A drug deal plays out, California-style:

A conservatively dressed courier drives a company-leased Smart Car to an apartment on a weekday afternoon. Erick Alvaro hands over a white paper bag to his 58-year-old customer, who inspects the bag to ensure that everything he ordered over the phone is there.

An eighth-ounce of organic marijuana buds for treating his seasonal allergies? Check. An eighth of a different pot strain for insomnia? Check. THC-infused lozenges and tea bags? Check and check, with a free herb-laced cookie thrown in as a thank-you gift.

It's a $102 credit card transaction carried out with the practiced efficiency of a home-delivered pizza - and with just about as much legal scrutiny.

More and more, having premium pot delivered to your door in California is not a crime. It is a legitimate business.

Since the state became the first to legalize the drug for medicinal use, the weed the federal government puts in the same category as heroin and cocaine has become a major economic force.

Based on the quantity of marijuana authorities seized last year, the crop alone was worth an estimated $17 billion or more, dwarfing any other sector of the state's agricultural economy.

But pot in California also props up local economies, mints millionaires and feeds a thriving industry of startups - stores that sell high-tech marijuana growing equipment, pot clubs that pay rent and hire workers, chains of for-profit clinics that specialize in medical marijuana recommendations.

The plant's prominence does not come without costs, say some critics.

Marijuana plantations in remote forests cause severe environmental damage. Authorities link the drug to violent crime in otherwise quiet small towns.

Still, the sheer scale of the overall pot economy has some lawmakers pushing for broader legalization as a way to shore up the finances of a state that has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The state's top tax collector estimates that taxing pot like liquor could bring in more than $1.3 billion annually.

On Tuesday, Oakland will consider a measure to tax the city's four marijuana dispensaries, which the city auditor projects will ring up $17.5 million in sales in 2010. The city faces an $83 million budget shortfall, and expects the marijuana tax to raise $315,000.

With a recent poll showing more than half of Californians supporting legalization, pot advocates believe they will prevail. And they say other states will follow.

Tim Blake is the proprietor of a 145-acre spiritual retreat center which holds an annual marijuana bud-growing contest in the heart of Northern California's pot-growing country.

Politicians, he says, are "going to see the economic benefits, they're going to see the health benefits and they're going to jump on the bandwagon."

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On a property flanked by vineyards, Mendocino County farmer Jim Hill grows marijuana for up to 20 patients, including himself and his wife.

Hill's plants enjoy careful nurturing in a temperature-controlled greenhouse. On a recent spring day, his college-age son spread bat guano to fertilize two dozen 6-foot-tall plants.

Hill, 45, says he spent $10,000 to set up the garden. Patients receive their drugs free in exchange for helping with his crop.