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Snipping the bud: Prep work is a payday in the marijuana business

An international, countercultural labor force prepares pot on its path to market. Trimmers can make $200 a day plus lodging, sometimes 'with a crazy guy in the middle of the woods with an AK-47.'

December 02, 2011|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times
  • People from all over the world descend on Northern California to "trim" the marijuana crop. Trimmers can make $200 a day plus lodging.
People from all over the world descend on Northern California to "trim"… (Joe Mozingo / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Sebastopol, Calif. -- In an old, shingled house not far from the center of town, the trim crew hunkered over trays in the living room, snipping away at the strain of the day, Blue Dream. Its pungency knifed the air, like a medley of French roasted coffee beans and roadkill skunk.

Sheets and a sleeping bag blocked the windows facing the neighbors. Panels of jury-rigged fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling. Johnny Cash sang "The Man Comes Around" from a laptop.

Jeremiah, from Oregon, presided at the head of the table, wearing plug earrings shaped like bolts, a bracelet with a beetle in resin, and a cap with an old brass lock and a keyhole he calls his third eye. He had been coming south to Northern California for the marijuana harvest for four years.

He was happy to find this particular job, making about $200 a day, with not much risk. "Much better than working with a crazy guy in the middle of the woods with an AK-47," he said.

This season his boss was Nicholas, an affable young man with a patchy beard, a wool cap and skinny jeans, who oversaw the operation as "trim manager." He wielded no weaponry; Nicholas was a bonsai enthusiast, and preferred audio books and NPR to keep minds engaged during the tedious work.

The members of his crew, ages 22 to 32, had never met before this job and came here to Sonoma County from as far as Michigan and Louisiana.

The rise of the medical marijuana industry has brought new growers, new techniques and higher visibility to the Northern California growing scene — both state-sanctioned and pure outlaw — and created a demand for more workers. The "trim circle," once a highly secretive, friends-and-family affair, now draws counterculture pilgrims from around the world.

When authorities busted a large grow in Humboldt County in late October, the arrests included trimmers from Spain, France, Ukraine, Australia and Canada.

"We're seeing a lot more of the foreign people coming in," Humboldt Dist. Atty. Paul Gallegos said. "It's sort of the new Gold Rush."

From September through November, trimmers wander the streets of old logging towns with their dusty sleeping-bags and Fiskars pruning scissors, networking with locals and fellow travelers at music festivals, bars and coffee shops. Some of the bolder ones stand on the side of the road with cardboard signs scrawled in marijuanese: "Have Fiskars, Will Work."

In some cases, growers and trimmers openly seek each other out on Craigslist: "Need helping hand with trimming my 'rose bushes,'" read a posting on Oct. 21 from Arcata. "It's that time of the year, and I need a helping hand with the last bit of trimming. Females are preferred since I am in my 20s, so I like to keep it around my age. I'm a fun guy, and you'd have a great time."

Newcomers with few connections who answer such ads might find themselves tent-camping deep in the woods, hours from any town, under the paranoid watch of a heavily armed grower with a small fortune to gain or lose with one crop. Those better situated might get to flop out on the floor of a rented house — with hot showers, Internet and good company — working under a semblance of legality for a medical cannabis collective.

Employers span a spectrum of back-to-the-earth hippie, redneck local, hard-core urban criminal, middle-class professional, and socially minded entrepreneur enforcing yoga breaks and veganism.

"I've been on trims where it's a plush, upper-middle-class home, with great food and wine," said Jonah Raskin, author of "Marijuanaland" and a professor at Sonoma State University. "Other people might be taken off in the night. They don't know where they are, and they can't just leave."

State law allows collectives of patients to grow marijuana for doctor-recommended medical use. The federal government sees all marijuana use and production as illegal and, as part of a recent nationwide crackdown, raided the garden of a collective in Mendocino County that had even the sheriff's blessing.

Many in the business suspect the enforcement will drive many growers complying with the state law underground. But how many people fit this category is anybody's guess.

With no real state regulation, the line between the medical cannabis market and the plain-old illegal one has been murky. Growers can easily sell to both, trimmers work for both, and consumers can buy from both. During the holiday season, when there is a glut of cheap marijuana after the harvest, dispensaries in the Bay Area report a big drop in business as customers go to the black market.

On a recent night, six mostly dreadlocked trimmers from a grow in Calistoga dined at the upscale Sea Thai Bistro in Santa Rosa after a long day of work. They reeked of pot, but no one seemed to care.

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