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Marijuana’s ‘trimmigrant’ labor force poses conflicts for some North Coast towns

A group of men from Bolivia, Spain and Argentina seeking work in the cannabis industry as trimmers gather in October in Willits. (KENT PORTER/ PD)

GLENDA ANDERSON,

Every fall, waves of transient pot trimmers descend on the rural North Coast looking for work during the lucrative marijuana harvest season, and that annual influx — unorganized and sometimes unruly — is fueling widening tensions with residents just as the state’s pot industry is poised for a legalized boom.

Garberville has been particularly hard hit by the flood of seasonal pot trimmers — known as trimmigrants — who converge on the Emerald Triangle from September to December but often find themselves without a job or a place to live, straining the community’s resources and goodwill.

Problems range from loitering and littering to blatant drug use, theft, illegal camping, trespassing and defecating in public areas, said Beth Allen, a Garberville restaurateur and marijuana farmer.

Most concerning, people working in the business also have been killed and abused, while others have disappeared, never to be found, according to police.

Allen said she’s witnessed men fighting with machetes, people injecting drugs in the street, verbal assaults and strange burglaries, like one during which a burglar urinated on the victim’s bed.

“There’s crazy, crazy stuff going on here,” said Allen, who carries a Taser weapon for safety and began confronting the transients several years ago.

Some Humboldt and Mendocino county residents this year began circulating fliers — claiming to be from an “Office of Trimmigration” — that set out codes of conduct for would-be trimmers. They include keeping dogs on leashes, putting trash in receptacles and not using streets as toilets.

In Garberville, fed-up residents last year began to patrol the streets. They ask people to move along and tell them when their behavior is unacceptable. They also advise them on how to find medical and substance abuse assistance.

The problem primarily is with people who are drawn to the area by marijuana but then either can’t find work or decide not to work, she said. The town’s reputation for being permissive is attractive to transients and drug addicts, Allen said.

The Nov. 11 slaying of a Mendocino County marijuana grower has underscored the danger of working within the state’s marijuana industry, which remains largely underground despite the legalization of medical marijuana in 1996 and voters’ approval of recreational pot earlier this month.

Jeffrey Settler, 35, was beaten and stabbed at his rural property near Laytonville, an area known for wide-scale cannabis cultivation. More than 100 pounds of illegally grown processed marijuana was taken, sheriff’s officials said. Two of the people Settler had hired to trim the pot have been arrested on suspicion of murder and robbery, and detectives are seeking five others in the crime. The outstanding suspects are all in their 20s or 30s and hail from states as far away as Illinois, New York and New Jersey.

The use of migrant labor in the marijuana trade is not new. Trimmigrants have been employed for the industry’s seasonal harvest and processing rush for decades.

Hiring strangers, often from the side of a road or a parking lot, is a risk some people take when they can’t find enough people they know to help harvest and trim their pot crops, said Tim Blake, a Laytonville-based medical marijuana farmer, advocate and founder of the Emerald Cup. Settler’s family said he made a habit of picking up strangers and helping them find jobs and a place to live.

That is not safe, Blake said.

“You’re bringing people in you don’t know,” he said. “You’re bringing them into your house. You just don’t do that.”

It also can be dicey for the workers. Over the years, some have been killed while working in pot gardens. Women have reported being sexually assaulted by their employers.

Vero, a 26-year-old woman from Spain who was strumming a guitar outside a Laytonville grocery store on a sunny day last month, said this is her fourth season trimming bud in Northern California to earn travel money. Her destinations include Central America and Cuba.

She has heard stories about sexual assaults on trimmers and had a couple of scary events while hitchhiking in California. She once overheard two men with whom she was riding discuss kidnapping her when they thought she was asleep. She said she jumped out of the car and ran when they stopped at a gas station.

“It was scary,” said Vero, who declined to give her full name. She said she’s very careful now and tries to work only for people she met on prior visits.

Blake expects underground, risky jobs in the pot business to largely disappear with the recent voter-approved legalization for personal use and pending regulations aimed at regulating and taxing the industry. He said it will make it safer for all concerned by bringing marijuana-related employment into the mainstream.

“It will completely change the way trimming is done,” Blake said.

He predicted much of the trimming work will be shipped to cities where there’s a larger pool of laborers. Distributors will likely purchase harvested pot and process it in large facilities in places like Santa Rosa, he said. Growers already are moving toward mechanization to reduce their reliance on laborers, he said.

The allure of the North Coast’s marijuana jobs also will diminish if pay levels decline as large-scale growers enter the business and pot prices drop, Blake said. Wholesale prices for California cannabis have fallen from a high of about $5,000 a pound two decades ago and now are closer to $1,000 a pound, he said. National wholesale prices have been reported at about $1,600 a pound.

Cannabis costs almost $400 a pound to produce, including water, rent and fertilizers, Blake said, and trimmers take a big chunk of growers’ profits on top of that.

Trimmers are currently paid about $150 for each pound of bud they trim, Blake said. Depending on how fast they work, they make between $20 and $40 an hour, he said. He predicted trimmers will be converted to hourly wages of $15 to $20 as the marijuana industry emerges from the shadows and operates as a fully legal and regulated business.

Others are skeptical that legalization and regulation will bring many positive changes. Colorado, which legalized marijuana for personal use four years ago, still has people who import marijuana illegally from Humboldt County, Allen said.

“No matter what, there will always be a black market,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter