The Trimmers

Life on the job for the day laborers of the marijuana business



A car drives by slowly on the rain-sodden McKinleyville street, the glow of its headlights sliding left to right across the closed curtains. Heavy footsteps sound on the wooden stairs, followed by a knock on the door. The people sitting around the L-shaped couch look up, look at each other, stop talking. Someone jumps up to turn down the music, and the host walks around behind the couch and peers through the peephole.

"Who is it?" he says, his face pressed up against the door.

"It's me," says a muffled woman's voice. A friend. The host undoes the deadbolt and swings the door open.

"Heeeey!" he exclaims, hugging the newcomer, a 20-something girl in a pea jacket and a beret. "Come on in, grab a beer, grab a spot."

The crew on the couch scoots down, leaving her a cushion on the end. She sits, and the host brings her a plastic tray and a pair of scissors. Dozens of heavy marijuana branches hang on a line strung under the TV. He pulls a couple stalks from the string and passes them to her. The music comes back on, bass-heavy electronica, and the squeak of scissors resumes.

Stems go in a box on the floor; sheared-off leaves pile up on the plastic trays and are emptied periodically into a black plastic garbage bag. Each person has a brown paper sack with a scrawled Sharpie alias to drop the finished buds into. A bong makes the rounds, and the blue smoke settles thick against the vaulted ceiling. Snowboards hang on the wall by the door, and a National Geographic poster of a redwood tree decorates the hallway. Sucked-dry lime rinds clutter the sink, matching the tequila's descent towards the bottom of the bottle.

For three months the plants grew in sealed tents in the back room of the McKinleyville apartment, flourishing under the electric lights. The renter chopped them down a week ago. Now they're dry, and he needs help with the final stage: separating the smokeable buds from the unwanted leaves and stems. He'll pay each worker $200 for every pound of trimmed marijuana he or she produces.

Untrimmed buds won't sell. They look scraggly, and produce harsh, foul-tasting smoke. They need to be trimmed, and it takes a small army to get the job done. Luckily for growers, people practically line up to do it: The pay is under the table, the food and booze and smoke are free, and the faster you work the more you get paid. Legal or not, for many in Humboldt County - college students, visitors, nine-to-fivers, grandmothers - trimming marijuana is quick money.

Estimates on how much processed marijuana is produced in Humboldt vary widely -- from as low as $250 million all the way up to $1 billion annually. Even using the lower number and a rough estimate of $2,000 a pound for processed marijuana, that means 125,000 pounds of marijuana pass through the hands of Humboldt trimmers each year. At $200 a pound, the trimmers are earning around $25 million. Then they're spending it.

Any time a trimmer buys a new piece of glass from a local head shop or a slice of pizza from the nearest hole-in-the-wall, that money goes straight into the local economy. The size of that economic boost can't be measured, but "we know it's significant," said Dr. Beth Wilson, chair of the Humboldt State economics department. Trimming jobs likely also mean that a portion of the people who are officially unemployed may actually have a part-time income. That means more money in the county, and fewer people on the poverty line, she said.

It's not just a few people making big bucks either, said Kevin Jodrey. There have to be thousands of workers to handle the amount of marijuana grown in Humboldt, he said. Jodrey is the cultivation director at the Humboldt Patient Resource Center dispensary in Arcata, which grows its own cannabis on-site. He had more than 30 years of experience growing, both indoors and outdoors, before he went legal with his job at the HPRC.

Humboldt needs trimming, Jodrey said. It provides living-wage jobs for a lot of people without degrees or trades who otherwise might not be able to find well-paying work. "A lot of people are able to derive a pretty good income," he said.

The first step is cutting down the plants. It's not like cutting down a tree --timber! and watch it hit the ground. The branches have to be separated one by one so that the smokeable buds never touch the ground, which could damage or dirty them. The larger leaves are removed, and the buds are hung up, still on the stem.

The buds can take a week or two to dry. This is a delicate step in the process. Too much heat, and the finished product will be crumbly and the smoke will be harsh. Too little heat brings the risk of mold. The buds need to be kept around 75 to 78 degrees, and between 40 to 60 percent relative humidity, Jodrey said. Many growers have special, climate-controlled rooms that they use to dry their crop.

After that comes the chore of trimming. The buds are separated from the stems. Stems don't contain much THC (the primary active ingredient of marijuana) and so are typically burned or thrown away. A pile of buds remains, covered with small leaves. These leaves, which looked so frosty and photogenic when the plants were alive, are plastered against the bud, pointed upward from drying upside-down. The unshorn buds look scrubby, like something better fed to a goat than put in a pipe.

The bud is held in the left hand, and the scissors in the right (reverse that for southpaws). Starting at the bottom of the bud and rotating towards the top, the leaves are clipped off, leaving behind just the THC-crusted flower. The leaves, which contain some THC, are either discarded or made into hash or marijuana edibles.

It's a tough job, hard on the hands and monotonous, said Jodrey. Most trimmers work at least eight-hour days. One pound in a day is on the slow side, while two is quick. Three pounds per day is not unheard of when working with large outdoor buds.

Most trimmers in Humboldt have been on the job for years, said Jodrey. Each year, some drop out of the game and others find their way in. Whether working for legal growers who withhold taxes and Social Security, or for illicit ones who don't, trimmers are wary. Not paying taxes is an offense all its own, and there are relatives, growers and bosses at legitimate jobs to consider. For every trimmer interviewed for this article, multiple others refused, even under the condition of anonymity.

Getting into the trimming business isn't hard -- it just takes meeting the right people. For "Rob," it happened on a bus. Rob leans against the doorframe in his Blue Lake house, half inside, half outside. He lights a spliff. He's blond with blue eyes, Scandinavian stock perhaps, with a beard and the start of a moustache. He's wearing a faded T-shirt and khaki pants with big pockets. He doesn't want his real name used for the story, or his photo taken. He's more worried about his grower friends reading his name and firing him than the legal consequences.

Rob and a lady friend were Greyhounding it from Modesto in the mid 2000s, on their way to visit Rob's brother at Humboldt State. They were stopped in Oakland, waiting for the bus driver to return. A kid in a flat-brimmed hat, a long white T-shirt and baggy jeans came swaggering down the aisle and plopped down across from them. He looked over and said, maybe to impress Rob's comely female companion, "I just got yelled at by security." He was smoking a joint in the parking lot. Security asked him to put it out, he told them, even after he flashed his 215 card.

Rob is finishing his last semester at HSU. Although that particular friendship ended badly, he said -- the kid skipped town with a large debt to Rob -- it helped Rob get his foot in the door, by introducing him to a girl. "A crazy ginger hippy," as Rob described her. It was her grower friends who needed help trimming.

"I wasn't a hippy, but I had long hair," Rob explained. "They were hippies. They were like, ‘Oh, you have long hair, you're chill.'"

Rob, the redhead, and another trimmer drove up the hill to Kneeland and parked the car at the end of the driveway. It was already dark; they were half-blinded when they walked into the garage through the side door. "It was crazy to see that many lights," Rob said, sparking another spliff. There were 12 1000-watt bulbs, and the four-car garage was filled with beds of soil. The owner had already planted new starts; the little plants were pale green under the yellow-orange light. They walked through the garage into a back room. "It was stanky," he said. Pounds of marijuana still on the branch hung all around the room, and the floor was dusty with kif (THC crystals).

Three people were already hard at work, their chairs in a semi-circle in the center of the room. Rob and the redhead pulled up seats and got to work. There was music, a little chit-chat, he said, but mostly everyone kept their head down, focused on the task at hand.

"I really didn't know what I was doing," Rob said. By the time the work was done, he had only produced a quarter-pound, or $50 for six hours. Still, he felt good as they drove down the hill. The sun was just cresting the horizon when they pulled into Toni's for burgers and milkshakes.

Trimming marijuana is against the law. "A trimmer is someone who is employed by someone who grows dope," said Sgt. Wayne Hansen of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department. "[They are employed] to get the leaves off of the bud." Their 215 cards are only a shield if police don't uncover evidence of intent to sell. "If they put it into a one-pound bag for sale or transport we'll charge them. They're not trimmers, they're dope dealers."

The reality, however, is that few people get in serious trouble for merely trimming. Hansen has served countless search warrants on suspected grows, and typically officers don't burst in on a trim scene, he said. In one recent case, they searched a house and found 20 pounds of processed marijuana, multiple pairs of hash-crusted trimming scissors, and a single occupant. It was obvious he'd had a trimming party the day before, Hansen said, but the suspect wasn't talking, so he was the only person who was charged.

Trimming falls under the category of processing marijuana for sale, as described under California Health and Safety Code 11359, a felony. The District Attorney's Office, though, is generally more concerned with convicting the growers making the big money, rather than the lowly trimmers, said Allan Dollison, a deputy district attorney. "In my experience, the average person who gets [caught trimming] does not have a criminal record. They're just looking for a good paying job." Last year, probably fewer than 100 people were convicted of crimes related to trimming, he said, and most of those settled in plea bargains, rarely resulting in jail time.

The prospect of fast cash by far overshadows the legal threat for many. "Trimming is the perfect job for a student," said Beth, a student at HSU, who also asked that her name be changed. "I make my schedule. I call whenever I have time, and I get paid $20 an hour, under the table."

She's a pretty brunette with a husky voice, sitting in the sun on the steps of the Art Quad at Humboldt State. Nearby two flute players practice a medieval melody, repeating the wavering strains over and over. Beth has a backpack full of cupcakes -- vanilla with rainbow chip or chocolate frosting. They're slightly greenish, and they smell faintly of weed. She's selling them to freshmen, she says with a giggle, $5 a pop.

She has been working nearly full-time for a lady in Arcata for close to a year. When there isn't any trimming to be done, she watches the woman's kids or cleans house. Her parents weren't happy when she told them about her job, but they were pleased that she stopped running up her credit card debt.

"I don't ever really feel that worried about getting in trouble," she said. So many people trim, she says, that the odds are against her ever getting caught. Beth says that while she has heard stories about the rip-offs and shootouts, she has never felt a hint of danger on the job, either from law enforcement or from shady growers. The cops aren't looking for trimmers, she said. Still, she's ready to run. (Sgt. Hansen said that running is a common trimmer tactic, and in most cases the cops don't pursue.)

It's  not just the law that people in the business have to worry about -- tensions over the cash crop can run high, and on occasion turn lethal. Recently Mikal Xylon Wilde was charged with the murder of Mario Roberto Juarez-Madrid, and the attempted murder of Fernando Lopez, both of Guatemala. Wilde was employing both men to help him grow marijuana on land near Kneeland. When they told him they wanted to quit, and receive payment for the work they'd already done, Wilde shot them, according to Lopez.

Officers speculated that Wilde feared his employees might return later to steal the crop. Growers need to know and trust their trimmers, Jodrey said. "It's really the most exposed part of the project. You should be able to leave [the trimmers] on the job, and you don't worry about them stealing your pounds."

Most of the rip-offs that happen have to do with trimmers, he said, and it often starts with a pretty girl. "It's the nature of large-scale growing. You're isolated, lonely, horny," Jodrey said. "It clouds your judgment. If you're bringing in a hot-looking hitchhiker to do your trimming, I'd say you need your head examined." What too-often goes down, he said, is that the hot-looking hitchhiker finds out where the trim scene is and calls her boyfriend, who shows up with all his friends and their guns. "I've never, never hired people I didn't know," he said. "It's like having someone come off the street and count the money in the bank."

Similarly, trimmers have to know and trust the grower they work for. Beth said bad treatment is rare. "[Trimming] is the shittiest part of the whole operation. Growers don't want to do the trimming, so they have to treat us good," she said. "It's a good check and balance."

The first rains of October patter on the roof and slide in sheets off the eaves. Sid (also not his real name) is sitting on the couch at his friend's house in Arcata. He's wearing glasses, a baseball cap, an old T-shirt and basketball shorts. He spent the last of his money on the train ride out from the East Coast. "I'm broke as shit," he says with a laugh. "I'm excited to make some money."

He doesn't know where he's going. "East somewhere," he says. He's not worried though --- he heard that there are a couple hundred pounds to be trimmed, which should keep him busy until December. He's hoping to make between $8,000 and $10,000.

Sid is one of the many people who traveled to Humboldt County this fall to get in on the trimming action. Unlike most, Sid has references, and he knew he had a job waiting for him when he arrived.

"We've got every dirty, stinky, scraggly looking thing from God-knows-where hanging out wanting to work," said Darlene Frye of Garberville. "I see them under every eve, trying to stay out of the rain, holding up their cardboard signs."

She was born in Garberville, but moved away for nearly 30 years before returning six years ago. It's not the same, she said. Besides the inescapable smell of growing marijuana, the homeless population has exploded, she said. You can't leave the doors unlocked, and you can't even walk down the street without being heckled.

Recently a homeless man grabbed her arm while she was on her way to the store from her work. "He said, ‘Gimme some money for beer!'" Frye remembers. She jerked her arm away. "I told him to go take a shower and get a job."

The influx of transients typically starts in late summer with "the stinky skankies with all the dreadlocks," she said, and continues on until late in the year. She said that while some probably do find work, many just end up panhandling.

Clear, crisp days, red and golden leaves, the scent of wood smoke. For Julie, fall always means harvest, and trimming. Julie occupies the other end of the scale from the transient trimmers. She first got involved in the business back in 1979. She was originally hired as a cook, but helped out trimming on the side. It was a party back then, she said, with loud music and liquor and blow. It's mellower now, at least in her crowd. She doesn't even smoke marijuana anymore and hasn't for years.

She sips her coffee and glance out the window of the Wildberries café. She has long dark hair, and wears a black shawl, a pink and black skirt, and turquoise and silver jewelry. She's in her 50s, with several grown kids. She doesn't grow or harvest her own crop anymore, but she still trims. She requested that her name be changed for the sake of her family.

Years ago, she and her husband would cut down their crop, haul it inside and hang it to dry. Afterwards they'd drive down the hill to visit the North Country Fair in Arcata before going on a dinner date. It was a tradition, she said wistfully.

For a long time, she trimmed on the side. At her peak she estimates she was making $20,000 at it every year, mostly in the fall. These days she just trims for a couple friends when she's not busy with her job, but it's still something she looks forward to, as a social occasion as much as for cash flow. "It's like a modern-day quilting circle," she said. She's known all the growers and most of the trimmers she works with for years.

Despite her casual approach, Julie is the picture of the typical professional trimmer as described by Jodrey. He is seated in the break room of the HPRC. On the wall behind him are an eyewash station and a state-issued employees' rights notification. In the background, up the stairs, growing cannabis is visible.

"Trimmers are the quality control people," Jodrey says. "They're the first people who touch [the marijuana] and turn it into finished product. If they're stoked on it, it's a good indication."

When he used to hire trimmers, he said, they were primarily older women, who would work in teams. He hired the same women every year, and would only accept new trimmers if the old ones could vouch for them.

Even now most trimmers are women, he said, although the current economic downturn means that more men have been looking for trimming work in the last five or six years.

The best trimmers don't need any other job, Jodrey said. They have multiple clients and work throughout much of the year, on both indoor and outdoor grows. Trimming marijuana is like any other job, he said. To be good at it, you have to be dependable and self-motivated. "There's a tremendous normality," said Jodrey. "In order to be a full-time criminal you have to have a very stable life."

Matthew Cohen sits in the shade of a canvas umbrella, talking with an employee on his cellphone. Behind him, through a fence, a wall of 10-foot-tall marijuana sways gently in the breeze. The reception is spotty here in the Mendocino hills. The line dies, and Cohen sets down the phone.

He's the CEO of Northstone Organics, a medical marijuana cooperative, and he's here at one of the co-op's two farms. Each consists of exactly 99 enormous plants in a fenced-off half-acre, as allowed on the permit that the Mendocino Sheriff's Department issued to Northstone.

Cohen is a long-time a medical marijuana activist, and he still looks the part, with a long ponytail and a goatee, although these days he acts more like a regular businessman. He has 20 full-time employees and manages two farms and a statewide network to deliver marijuana to 1,500-some co-op members in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Last fall he hired half a dozen people to trim. Applicants had to be a 215 card-carrying member of the cooperative. More importantly, they had to make a good impression during the interview. Prior experience? Quick with a pair of scissors? Easy to work with?

They were paid $20 an hour. That sounds like a lot, but taxes, Social Security and other withholdings eat up roughly a quarter of that, meaning that the final figure is far less than illegal trimmers make. So why would anybody rather work legally?

"Living underground doesn't afford any of the benefits of living above ground," Cohen said. Even if the hourly pay is less, legal employees are guaranteed a safe, healthy work environment, and they don't have to worry about fines or jail time. "Our workers care more about having a respectable place to work," he said.

This year, Northstone Organics is contracting another business, AmeriCann Compliance, to do the harvesting and trimming. That business is still so new that as this goes to print, it has no employees. Director Matthew Hawes said he is optimistic that very soon he will be able to offer his new staff full-time, year-round work at a decent wage, with health benefits.

"[Workers] will experience the rights and regulations that you would experience in any traditional workplace," Hawes said. His goal is to bring professionalism and cleanliness to the medical marijuana business. Most illegal trimming happens on folding tables in garages and on people's couches, where the product can pick up dirt and animal hair. "I believe that it justifies and is worthy of proper handling procedures to assure safety and quality," Hawes said.

There are 100 permitted farms in Mendocino, thanks to Mendocino County ordinance 9.31, all operating similarly to Northstone Organics. Cohen is convinced that this is the direction the marijuana business is, and should be headed. "We should be licensed. We should be paying taxes," he said.

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors is puttering away at an ordinance for Humboldt that could look similar to the one in Mendocino. It's possible that some of those illegal trimmers could soon be punching the time-clock before they go to work.

Even for legal trimmers, true social acceptability remains elusive. The three trimmers seated in the back of the HPRC are on payroll. The two men and a woman sit around a table sheathed in white butcher paper. They pull untrimmed buds from one plastic bin and trim into another. Stems go into a separate bin. Everything is weighed and written down, before and after.

These trimmers pay taxes. The government knows they are trimmers. The woman's parents, however, don't know. She's from a conservative area of southern California. She doesn't plan on telling them. It's different there, she explains.

Down the hall is a room filled with growing marijuana. Some of it will be cut down in days, and it will be ready for the trimmers in a week. More will be cut down the next week, and more the week after that. It's a steady job.

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