Northern California’s Underground Marijuana Industry

The “Emerald Triangle” refers to a region in Northern California which is named due to it being the largest cannabis-producing region in the United States. The drug problem in California and the rest of the nation finds its trafficking roots here. Mendocino County, Humboldt County, and Trinity County are the three counties in Northern California that make up this region, and the drug problem in Northern CA especially. Growers have been cultivating cannabis plants in this region since the 1960s, during San Francisco’s Summer of Love. For decades, the ancient forests here have provided cover for the nation’s largest marijuana-growing industry, shielding pot farmers from convention, outsiders and law enforcement.

The Marijuana Issue in Northern California

In the rural counties of Northern California, marijuana is still a largely underground industry, worth billions. Growing cannabis in The Emerald Triangle is considered a way of life, and the locals believe that everyone living in this region is either directly or indirectly reliant on the marijuana business. The industry exploded in the region with the passage of Proposition 215 which legalized the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes in California. Even before the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, legal medical marijuana sales were valued at $2.7 billion, according to The ArcView Group, a marijuana market research firm. Sales are projected to balloon to $6.4 billion by 2020 with that legalization recently passing. It’s big business, drawing busloads of job seekers. The drug problem in Northern California at this point becomes about more than just drugs.

Students from the nearest college, Humboldt State University, return from a summer of trimming marijuana buds with tales of being forced to perform oral sex on their boss to get paid. Others working during the June-to-November harvest recount offers of higher wages to trim topless. During one harvest season, two growers began having sex with their teenage trimmer. When they feared she would run away, they locked her inside an oversized toolbox with breathing holes.

Yet law enforcement repeatedly has failed to investigate abuse and sexual violence in the industry. Instead, officers mostly focus on what they view as the root cause of the problem: the drug trade.

Immigrants who come to the area for work trimming marijuana plants are referred to as “trimmigrants.” Come harvest season, they arrive from all over the country and world – college students and artists, working professionals and tourists, homeless hippies, and other wanderers, jockeying for jobs with homemade signs. Many camps along the river or in the woods until they find work or try to meet potential employers by frequenting local bars or volunteering at one of the area’s many marijuana-funded nonprofits.

The number of trimmigrants who go missing alone is overwhelming for law enforcement, fueling an epidemic of the lost. In 2015, Humboldt County reported 352 missing people, more per capita than any other county in the state, according to Reveal, a center for investigative reporting.

In addition to women and girls who come of their own volition to trim, others are brought in specifically to provide sex services. Come harvest season, escorts flood these rural areas, drawn to the large population of male growers and laborers who spend months at a time alone on isolated mountain farms.

Of course, many marijuana farms are responsible operations. Most workers describe good experiences, including excellent pay, food, and shelter. Many also welcome the unusual working conditions of an industry long at odds with mainstream culture and the law. Drug use on the job, for instance, is common.

Unfortunately, marijuana use is often a gateway to more intensive drug use: cocaine, Ecstasy, meth and heroin fuel the fires of this dark underbelly of the marijuana industry.

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