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How Unethical Is Buying Weed?

Did you ever wonder if someone got fucked over so you could have that dank ass Purple Urkle?
Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Garretttaggs55

This article was originally published in VICE US

In many jurisdictions in the US, weed is so close to legal that you're more likely to get busted for flying a drone in the wrong place than for getting caught with a nug in your pocket. In places like Oklahoma, where it's still super illegal, draconian enforcement of marijuana prohibition is regarded by most of America as an ass-backward idea. It's pretty safe to start thinking blanket legalization is on the horizon.


So if you live in a legal-weed state like Colorado and you treated yourself to a dime bag on the way home from work yesterday, you probably did so proudly, without having to sneak around at all. But since there's more to having a conscience than legality, did you ever wonder if someone's life got ruined so you could have that dank ass Purple Urkle?

Sure, reports in the last few years have scolded marijuana growers for being bad environmentalists, drinking too much of California's precious water, and endangering its wildlife. And in Colorado, it's recently raised some eyebrows that marijuana growing facilities generate some serious greenhouse gases by hogging more than their fair share of electricity. That just makes cannabis one more industry that hurts the earth, though. And while that sucks, it puts weed on roughly the same ethical footing, environmentally, as almonds.

The question is, is anyone getting well and truly fucked by your weed habit?

Last month, drug journalist Ioan Grillo's New York Times op-ed about free trade in the cannabis industry painted a dire picture. He said despite the shift toward legalization, black market weed still comes from Mexico. "The profits pay the cartels' assassins, as well as corrupt police officers and soldiers, who discard piles of bodies across Mexico," Grillo wrote. I asked him how much violence could be traced to marijuana and he told me, "[Cartel] violence can't really be separated out by drugs—if that makes sense."


It does, but according to Stephen Mumme, professor of political science at Colorado State University, specializing in US-Mexican relations, in addition to violence, there's also the treatment of growers to consider. Mexican marijuana often comes from "scrappy little valleys that are hard to get to, tucked away where very poor campesinos work for not much remuneration from the industry," he told VICE.

Violence against the farmers is underreported, Mumme explained, but that they're doing business with narcos, and "the narcos have a pretty heavy hand." Fortunately, legal marijuana north of the border has been driving down profits, along with weed production and smuggling in Mexico. But as long as desperate, rural farmers are a cheap source of weed, "there will always be some production," Mumme said.

But up here in the US, black markets haven't suddenly just flipped to white. Most of the markets here are grayish—and they can be a pretty dark shade of grayish. "These are folks that have been renegades for thirty years," said Humboldt State University professor of environmental sociology Anthony Silvaggio. A facade of legality is slowly being retrofitted onto the weed industry in California, but in spite of that legality, those new retrofitted elements still reward criminality. For instance, the economics of weed make it more lucrative to export product from a decriminalized state like California across state lines, often through weed-hostile tearritory. It's a process that amounts, Silvaggio said, to "organized crime."


That means in order to get California weed to your small, weed-unfriendly town in, say, Oklahoma, traffickers have to risk their asses trucking the stuff across thousands of miles. The FBI reported about 701,000 marijuana-related arrests in 2014 across all American law enforcement agencies, the most recent year with such data, and although 90 percent of those were charges of simple possession, that means about 70,100 people that year were charged with more serious marijuana offenses.

But if those weed criminals are in the US, it's not like they didn't know what they were getting into, right?

That's not quite so clear. From time to time—including earlier this month—an illegal marijuana grow in the US gets busted and law enforcement claims there's a link to Mexican cartels. In these cases, the workers are supposedly being trafficked and underpaid. However, the federal government has also disputed its own past claims that US marijuana grows are run by scary, scary narcos, as opposed to just being staffed by a few migrant laborers from Mexico who are just in town to do the picking and trimming.

And that's where some nasty exploitation in the weed biz rears its head. "We see the use of Mexican nationals and other foreign-born folks like the Hmong people," said Silvaggio of the workforce in Humboldt County, California, where much of America's weed comes from. Immigrant laborers make up a large portion of the workers known as "trimmigrants," and to hear Silvaggio tell it, they take on the shittiest workload.


An anecdote from Silvaggio about foreign trimmigants—who are paid by volume of output—is telling, if not especially shocking:

"The Hmong work faster and cheaper than everyone else. They're given the crappiest weed to trim. For example, if you have a thousand pounds for your white workers to trim, and half of it has mildew and small buds, you'll get a bunch of workers quitting and complaining immediately. The Hmong, however, are gonna work through that. And they'll work through it for $50 [€45] a pound. That's their job. The white workers will head out onto the street and find another gig."

According to Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, working your fingers to the bone isn't the only hazard of weed work. "Batch after batch after batch is getting rejected for unapproved pesticides," Tree said, referring to Colorado marijuana that's newly being subjected to consumer safety tests. It turns out your hippie uncle with the pot farm may have been exaggerating about how green his buds were. "For all these years, all these organic growers have been lying about labelling," Tree said.

Poison on your weed is potentially bad for your health (there's still some debate about that), but it's definitely bad for trimmigrants, according to another anecdote from Silvaggio. He claims clouds of pesticide have been known to land Humboldt County trimmers in the hospital with rashes and heart palpitations. And of course, when that happens, there's no hazard pay. "There are no protections for anybody in this labor market," Silvaggio said.

I doubt any of these tales of worker mistreatment make you feel like a monster for buying weed, and given what I've dug up, I really don't think it should. But unlike cocaine, weed buyers can increasingly nose around and figure out where their weed came from, meaning your conscience can be extra-extra-clear.

Bloggers have written how-to guides on figuring out whether or not your weed comes from cartels. Also, small, local growers have recently stepped out of the darkness, so consumers can meet them, shake their hands, and find out that growing and packaging a legal plant can be wholesome, and even downright boring.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.