California’s multi-billion dollar marijuana industry has largely relied on a migratory workforce, often known as “trimmigrants,” from throughout the world who flock to the North Coast to trim bud in exchange for untaxed cash wages.

But new California laws that will take effect in 2018 will place new labor standards on the industry and begin treating it like any other agricultural industry.

Brian Shields has been in the Humboldt County cannabis industry for 14 years and is one of several people throughout the state taking part in a fledgling movement to organize marijuana farmworkers.

Since founding the Humboldt Medical Cannabis Union in 2015, his goal has been to help transition both workers and farmers from their decades old practices to the new order of regulation. The task has proven difficult.

“Let’s face it. Quite bluntly, we have kind of a mess on our hands here,” Shields said. “… These are people that are coming to our community and they’re looking for work, which is fine. But at the same point in time, it’s kind of a social issue because we don’t have the infrastructure to support that huge influx of labor coming into our area. We don’t have housing or facilities.”

This industrial shift comes as welcome news to those working to address critical issues of sexual abuse, trafficking and violence that have occurred as a result of the marijuana industry’s off-the-grid nature.

At the same time, others state the financial burden of the new rules could cause the industry to shift away from small, remote farms in favor of massive industrial-sized crops akin to California’s Central Valley, which carry their own set of issues.

Life on the farm

At the end of summer, one cannabis farmer’s remote property in the rugged mountains of Trinity County is normally dotted with tents of trimmers who will work, trim, eat and sleep on his nearly 1,000-plant farm for the next six to seven weeks. Some are returning workers while others were referred to him by friends, family or trusted workers. They come from all different backgrounds, from Alaskan fishermen trying to make some money during the off-season to Europeans visiting on travel visas.

With a $20 per hour wage for labor and another $150 to $200 per pound of trimmed bud, these workers can walk away with $1,000 per week — all untaxed.

As the farm is nearly two hours away from the nearest town, the farmer — who wished to remain anonymous — said he provides meals to his workers as well as facilities such as showers, bathrooms and anything needed to live comfortably.

Cannabis farmers must now provide worker housing, handicap-accessible parking and bathrooms, safety stations, shading, and hand-washing stations. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

This farmer knows these worker campouts won’t cut it under the state’s marijuana regulations, but until the state issues its final regulations sometime later this year, the farmer said he is going to operate as he has always done. Even though he wants to be regulated, he isn’t sure whether he can afford all it will take to be so.

“We’ve been wanting legalization for so long and then you get this bill that nobody is happy with, but it’s set in stone,” he said. “It’s funny to see how regulation actually looks. You’re regulating a billion dollar industry that’s already in place and trying to fit it into these boxes it doesn’t really fit into. It’s tough to get growers to buy in.”

Instead of makeshift campsites and wages being paid under the table, cannabis farmers must now provide worker housing, handicap-accessible parking and bathrooms, safety stations, shading, and hand-washing stations, according to a California Department of Agriculture economic analysis of the state’s medical cannabis regulations released earlier this month.

On top of that, cannabis business owners must also offer workers compensation, overtime pay starting in 2019, and must train employees to be able to handle hazardous materials, pesticides and ensure water quality compliance.

Labor alone already makes up half of what it costs to produce a pound of marijuana for the Trinity County farmer, and that’s without benefits and payroll taxes included. Both the farmer and the state report acknowledged that these new costs will likely result in a reduction in wages.

But California Growers Association Executive Director Hezekiah Allen said only a minority of cannabis growers are currently seeking to come into compliance, meaning there will still be ample opportunities for unregulated employment.

“The migrant workforce is a symptom of the unregulated and the black market,” he said. “I think that will persist for many years to come.”

Humboldt County alone received more than 2,300 cannabis business permit applications by the end of 2016, but a UC Berkeley study from 2016 estimated there were at least 8,400 grows in Humboldt County in 2012 and 2013. Many believe that number has grown substantially in the five years since.

After effects

For the Trinity County farmer, he said the best option for remote farmers like himself would be to ship his product to a centralized processing facility that would have full-time workers. That way, he said he could avoid the costly construction and permitting process to add worker dormitories.

“I don’t know if it would save me money, but it would save me a lot of headache,” he said.

He said these types of processing facilities would likely create full-time jobs where workers live in the community, which would contribute more to the local economy rather than the money leaving with the workers each fall.

But even if those facilities were created, the question of whether the remote farms in Northern California will be able to withstand the regulatory costs and competition in a statewide regulated marketplace is one of the great fears for Emerald Triangle farmers.

“The only reason why the cannabis industry developed and remained small family farms was because it was illegal and had to be subterranean,” said Humboldt State University research associate Fred Krissman, who has been studying the local cannabis market since 2012 as part of the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research.

Before becoming a research associate, Krissman spent the past 30 years as an anthropologist studying California’s and Mexico’s agricultural industries and living among the farm worker communities.
Currently under California’s recreational marijuana rules, marijuana cultivation greater than one acre will not be allowed until 2023. After that, Krissman said it will pull out the safeguards for the small farm model and allow larger crop sizes to take hold.

“To the extent that that all goes away, my concern is that unless the state of California and the counties of Northern California find ways of protecting this indigenous industry, that within a decade it might largely be gone in this region,” he said.

To try and reduce labor costs, Krissman said that smaller growers will likely try to separate themselves from the workforce and instead contract with companies that will provide the workers and take care of the regulatory burdens associated with it.

Farm worker contractors are nothing new to California’s agricultural sector, Krissman said, but said it is where the worker abuses can concentrate. Krissman said even in legal agriculture, the pressure to increase production and a lack of state enforcement of labor laws can lead to less oversight of worker safety.

“The situation with labor is going to change because there is no way they are going to let a bunch of trimmigrants hitchhike up to hang out in parking lots with scissor signs and be picked up by shady characters with good intentions or not and be driven out to God knows where to work under diverse, oftentimes not standardized conditions,” Krissman said.

“… But using a comparative case analysis, I can assure you that the bad things that happen in legal agriculture are much more pervasive, much more sustained with many more bad outcomes, like the inflows of millions of illegal immigrants to the United States, than anything the cannabis industry in the Emerald Triangle has generated so far.”

Assessing just how the Emerald Triangle industry’s workforce will change in the new market will be difficult, Krissman said, because no studies have been conducted to establish a baseline. His attempts to secure grants for this purpose have proven unsuccessful for the past three years, which he attributes to the potential federal scrutiny grant providers may face by funding such studies.

Protecting workers

On the night of Aug. 25, 2010, 40-year-old Mario Roberto Juarez-Madrid of Santa Rosa, Guatemala, was shot three times at a Kneeland marijuana grow by the farm’s owner, Mikal Xylon Wilde. Wilde then walked over to the injured migrant worker and fired a fourth shot into his head, killing him. Just earlier, Juarez-Madrid and a few other workers announced their intention to quit due to poor working conditions at the farm. A second worker who had been shot twice managed to crawl away and hide in the woods, eventually testifying against Wilde in federal court which led to a murder conviction in 2015.

Meanwhile during the past five years, the North Coast Rape Crisis Team in Eureka has been receiving increased reports of sex trafficking, sexual exploitation and abuse from cannabis industry workers, namely of women, who are forced to perform sexual acts to receive pay or to be able to leave remote farms. The team’s community outreach coordinator Paula Arrowsmith-Jones said that due to the transitory nature of the workers and the fear of retaliation, there are likely more cases than are being reported.

“It’s not the most common situation that we deal with, but there is such secrecy around it that you can’t really extrapolate from the cases we’ve heard about to how much that really is,” she said. “Certainly, it’s an ongoing issue.”

Arrowsmith-Jones encourages anyone who knows of or has experienced any abuse to call the North Coast Rape Crisis Team hotline at 707-445-2881.

The state is seeking to stamp out these dark stains of violence, sexual exploitation and greed with a regulated market. One bill — AB 26 — that has been circulating the California Legislature since 2014 would work to address some of these issues by requiring employers and workers to undergo sexual harassment and abusive conduct training.

Shield’s union is currently focused on becoming state-certified to provide these and other training certifications, but said it will take more than just the industry to address issues of the black market.

“We need total unity throughout the community around addressing these issues, not just a few small groups doing individual things,” he said. “We need to unite on a massive front and we’re really trying to be the organization that can spearhead this and bring these people together so we can open up the conversation about the most important part of the industry: the labor.”