Last week, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting detailed how dangerous it can be for women looking for work on cannabis farms around Humboldt County, California. Located in the Northernmost region of the state, high in the mountains and surrounded by forests, it is the notorious epicenter for cultivation in the United States. Broadly previously published an essay by Kelly Schirmann, a woman who works seasonally doing trim work on marijuana grows, where she explained how the casual sexism that underlies the industry can thrive in isolation: "Women are interchangeable, expendable labor," she wrote. But the new report shows just how insidious it can be.
For a lot of people, life on a marijuana farm can be benign and even fun. "Trimmigrants" can make thousands of dollars in a week doing the work and then at the end of the season go back to school or wherever they're from. "All the trimming expeditions I've been on have been a blessing of tightly knit symbiotic relationships that made me really fall in love with this business," Nina Parks, the CEO of Mirage Medicinal, a San Francisco-based cannabis cooperative, told me in an email.
Though in some cases the experience can be horrifying. Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter, during several trips to the area that's known as the Emerald Triangle, uncovered instances of sex trafficking in the region and hundreds of women who were sexually assaulted by the growers who hired them.
Walter tells the story of a woman she calls Terri who traveled from Los Angeles to find a job at a trim scene. The first job she found was with a couple, Sam Epperson and Rachel Adair. But one night, when she was out at a bar with a friend, she eventually met a grower named Kailan Meserve and he offered her more work. Terri's friend left the two of them alone for a moment, and when she came back she couldn't find her. The night ended troublingly: "Court records show she found her unconscious in that bathroom, her pants around her ankles. Terri appeared to have fallen and hit the sink on her way down. Terri remembered almost nothing about the night. She was concerned something had happened with Meserve," Reveal reports.
Terri told Epperson and Adair about what happened when she came home, but they told her it was probably nothing. Meserve was known as a good guy in the community. They encouraged her to take him up on his job offer when she finished their harvest. So Terri followed their advice, and when she saw him at a fundraiser for the fire department where he volunteered, she accepted his offer for a ride home. But instead, he took her to his property and "repeatedly penetrated her and forced her to perform oral sex until she gagged."
Following a difficult investigation, Meserve has since been convicted and sentenced to prison, but the problem of rape and sexual harassment in an industry that operates in seclusion is ongoing. In many circumstances, victims rarely report their sexual assault to the police either out of fear or the belief that law enforcement won't do anything to help them. The environment cultivated around marijuana grows, however, makes it even harder for rape victims to speak out. Many farms in Humboldt County aren't exactly operating legally under the state's current medical marijuana laws and some growers are selling their crops on the black market.
"The reasons why people don't report vary a lot. There was one woman I talked to [for the article] who was sex trafficked by this grower and she ended up reporting it to the police. But before she did that she was terrified. She was from Mexico and terrified that the police would arrest her for being undocumented," Walter told me over the phone. "She was also terrified that she might get in trouble for working, potentially, on an illegal crop. I heard that from a lot of women. They are aware that they're working on a farm that might not be legal medical marijuana—that they're working on a criminal enterprise, essentially."
It's not viewed as good practice to call in the cops. According to Reveal, marijuana raids are common in Humboldt County, with law enforcement agencies making 100 seizures of property and funds last year, "including from farmers who had legal permission to grow." Meanwhile, the report suggests, law enforcement is less interested in reports of sexual assault coming from cultivation workers because they're so focused on the crop itself. "They're going in to eradicate marijuana, and they would probably tell you nothing else is happening but the drugs," Kyla Baxley, the district attorney's office investigator told the publication.
The California Growers Association sent out a letter after Reveal's report was released. The organization's executive director, Hezekiah Allen, wrote that the void of regulation has allowed illegal grows to proliferate in the grey area. "It is no secret that criminal behavior lingers in the shadows cast by prohibition and regulatory vacuum. This isn't about cannabis. Rape and exploitation are not our culture. This is about criminals exploiting the failed policies that we are working so hard to overcome," he said. "A multi-generational failure of public policy has given safe-harbor to criminals in our communities. It is time to stand together as beacons, embracing change and solutions as we illuminate the darkest shadows."
With the adoption of the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, which will require all cultivation sites to register for a permit on the state and municipal level by 2018, the hope is that transparency could soon make it so that women aren't forced to stay silent and growers would be held accountable for their workers and crops. "I have heard from some of my female friend trimmers that they have been offered drugs while trimming (other than cannabis). One told me that she was asked to trim topless and refused (then left the facility). This is a regular thing in the hills of grow country," Amber Senter, the co-founder of Supernova Women, an organization that provides seminars focused on getting people of color into the cannabis industry, said. "I hope that with regulation comes more structured businesses and a bit of professionalism and this crap comes to an end."
(When I contacted California's Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation about what's being done in response to reports of sexual assault on grows, a representative, Laurel Goddard, said, "The law regulating medical cannabis was designed to bring oversight to a number of elements of the industry. Regulations are currently under development and many of the details are yet to be worked out, but licensing and regulation will bring with it stronger oversight of the industry.")
The state is voting on recreational legalization later this year, which could also change the relationship's industry with law enforcement for the better. "Most certainly, legalizing the commercial industry, as proposed under Prop. 64, will bring greater transparency and oversight to an industry that, by and large, has previously operated underground and without regulatory guidance," the deputy director of NORML, Paul Armentano, told me in an email.
Our communities need more resources for the people who are tasked with keeping our communities safe
In his letter, Allen points out that the future of cannabis relies on the police and the industry aligning. "Though it is unpopular to many growers who grew up victimized by the war on drugs, rural counties need more resources for law enforcement. Our communities need more resources for the people who are tasked with keeping our communities safe—this is one of the main reasons," he wrote.
Allen's view, however, is indeed unpopular. Reveal notes that long-time participants in the industry are showing resistance to legalization efforts and some growers in Humboldt County are reluctant to work within the framework of regulation.
Walter is also skeptical that legalization in California alone will radically alter the landscape in the Emerald Triangle. "For one, this culture is the result of decades of battles between law enforcement and growers. This has created an environment in which people try to handle problems themselves and try to avoid law enforcement," she said. "And marijuana remains illegal federally and in a lot of states. The Emerald Triangle is a good place to grow marijuana for the black market. It's easy to hide there."