The authorities in Rasquera, which has a population of just 900 inhabitants who are usually dependent on olive and cheese production for income, believe that renting out a plantation to grow marijuana would pay off the hilltop town's €1.3 million ($2 million) in unpaid bills and create at least 11 fulltime jobs.

A Barcelona Association of Cannabis Users (ABCDA), which has 5000 members, has said it would pay the town more than €600,000 a year for the land lease. Cultivation of marijuana, usually planted in March, could soon start, although the precise location of the 7ha plantation - around 12 football pitches in size - is kept a closely guarded secret.

Rasquera's Mayor, Bernat Pelissa - who has threatened to resign if the project goes to pot - insists that the plantation does not break Spain's ambiguous laws concerning cannabis and will help to fight crime as well as solving the town's economic woes. Consumption and possession of small quantities of the drug is legal in Spain, but dealing in it is banned.

"We want to put an end to mafias, and to the underground economy," Pelissa, who has travelled to Holland for legal advice, said this month.

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The media interest in Pelissa's project has been massive. Almost 100 journalists kept watch in the village square yesterday as voting on a series of "anti-recession" measures took place behind closed doors in the recently constructed civic centre. Ironically, the centre's construction was one reason why Rasquera's municipal debt has rocketed.

While a 75 per cent vote in favour was technically needed for the plantation to go ahead, townsfolk admitted to a major division of opinions on its potential advantages, and Pelissa has said he will "study all options". Just 308 people said yes - 56.3 per cent - while 239 said no, according to results published on the village's website.

"I would have no problem letting the town hall lease my lands," farmer Eusebio Gil told the newspaper El Mundo. "This is legal until we hear the opposite."

"Drugs aren't the way to give this town a future," countered a man only willing to give his first name, Francisco. Older members of the community, one crossing herself as she left the civic centre, simply declined to comment.

Spain's Attorney-General has said he will investigate the project's legality.

Last month police raided the ABCDA headquarters in Barcelona as part of an investigation into an alleged cannabis dealing ring.

However, in a country with 24 per cent unemployment and its municipalities swamped in debt, the lateral thinking behind Rasquera's plantation plan has drawn sympathy from some unexpected quarters.

"Why should it be more complicated to talk about marijuana plantations than nuclear waste storage or wind energy?" asked one commentator in the conservative-leaning newspaper La Vanguardia.

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"The lesson we should learn [from Rasquera] is that to get out of this recession, we'll have think outside the box."

- Independent, AP