Earlier this month, the East Bay-based Center for Investigative Reporting published a harrowing investigation on sex trafficking and abuse in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, the country’s premier marijuana growing region.
Every fall, migrant workers, known as “trimmigrants,” flock to Humboldt and neighboring counties for the promise of good wages and a good time trimming the excess foliage from the harvested flower. The work is monotonous, and days are long, but weed, alcohol, and other drugs pass the time.
As reporter Shoshana Walter describes it, the working conditions seem designed to maximize sexual exploitation. Much trimming occurs in remote wilderness, far from major roads and out of cellphone range. At some sites, women earn more for trimming topless. Trimmigrants are strangers in a secretive, outlaw community where they are at the mercy of their employers. Meanwhile, law enforcement is understaffed and often more interested in uncovering illegal grows than prosecuting locals accused of violence.
Last year, 352 people were reported missing in Humboldt County, the most per capita of any county in California.
Walter tells of one woman who after getting pressured for sex, “immediately left on foot, without pay.” The worker felt it was her only choice.
One teenage runaway was brought to Lake County by two growers who had sex with her while she was chained to a metal rack. With one, it was consensual, she later told police; the other one “not as consensual.”
Her captors imprisoned her for days in “an oversized metal toolbox with breathing holes.” They used a cattle prod on her and made her clean her cell with a hose.
The men, Walter reports, were charged by local prosecutors with human trafficking, but the charge was later dropped, and they are expected to plead guilty to drug charges.
The long piece’s central narrative focuses on a woman who Walter calls Terri, a 22-year-old from Southern California. At a bar in Petrolia, a remote seaside town in Humboldt, Terri met an older grower who bought her a beer and offered her work. About 45 minutes later, Terri’s friend found her unconscious in the bathroom with her pants pulled down. Terri remembered nothing.
Even after that, locals Terri knew still encouraged her to work for the grower, Kailan Meserve, a respected local figure. When Terri accepted a ride home from him a few weeks later, he drove her into the woods against her wishes. Their encounter led to Meserve becoming the first Humboldt County grower charged with raping a trimmigrant. The assault was in 2014.
The most chilling aspect of Walter’s story is how ambivalent Terri’s support network in Petrolia was about reporting Meserve, even after it became known that he assaulted another woman. Marijuana growers aren’t the only insular community capable of keeping horrific secrets, but as legalization advances, it’s in part their responsibility to address this cancer.
Hezekiah Allen is head of the California Growers Association, which promotes the interests of small cannabis businesses and growers. He emphasized that sexual assault is a problem wherever there are migrant workers. “It’s more about the power dynamic” than specific to marijuana, he told me. Still, he said this industry is “particularly elusive.”
With California’s new medical marijuana regulations coming into effect January 2018, Allen says trimmers will be considered agricultural workers by the state and will be able to contact the Agricultural Labor Relations Board with complaints. The Board more typically addresses concerns like access to toilets and heatstroke — which can be fatal — but that it is also familiar with sexual assault. Allen wants to see trimmers be able to access this resource before 2018. The agency, he says, should also provide training to trimmers to prevent assaults.
And bringing the market into the light through regulation should mitigate the situation. After this year’s harvest, Allen says a coalition of groups is planning a safety summit that will try to learn how growers of other crops, from wine to vegetables, address worker safety.
These are all important steps. Here’s another idea that may help, in conjunction with the rest: Many dispensaries and edibles-makers already claim deep personal relationships with their suppliers. Presumably, these ties are based not just on growers’ skill, but also on them being trustworthy, reliable partners. Legitimate businesses should extend their diligence to ensure they are not buying from growers who abuse workers.
The industry could create an abuse-free certification label that customers can select for in dispensaries. Qualifying criteria might include providing adequate housing, evidence of meeting payroll, and avoiding worker complaints. Growers who comply would find their crop in high demand from dispensaries and customers, while those unwilling to meet the criteria will find themselves in a difficult situation, especially as the regulated market squeezes out illegal grows.
This proposal or anything like it would not eliminate assaults and employee abuse, nor does it excuse perpetrators. But properly executed, it would incentivize basic standards of decency.
Cannabis people like to say that they’re building a better kind of industry, one that not only will be more humane but will also be an example to other industries. In responding to this crisis, the industry has a chance to demonstrate their loudly proclaimed convictions.