How The Legal Weed Industry Is Squeezing Out Women Growers
Lots of people are preparing to cash in as America opens up to legal cannabis. So why do many of the women who’ve grown weed in Northern California for generations feel so left behind?
On a warm September evening, about 70 women gather at The Peg House, a famed roadside burger joint on Northern California’s Highway 101. They arrive in a stream of 4x4 trucks and carpools of Subarus; some have driven hours from remote hillside homesteads. At the state park across the road, there’s plenty of room to pitch tents under the redwoods.
The women are here for a campout hosted by Women Grow, a business launched by female entrepreneurs in Denver in 2014, with the goal of helping women find their footing in the fast-growing weed industry. Paying members of Women Grow can list their businesses in a national directory, or connect with other entrepreneurs through the organization’s weekly newsletter. There are local chapters in California’s Mendocino and Humboldt counties; the Peg House campout was their first joint meeting. Networking, a skill-share for seasonal farming advice, and a one-woman show prepared by Sherry Glaser, a dispensary owner and long-time veteran of the business, are on the agenda.
As states across America choose to make medical marijuana legal, the promise of a noncriminal weed industry is creating a rush for jobs and cash. Women are getting in on the money—in July, Women Grow estimated that some 20 percent of marijuana-related businesses are owned by women. There are women incubating start-ups in Denver and Seattle; in New York, they’re raising capital to meet the costly vertical integration requirements of the state’s new licensing program, which asks marijuana companies to grow their own plants, process them, and sell them at their own dispensary.
For some, this is a brand new industry, but in the region known as California’s Emerald Triangle—comprised of rural Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties—many women have spent their lives growing and marketing pot. Although the underground nature of marijuana farming makes precise accounting difficult, California’s Board of Equalization, the state tax agency, estimates the state is home to over 53,000 pot farms. A measure, or several, to legalize recreational use of marijuana is likely to appear on ballots in California in November 2016, and it’s likely it will pass, creating an even greater incentive to grow.
But even when it’s legal, selling weed carries high risks and high costs. And now, many of the women in Northern California’s weed-growing counties—whose product has for years called attention to how much money might be made from recreational weed—are worried the booming market may leave them behind. Finding footing in the transitioning industry is perhaps hardest for the generation of women who’ve been in the Triangle the longest, living for years in legal limbo, amidst a culture that values secrecy as an ultimate virtue. Though medical marijuana cultivation has been semi-legal in the Triangle since California’s Proposition 215 passed in 1996, the region has a distinct outlaw culture, governed by distrust of law enforcement and authority. As a result, womens’ experiences have gone largely unshared.
“We don’t want women from different communities to be working on these issues separately. We want to break down the invisible barriers.” — Crystal Rae Aleman
Sitting at picnic tables positioned around an outdoor stage, the Women Grow attendees discuss rumors that this will be California’s last “wild” harvest season. In Sacramento, 200 miles southeast, the California state legislature is wrapping up a session. On September 11, they’ll approve the state’s first new set of cannabis laws in 20 years, a package of bills called the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act. The laws will create a new system to govern California’s aboveground medical weed industry and decriminalize an estimated billion dollars worth of revenue; growers, distributors, and retail shops will all be required to hold both state and local licenses, and growers will only be allowed to send their products to licensed distributors. The act recognizes weed growers as farmers and business owners—it allows for for-profit entities, in addition to previously approved medical/caregiver entities—but encourages those businesses to stay small: permits are capped at 1 acre for outdoor growers and half an acre for indoor growers, though some number of bigger farms may be allowed in the future. It’s projected by marijuana farmers’ lobbyists that only one in ten of the state’s existing pot farms will make it through the new licensing process.
The women at the campout are looking to turn their lifetime’s experience with weed into success in California’s increasingly regulated market. The new laws aren’t simple, and they’ll need lawyers, accountants, and branding skills to compete with the venture capitalists and corporations eyeing their customers. When the meeting officially starts, 51-year-old Mendocino chapter chair Crystal Rae Aleman asks each of the women to introduce themselves and “come out of the closet,” so to speak. Over the next hour they stand up one by one—trimmers, third-generation farmers, edible makers, herbalists, and dispensary owners—many sharing their experiences with strangers for the first time.
A visit from Child Protective Services is among the women’s most-dreaded scenarios. “They can take everything you own, even your children, if there’s cannabis in the home. It tears apart families,” Aleman, an herbalist and grandmother of two, says later, sitting in her garden and distilling weed into an alcohol-based substance she will blend into various medicinal salves and sell. Arrest reports in local papers routinely mention children taken by CPS, in cases ranging from the confiscation of hundreds of pounds to the spotting of “loose marijuana on a table.” In recent years, Mendocino County’s rate of children in foster care was more than twice the state average. “It’s always been a topic on whether someone with a 215 card is an appropriate guardian or caregiver,” says Stacey Cryer, Mendocino’s Director of Health and Human Services, referring to the doctor’s recommendation card that deems someone a legal patient, allowed to possess and cultivate medical weed. If parents are detained, leaving children without a guardian, CPS is called right away, regardless of the parents’ guilt or innocence, Cryer says.
Tara Bluecloud, a 32-year-old mother of three and fifth-generation farmer of specialized medicinal strains with ornate botanical tattoo sleeves, says her first priority is making sure her children are off the property if a police convoy is coming. Bluecloud has worked in the business and as an activist for legalization since her mid-teens; now, she worries about the consequences of her teenager saying the wrong thing in front of the wrong person. “Law enforcement calls Child Protective Services, they seize the children, then they investigate if it’s a valid seizure—that’s backwards,” adds Pebbles Trippet, a prominent activist now in her 80s, who arrived in the region in the ’70s as part of the sweeping back-to-the-land movement.
Raids by drug task forces—who are beholden to both local and state laws, and periodically involve federal agents—are a source of tension and hardship, whether or not they involve children. People with medicinal cards can grow up to 25 plants in Mendocino and 99 in Humboldt, and homes are raided when authorities suspect someone’s growing or selling outside their license. The Triangle communities are small, and residents say there’s a lot of mystery around who’s targeted and how they’re prosecuted. Some raids begin with anonymous tips from neighbors and end with no files charged; other subjects of raids report feeling personally targeted by sheriffs. In Mendocino, a restitution program launched in 2011 allows suspects to plead to a misdemeanor and receive probation if they pay fees per plant and pound of processed pot, funds which are then shared by the state, D.A.’s office, and local police. Mendocino authorities say these deals have reduced pressure on their staff and increased their budgets; some locals consider them extortion.
Judy Albert, an advocate at the county’s Project Sanctuary, which offers free services to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, points to stories from clients who claim they’ve been prosecuted even after following county rules and passing inspections. “For most people, when they enter the legal system,” Albert says, “it’s utterly shocking how few rights you have, no matter how loud you scream.” Trippet, the veteran activist, says women who’ve made a life in the weed industry are weighed down by a “fear presence,” shouldering the stress of resisting authorities. “I look at it as a tapestry that has been woven against us for so long that we’ve had a hard time even knowing how to come out of it,” she says.
“The best thing women can do it figure out how to get compliant. Being a legitimate business is the only way we can address this.” —Amber Cline
As their industry transitions, though, growers in the Triangle are opening up to each other about their work, and the sexism they’ve encountered. Aleman, the Mendocino chair, recently attended industry events in Las Vegas and Oregon. She was shocked by the display of other businesses’ strength, and exasperated by the men she heard giggling at some businesswomen there. “I couldn’t believe women were still being disrespected that way,” she says.
“Men have pretty much been in charge, and they’re still in charge pretty much of the movement, and that would include the initiative for the 2016 ballot,” says Trippet. “There’s a lot of avoidance of inclusiveness.” When Aleman went to flyer for the Humboldt-Mendocino campout at a big garden supply store in Willits, which offers a hugely popular growing season sale each 4/20, she says she was told to “go home and read a book to your children.”
Still, Aleman says her trips out of town have made her more determined to connect with women at home. “I had known one woman for 15 years before I realized we both were using cannabis,” she says. By running meetings, she’s increasingly aware of how divided local women are—both geographically and economically. Some women drive two hours each way to meet up, Aleman says, and more don’t have the time or money to make the trip. Many women working in the industry—trimmers, seasonal laborers, transporters—take the same risks as business owners, but don’t stand to reap the same rewards. Aleman has offered childcare and scholarship money, sponsored by local businesses, to help “women and families of color, local tribal members, sexual abuse survivors, farmers who’ve been through raids, and veterans” get to the meetings. “We don’t want women from different communities to be working on these issues separately,” she says. “We’re trying to support tribal communities, Latino communities. We want to break down the invisible barriers,” she says.
“The best thing women can do it figure out how to get compliant. Being a legitimate business is the only way we can address this,” says Amber Cline, a 32-year-old farmer who says her artisanal weed business subsidizes her vegetable sales. Anticipating the legal changes, Cline began giving presentations around the region earlier this year on how farms can adopt environmentally friendly techniques that comply with new regulations. Cline estimates it will take existing farms at least $50,000 to get up to speed with new requirements, an amount beyond the reach of many. “There are a lot of us trying to grow with integrity, using the best practices we’ve developed over the years,” says Aleman. “But even if we think positively and organize, I think there will be a lot of hard years ahead, and a lot of people won’t make it.”
On the last day of September, a convoy thought to be comprised of county, state, and federal agents makes its way up the mountain where Cline’s farm is located. Helicopters fly the southern ridges of nearby Covelo, unidentified men descending from them and chopping down plants on multiple properties. In Mendocino County, it can be hard for local reporters to get a straight answer about raids from the sheriff’s department, but as the convoy rolls in, locals activate phone trees and light up Facebook with tracking of its progress. In the comments, a new mother debates whether or not to leave with her newborn, then asks a friend to check on her goats and chickens as she decides to flee. An older woman, who’s lived on the hill with her family for decades, stays behind with her plants and is arrested.