitors, the town is going to die," he said.
Dunsmuir could create a brand name for locally grown, organic marijuana that would enhance tourism, drawing people from Southern Oregon and other areas, he said.
Arth has other motivations for creating a crop that is overseen locally from start to finish.
"I want to be able to control the quality of the stuff I put in my body," he said.
And he's had little success in growing his own medicine on the balcony of his downtown business, he said.
Leslie Wilde, one of Arth's strongest allies, fought alongside the mayor in support of an ordinance allowing a marijuana garden. The idea was rejected by the Planning Commission.
Wilde, who operates the only marijuana dispensary in town, the Green Collar Compassionate Collective, is running for City Council this November.
During her year of operation, Wilde said she has received only one minor complaint. She had several starter plants that she put out in the sunshine next to the dispensary and they caught the eye of passers-by.
Wilde thinks that if Proposition 19 passes, residents of Oregon will flock to the nearest outlet in Siskiyou County to legally obtain marijuana.
"I'm sure that would happen, just like people stop in Nevada for the gambling," she said.
Whatever town that is the closest to the Oregon border that endorses marijuana will get an economic boost if Proposition 19 passes, she said.
Residents of Oregon already come to her dispensary to purchase marijuana, but she has to turn them down. Oregon and California don't have reciprocal agreements that would allow residents to legally buy the drug in the other state if they have a medical marijuana card.
"I just can't honor the card," she said.
Wilde said she has about 150 patients, including those who have cancer or who have lost most of their lung capacity. Marijuana can be ingested for those who can't tolerate smoking it.
She said the city of Weed to the north would be a natural Mecca for marijuana because that town already capitalizes on its suggestive name.
Mayor "Juana" also appears to take his reputation and suggestive nickname in stride.
"If you were doing a documentary, you couldn't ask for a better petri dish than Dunsmuir," said the mayor.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.