REDWAY, CA — “I know lawyers and teachers that do trimming, our community is really dependent on this,” explains Michelle Hood the Redwood Women’s Foundation in Trinidad, Humboldt County. She adds, “But many people are afraid to be known as someone doing this kind of work.” Her organization bills itself as a “rural laboratory for women’s empowerment,” with a focus on developing programs and workshops to support North Coast women. So with the cannabis harvest in full swing, the importance of seasonal side work to many women apparent and recent attention to the particular dangers faced by women trimmers, Hood decided to organize a series of events to provide knowledge, access to resources, and a safe space for people to talk and learn.
At an evening session in Redway on October 26, about 15 women (and one man) discussed not only practical tips, but the larger ways rural North Coast communities can develop better support for cannabis workers with limited resources and available services. Hood’s “Harm Reduction in the Hills” workshops are designed to foster a safer environment for trimmers by sharing harm reduction and safety strategies for the least powerful of cannabis workers. Hood, along with sociologist Brandie Wilson, hopes to build a safer community for women in the cannabis industry while they are working on grey market farms.
Though there are women growers, dispensary owners, distributors, and business owners throughout the North Coast, women also make up more than half the trimmer labor force, and risks facing any trimmer can be compounded by threats of sexual violence or assault, as recently documented in an investigative report by Shoshana Walter at Reveal. Women who are year-round residents can face the same dangers as those visiting for harvest season, even when working for people known in the community. “Otherwise really progressive people treat women like 1950s housewives,” said Hood.
In the Emerald Triangle trimmers can encounter a range of exploitation and abuse exacerbated by decades of prohibition, a semi-legal and cash economy, and the remote location and isolation of many gardens. All this happens in a rural region where community support services are few and far between, and simple tasks from making phone calls to accessing medical care can be difficult.
Both Hood and Wilson noted that they’d seen an increase in stories of dangerous situations recently with the “green rush,” as it’s brought both extra investment and work-seekers to the region, and changes to the market, along with lower wages for trimmers. Jobs can come with plenty of clear risks: working with strangers in remote and isolated areas, doing work that is questionably legal, being paid in cash can put harvest workers in a vulnerable position, although the pay can be higher than other agriculture jobs or other unskilled work in the region.
Hood stated that ensuring safe workplaces for cannabis trimmers was a social justice issue, noting the class divisions within the cannabis community, adding that growers and other residents often forget that trimmers don’t have the capital to become cultivators themselves. “Why don’t they just grow weed?” is a question she’s heard of the trimming labor pool.
More cultivators are now producing value-added products such as concentrates and edibles — often with the remainder of a crop that previously would have been discarded — and Hood noted that while growers may be pulling in bigger profits despite a drop in the price of flowers, wages for trimmer have declined over the last several years. She added that the increasing numbers of immigrants in the workforce — and many immigrant cultivators who “our community has rented to and sold property to” — face additional risks and are often paid even less.
For the workshops, Wilson, who also works with the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction, drew on her years of research in the cannabis and sex industries to share tips for workers to keep safe. Hood described how the women came together to start a community conversation as “magical.” Wilson began the workshop by pointing out that these problems aren’t unique to the north coast, but decades of prohibition have heightened some of the problems, sharing stories of sexual assault, wage theft, violent crimes, and trimmer suicides throughout her advice presentation, which combined practical safety strategies with warnings about potential physical and environmental risks trimmers might encounter.
She commended those hiring “local first,” and pointed out that there are advantages to “trim camp,” including that many local cultivators had made significant donations to community organizations. However, she reminded the group that “not everyone got into weed with shared values of love and freedom — some are just in it for money and greed.”
Kerry Reynolds, of Cannabis Consciousness News, asked whether the influx of out-of-county workers each harvest season was, as with other crops, simply a response the large amount of cannabis grown in the region, and important to the local industry. Wilson pointed out that it’s important for workers to question whether their prospective employer might have alienated local workers, have large grows with potential environmental hazards, or were too new to the industry to be good managers. She acknowledged that additional workers were necessary, however, and also needed a safe environment.
“They are going to come are they are needed,” said one participant, relating that she had taken two young women home despite having no work to offer so they “wouldn’t go sleep by the river.” Another questioned, “they already took the risk to take a plane or a bus or a train here, how can we warn them not to get in a stranger’s car?” One attendee pointed out that many women don’t know to ask for what resources may be available.
Hood noted that factors like a lack of safe places to stay or community connections can make it difficult for women to protect themselves and asked, “how many women have gone missing?” Pointing to the relative lack of camping affordable accommodations along the 101, Hood said she’s been researching where it might be possible for women to create a safe place to stay for travellers and local workers too far to commute from home nightly.
A good portion of the discussion focused on how rural areas such as southern Humboldt often receive less funding for social services than the resources concentrated in urban areas, and whether community members could fill that gap. “They think if they do nothing, people will just go away,” one woman lamented. Another referred to a local group who patrolled Garberville’s transient camps to deter visitors, and posited an alternative group to ensure camper safety. “They want to patrol with hate, but you can patrol with love,” she suggested. A third woman reminded the group that historically, growers had discouraged a local law enforcement presence and should pause before requesting increased policing as the solution.
Others at the workshop shared their hopes that new regulations would create a different kind of local community, noting that maybe if it’s more legal “people will be more receptive to have services here,” and wondering if compliance funds and taxes could go towards community organizations. While some participants hoped such changes would attract more locals to work in non-cannabis positions, others pushed for community groups to work with trimmers to create job centers and other local resources as the industry has deep local roots. “They’re going to do it anyways, and we’re going to grow weed anyways.”