Bill Jackson, owner of Pahoa Bicycle, stands outside his shop.
"We have a pakalolo reputaion and we don't think that's so bad."
Photo by Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Just when you think you understand, you sense something new about the place oozing into your consciousness like a lobe of pahoehoe lava creeping across the Puna plain.
The initial images: Time warp. Cannabis country. Dodge City.
Enter town from either side and you can tell you're not in Kansas anymore. It feels different here. And the pakalolo's more pungent.
The quality and abundance of Puna buds have helped define the character of this rustic town since marijuana replaced sugar as the Big Island district's prime cash crop during the 1970s.
And these days, with the marijuana harvest dwindling, Pahoa is embracing more mainstream ventures. It's also experienced a surge in hard drug use since the days of plentiful pot, say longtime residents.
The debate over marijuana eradication in this town reflects the arguments being voiced throughout the state. One faction believes the effort is counterproductive and promotes hard drug use. The other contends the program's hard-won success is an asset that should not be tampered with.
Pahoa maintains its counterculture trappings - tie dye, beards and dreadlocks, glazed eyes and street corner jams.
But there's more here than wafting smoke.
Pound for pound, Pahoa may well have the finest concentration of restaurants in the state, say boosters. And behind the Wild West facade, Pahoa looks suspiciously like Main Street Hawaii.
Across from the natural foods store is a Bank of Hawaii.
There's a 7-Eleven down the street and a home satellite business, pharmacy and Dairy Queen in the little mall to the west.
Pahoa Realtor Dan Wilson mostly likes what he sees.
"Things have changed for the better over the years. There's a lot more economic vitality" now.
Wilson sees legitimate commerce and retirees attracted to the area because of the affordable land and open spaces.
"Those people - the hippies - are really a very small percentage of the population," he says.
Wilson's Pahoa is far different from Bill Jackson's.
Jackson, who runs a bike shop in an old wooden building on the town's main drag, came to Pahoa because of what he calls the energy.
Cannabis advocate, Big Island mayoral candidate and
longtime Pahoa watcher Aaron Anderson.
Photo by Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Jackson and like-minded business owners are trying to change "the mystique of Pahoa."
"Some people think of Pahoa as a big druggie town," he says. "We have a pakalolo reputation and we don't think that's so bad. It's the hard drug reputation."
As in other areas of the state, observers say "ice" can be found on the street here as can heroin, including the notorious "black tar" variety from Mexico.
And the Puna town so closely associated with the weed now has a "hard drug" problem.
The theory is that when law enforcement began cracking down on area marijuana growers, pot prices soared and availability plummeted, pushing users toward harder drugs such as heroin, crack cocaine and crystal methamphetamine, or "ice."
"Green Harvest is the gateway to hard drugs," charges pro-marijuana activist Roger Christie, referring to the marijuana eradication program.
Law enforcement officials don't buy that connection.
They contend that high-quality marijuana is still widely available and prices here are not based on supply and demand but on how much dealers can get for coveted Hawaii pot on the mainland.
"Ice and coke is the nationwide trend now," says Lt. Chad Fukui of the Hawaii County Police Department vice squad.
Whatever the cause, the effect is being felt in Pahoa.
Locals say marijuana is harder to come by these days.
Cannabis advocate, Big Island mayoral candidate and longtime Pahoa watcher Aaron Anderson says he's seen the town change a lot.
"There was an economy in the '80s," he says. "It was self-created. We didn't ask the government for anything."
Anderson claims Puna's freewheeling days of pakalolo plenty are over.
"People don't fly here anymore to buy marijuana," he says. "There was a lot more money. We used to have a lot of street fairs here, more things happening. There's definitely more here now, but it's quieter."
That's all right with Mady, who owns the vegetarian cafe.
Like many of her friends, she likes the old-timey feel of Pahoa. The way the place seems to follow its own light.
Which is what makes Pahoa so easy to judge.
And so hard to define.