Along with declining prices and impending government regulation, much of the conversation amongst northern California’s outdoor marijuana farmers this past fall was troubled by sexual assault and human trafficking.
This past September, just as outsiders were undertaking the yearly journey to the Emerald Triangle in search of the seasonal, well-paid, all-cash work of harvesting and trimming that year’s crop—“trimmigrant” season, as it’s commonly identified as—the Bay Area-based Center for Investigative Reporting issued a troubling warning:
Trimmigrants, lured by a laid-back environment and the potential to make $200 or more per day, were encountering a widespread sexual violence.
For a long period of time, there have been stories of women being raped or attacked while working on remote marijuana grow sites on isolated hilltops, which is a great distance away from any kind of law enforcement—with the perpetrators rarely meeting justice of any kind. These stories, in reference to the Reveal investigation, were true. “I’m just so tired,” Maryann Hayes Mariani, a coordinator for the North Coast Rape Crisis Team, told reporter Shoshana Walter, “of pretending like it’s not happening here.”
A married couple Amber and Casey O’Neill who farm organic produce as well as dispensary-grade marijuana on a ridgetop plot in Mendocino County they call Happy Day Farms. Like almost everyone else he knows, Casey read and discussed CIR’s report with a mixture of sadness, disgust—and resignation.
The marijuana industry has more than a few dark secrets, and this—abuse of the seasonal workers—is one of them.
“There’s a lot more bad shit happening than there should be,” O’Neill told Leafly News. One reason why is because “we’ve been totally unable to self-regulate,” he added. “We’ve done a terrible job of it ourselves. We’ve not been able to have hard conversations about land use and worker treatment.”
However, with marijuana being legal in California for all adults 21 and over, and with the state preparing for a retail cannabis market worth $10 billion, lawmakers in Sacramento are beginning to force the conversation.
Starting on the 1st of January 2018, farmers like the O’Neills who want to get involved in the regulated market must have a license provided by the state. Under a new proposal speeding through the state Assembly—introduced by Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) in response to CIR’s report—all license-holders would need to put at least one employee through a 30-hour-long, state-approved, sexual harassment and workplace-safety training course.
The bill, AB 1700, is backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers, a major national labor union with designs on the legal marijuana industry. UFCW currently organizes workers in retail cannabis shops, most of which are located in the state’s overpopulated coastal cities, yet organized labor has yet to make inroads with the rural outdoor farm community.
Just how big the problem is, and what to do about it, depends on who you ask—and how honest they’re willing to be.
“It’s like spousal abuse,” Casey O’Neill told Leafly News. “People are generally uncomfortable talking about it—and the ones doing it are definitely not talking about it.”