The director of the California Growers Association blamed exploitation on the legacy of marijuana prohibition. Credit: CREDIT: Sarah Rice for Reveal

It’s been a few years since Hezekiah Allen, director of the California Growers Association, lived in the secretive folds of the Emerald Triangle. But it all came rushing back last week, when Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting published an investigation into sexual abuse in California’s pot country.

“It was a reminder of how insulated we are, even from each other,” Allen said. “It reminded me of the importance of talking to each other and the importance of promoting this dialogue.”

Allen opened his email and began drafting a letter to the association’s membership of growers. The subject line: “Stand together.”

Reveal’s investigation “details the appalling truth that humanity has a dark side,” he wrote.

Allen, whose group was instrumental in passing medical marijuana regulations into law last year, blamed the exploitation on the legacy of marijuana prohibition. (Allen does not back Proposition 64, the November ballot initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana in the state, alleging that it favors larger farms and will push smaller ones onto the black market.)

“A multi-generational failure of public policy has given safe-harbor to criminals in our communities,” he wrote in his email.

Reveal’s investigation found that decades of battles between law enforcement and marijuana farmers have created a culture of silence that’s easily exploited by predators. Migrant workers, known as “trimmigrants,” are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

Allen and the California Growers Association now are calling for a series of solutions.

Marijuana growers and workers should be regulated, he said, noting the association is exploring a registration program for workers and looking closer at migrant labor camps. He said it would also support resurrecting a bill – which failed earlier this year – to require labor and safety training for marijuana cultivators.

The region needs more resources for police, mental health and emergency services, he said, and better law enforcement training. Reveal found law enforcement repeatedly has failed to investigate sexual abuse of workers. Instead, officers focus mostly on what they view as the root cause of the problem: the drug trade.

“Though it is unpopular to many growers who grew up victimized by the war on drugs, rural counties need more resources for law enforcement,” Allen wrote, adding that Reveal’s investigation highlighted the apparent “cracks in our mental health and social safety nets.”

“There is no place for such activity in the world that I envision nor in the world that we are working to build together. It is no secret that criminal behavior lingers in the shadows cast by prohibition and regulatory vacuum,” he continued. “It is time to stand together as beacons, embracing change and solutions as we illuminate the darkest shadows.”

Reveal’s investigation literally hit close to home, though, because Allen spent much of his childhood in Petrolia, where a local grower’s rape of a trimmigrant recently led to the first conviction of its kind in Humboldt County. That case was one focus of Reveal’s investigation.

Allen and his mother moved there when he was 11, after he said his stepfather was arrested for growing marijuana. There they found a beautiful community, but one sometimes ruled by fear.

Allen said that growers should be concerned about the culture of secrecy that pervades the region. Too often, growers and victims told Reveal that they fear that calling law enforcement will lead to repercussions, either from police or from others in the community. The result is that most abuse is never reported.

“I’ve personally spent many nights in my life crying, knowing that there was an injustice and I was aware of it, but if I spoke up I would be subject to an injustice of my own,” Allen said. He said by reporting abuse, farmers risk not only arrest by law enforcement, but retaliation from other people in the community – including violence, robbery, vandalism or the possibility that Child Protective Services may be called in. But, he said, he wants that to change.

“I want it to be safe to talk openly about what happens behind that curtain,” he said. “I want to be able to call the sheriff and say, ‘Hey, this is going on,’ without worrying about my own well-being.”

Allen has since relocated to the Sacramento area, where he works full time for the association. But he remains connected to his hometown. He said Reveal’s investigation prompted many growers to feel “really lost and hopeless.”

“It’s easy to put things out of sight, out of mind, when part of the (Emerald Triangle’s) remote, isolated landscape is that we’re isolated from each other, too,” he said. “This reminded folks that this was here. Let’s turn this pain we’re collectively feeling into something.”

Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@cironline.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.