Ads for trimmers are tacked to a bulletin board in Garberville, Calif. Female trimmers often pair up, even form trimming collectives, counting on safety in numbers. Credit: Sarah Rice for Reveal

Marijuana growers in California would be required to train employees about worker safety and sexual harassment under legislation headed for a hearing Tuesday.

Sponsored by the UFCW Western States Council, the cannabis workers protection bill would require marijuana business owners of all kinds to put at least one employee per year through a 30-hour training from the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, introduced the bill in response to an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that uncovered widespread sexual harassment and abuse of female workers in California’s marijuana-growing industry. Reveal found that migrant workers, known as trimmigrants, are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

The bill is currently before the Assembly Committee on Business and Professions.

The state course, available online, covers workers rights and standards in the workplace, including on violence, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and health and safety hazards. It’s an education that many in the industry say growers and workers desperately need.

“Not much has changed. The standards are crappy. We need to have some basic OSHA (occupational safety and health) training, like in any business,” said Michelle Hood, director of the Redwood Women’s Foundation, which hosts workshops on worker safety. “Having someone trained to train other people is quality control. You’ve got to have it.”

Since Californians voted to legalize recreational marijuana, Hood said she hasn’t seen many changes in workplace safety and standards. Growers generally lack awareness of their requirements under the law, the result of years spent operating underground.

“You haven’t been able to go down to the Small Business Administration to find out: How am I supposed to educate my employees? How am I supposed to keep them safe?” said Brandie Wilson, a human rights commissioner in Humboldt County. “There hasn’t been a space where you can freely ask those questions about how to operate a legitimate business.”

In addition to experiencing sexual harassment and abuse, many trimmers drink and do drugs on the job, prepare and eat food where they work, and regularly experience health and safety issues, from getting resin in their eyes to accidentally stabbing themselves or others with trimming scissors.

Regulators and lawmakers are in the process of forming licensing standards and regulations over the marijuana industry. The state is expected to begin issuing licenses to cultivators in January, and many growers are making plans to move into the mainstream.

Wilson said she expects the bill, if enacted, to help those growers who are working toward legitimacy. But most worker abuses, she said, are not happening on legal marijuana farms.

“It is still the people in the shadows, because in the shadows, we have a culture of silence. ‘Snitches get stitches’ – the underground still goes by that,” Wilson said. “So as long as the majority of our cannabis is being grown underground, these are going to continue.”

Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @shoeshine.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.