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Terry McLaughlin: Sex trafficking and the marijuana industry

Terry McLaughlin

In 1996 California became the first state in the country to legalize medical marijuana. Crime and black market cultivation in areas such as Humboldt County soared, vastly eclipsing local law enforcement’s efforts to stop it.

Fast forward to the present time.

In 2015, legal sales of marijuana in California were valued at $2.7 billion, according to The ArcView Group, a marijuana market research firm. If marijuana is legalized for recreational use this November, sales are projected to balloon to $6.4 billion by 2020. This huge and profitable industry, particularly in the rural counties of California, is drawing busloads of job seekers, often referred to as “trimmigrants”.

Trimmigrants from all walks of life are drawn from around the country and world to cultivation sites in California. With marijuana fetching black market prices, they expect far higher wages than typical migrant farmworkers. But while California’s forests may provide cover for the marijuana industry, they also hide secrets, among which are stories of sexual abuse and exploitation of young women.

A report published by Shoshana Walter in September for “Reveal – The Center for Investigative Reporting” found that growers often target women for trimming jobs. These young women serve at the mercy of their bosses, who are themselves vulnerable to the risks of operating in the black market and often prefer to keep trimmers in the dark about where they are working. There is evidence that growers sometimes blindfold trimmers before driving to plots deep in the mountains, locations so remote that most lack cell service and public transportation.

Shoshana Walter’s investigation unearthed dozens of accounts of sexual exploitation, abuse, and trafficking. Young women have reported being forced to perform sex acts with their bosses in order to get paid. Some recount offers of higher wages to trim topless. Victims’ advocates say the problem is far larger and continues to grow with every harvest.

“Women believe they are getting hired for trimming work, and then they’re drugged and raped,” said Maryann Hayes Mariani, a coordinator for the North Coast Rape Crisis Team.

In 2013, a 15-year old runaway in Humboldt County reported that when the two growers for whom she was working and providing sex feared she might run away, they locked her inside an oversized toolbox with breathing holes for several days. They shocked her with a cattle prod and told her she would be shot by neighbors if she attempted to leave. Prosecutors charged the men with human trafficking, the first case of its kind in Humboldt County. But when federal authorities took over the case, the trafficking charge was dropped. The men are expected to plead guilty later this year on charges of illegal marijuana cultivation and employing a minor in a drug operation.

In addition to women who come of their own volition to trim, others are brought in specifically to provide sex services for the large population of male growers and laborers who spend months alone on isolated mountain farms. This demand has contributed to sex trafficking in these rural areas from all over the country and world, including Mexico and Eastern Europe, according to social service providers and victims.

Sexual assault victims within the trimmigrant community face particular pressure to avoid law enforcement. Some describe a “code of silence”, and breaking that code by calling police may rule out future jobs in the industry, especially if it alerts police to an illegal growing site. Many of the victims lack any local connections, or even the know-how to successfully navigate their way out of the wooded terrain. Often, shame and fear will prevent them from seeking assistance. And because many are working on illegal grows, they may suspect law enforcement won’t do anything anyway.

As the industry has grown, service providers have encountered increasing numbers of human trafficking victims. Humboldt Domestic Violence Services answered more than 2,000 crisis calls last year, an increase of about 80 percent in four years, which has been attributed to a surge in sexual abuse and trafficking on marijuana grows. In addition, Humboldt County reported an astounding 352 missing persons in 2015 – more per capita than any other county in the state.

According to a representative from the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition (DVSAC) in Grass Valley, similar abuse has been going on in Nevada County for several years. While DVSAC cannot document an increase in the number of incidents because they have not tracked victim contacts specifically related to marijuana grows, they are pleased to have public awareness drawn to this abuse.

One DVSAC victim advocate stated that she has personally handled three very serious cases in the past two years — and she is just one advocate among many.

Growers’ associations within Nevada County are beginning to recognize the seriousness of this issue within their own industry and are actively discussing methods to address the urgency of the problem. Knowing that many victims are hesitant to contact law enforcement officials, Americans for Safe Access has just established a hotline for victims who are reaching out for help. Callers to this hotline may remain anonymous if they are reluctant to state their real name.

If you are a victim, or believe that a family member may be a victim of sex trafficking or abuse within the trimmigrant community, call the DVSAC crisis line 24 hours a day at 530-272-3467, or the newly established ASA Hot Line at 530-270-9273.

Don’t remain silent – seek help now.

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com.


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