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Suffering, Death, and Exploitation: Cannabis Farm Workers Share Their Stories

Destiny O.

by Destiny O.

July 20, 2023 08:00 am ET Estimated Read Time: 7 Minutes
Suffering, Death, and Exploitation: Cannabis Farm Workers Share Their Stories

It’s been cheerful days for cannabis consumers as legal cannabis sweeps wide across the US. The one-time evil buds have become a widely accepted multi-billion dollar industry, offering consumers easy legal access to cannabis sales outlets.

Unfortunately, it’s an agonizing experience for cannabis farm workers, who cultivate, nurse, harvest, and trim the trees. In those farms are a series of undocumented, horrific tales of exploitation and misery.

Rather than getting thumbs-up for their hard labor and key contribution to the growing cannabis market, these unsung heroes of America’s weed industry are humiliated and subjected to deplorable living conditions by their employers. Worse, during visits, cannabis farm regulators pay no heed to their plight, which is quite disturbing in such a defining era in legal cannabis history. 

These sad tales of modern slavery and inhumanity guise under labor cuts across states and counties in the U.S.

Close up of Cannabis Cultivation

Between 2016 and 2021, 35 dead workers were reported in cannabis farms across eight Southern Oregon and California counties. These casualties were caused by poor living conditions and operators’ use of the greenhouse grow technique to maximize profit. Dishearteningly, only one of these cases (and several unreported casualties) were investigated by workplace safety regulators.

Narrating their ordeal, living out in tents, poor sanitation, and starvation were the norms across most cannabis facilities. In some cases, employers direct workers to seek survival from charity food banks. And after going months and years without pay, the bosses run off these helpless workers from the farms at gunpoint.

Some Stories From Oregon Farms

“No one goes out. No one goes out until you’re done trimming the pot,” were the dreadful words of a gun-bearing farm guard to a newly employed mother of three at a cannabis farm near Medford, Oregon.

Narrating her experience to ABC News, “You feel horrible. You feel humiliated, trampled on. You feel like dying,” said the young woman.

Oregon decriminalized recreational cannabis in 2015, primarily to boost tax revenue and cut down on the thriving black market activities in the state. Less than a decade later, foreign drug cartels have exploited the regulatory loopholes, operating massive illegal cannabis plantations at the detriment of exploited migrant laborers.

In southern Oregon, thousands of unlicensed farms confine workers to abusive working conditions and deplorable living standards.

Further narrating her ordeal with their enslavers, “We were prisoners because we couldn’t go out. We worked very long hours, sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning. They were constantly pushing us to work faster, to trim the pot,” Alejandra told ABC News.

For Alejandra, she feared she could never make it out of the farms. She watched the guards kill uncooperating workers. “My kids, my mother…. That’s all I could think about….wishing I could see them again.”

During a raid on an illegal cannabis production facility by HSI and local authorities, ABC News reported 17 workers and a toddler on the property. On one of the three neighboring properties also ransacked, authorities found over a hundred illegal greenhouses, 7,000 pounds of trimmed cannabis, and over 8,500 stands of black market weed.

The farms raided found were also demolished to stop operations, and Unete, a non-profit organization, took custody of exploited workers, offering them access to decent shelter and food. Oregon would require strong drug laws (and aggressive enforcement) to manage this narco-slave epidemic.

California Farms Have Similar Tales

The story isn’t different in California, a frontline legal cannabis state and the birthplace of farm labor activism. Abuse, death threats, and gruesome living conditions were common reports from Los Angeles Times investigations.

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On one of the police raids to a farm in San Bernardino County, Times reported some horrible sights, including a young couple who dwelt in a tent by a greenhouse that oozes a dangerous insecticide, prohibited in the US. Worse still, the woman was pregnant. Wage theft is another prevalent case, even in licensed facilities. 

Aggrieved employees who filed claims to the state expressed frustration over the non-responsiveness of the authorities, as most cases were delayed for over a year. With such ridiculously overstretched wait time, most lost hope and eventually abandoned their claims. 

On routine inspections, state regulators ignored these starved-looking unpaid laborers and turned blind eyes to the horrible barns and tents they dwelled in; noises of generators and water runoff were their chief priority. During raids, workers at unlicensed farms are usually tagged criminal suspects, bundled, and hauled off to jail. Licensed farms’ visible sufferings are overlooked, and many go months and years without pay.

On a war-on-drug raid on a weed farm in Berry Creek, among three people caught in an attempt to flee were 12 farm workers (all Mexicans) and 3 bosses geared with body armor and weapons. The workers, who had no passports or cell phones, revealed that they were held captive in the farms and their documents seized and stashed by their bosses.

Unfortunately, disheartening tales like these are way too common in today’s cannabis industry.

The Cannabis Farm Regulations and Regulators

“Under no circumstances would any worker in any other industry, or for that matter in legitimate agriculture, be required to live in the conditions that these people are required to live in,” Kory Honea, a Butte County Sheriff, told Times after the raid in Berry Creek.

While regulators are tough on agricultural operators who didn’t satisfy regulatory expectations in providing workers with standard housing and access to food and restrooms, the same cannot be said for cannabis industry regulators. In a legal grow space in Mendocino County, workers shared one toilet, converting the woods to an alternate loo. They would get warm water by hanging a bucket of water in the sun to heat.

Under these miseries, these workers tended to about a thousand cannabis plants. For their hard work, 25 say they are still owed over $100,000 in payments.

According to a Times report, in a series of text conversations with workers, the farm owner pleaded for patience, blaming failing market prices, poor yields caused by pests and mold, and the inefficiency of the hired farm manager. “I am so broke right now,” Mike Womack, the owner texted.

Things got so bad that an Argentine couple was overjoyed at simply receiving $600 of the $6,500 they were owed from Womack. Five workers said they had reported Womack to California’s labor regulators, requesting $96,000.

Many workers feared leaving these inhumane conditions meant forfeiting the entire money, watching their years of extensive labor go down the drain.

Although most of these cases are not documented (since the mostly-illegal-immigrant workers are silent for fear of exposing their identities and getting reported to immigration authorities or having a gun pulled up on them), regulators see these unsightly conditions during their inspection.

Cannabis control employees, meanwhile, say they are handicapped since cannabis regulations are silent on these labor concerns. Only recently, the Department of Cannabis Control acknowledged suspicion of human trafficking, violent threats, wage complaints, and poor housing. The agency promised protocols are currently set up for such referrals.

Withholding details of complaints received, the agency said such cases were confidential until investigations authenticate the claims. 

While reassuring workers of a well-regulated work environment, the licensing agency directed aggrieved complaints to the Department of Industrial Relations, the appropriate channel for addressing workers’ wages and compensation, as well as workplace safety. 

The agency encouraged workers to make reports to trigger action and that unpaid wage claims directed to the Industrial Relations Department must, by law, be settled in 4 1/2 months. But contrary to this claim, workers say they often wait much longer than what the Department promised.

One loophole in the law, which is unduly exploited, is that it allows a delay when it leads to “an equitable and just resolution.” About 50 percent of reported cases have been abandoned or withdrawn. Among the settled cases, six were in favor of workers, and others were resolved between the complaints and their employers, a situation legally referred to as an “equitable and just resolution.”

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