SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Marijuana is becoming more mainstream after California voted for recreational use. And now, the industry has to deal with a dark secret - the sexual assault of female pot farm workers in an area known as the Emerald Triangle.
Just three California counties account for the vast majority of marijuana grown in the state: Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity. "Trimmers," the people who work on the pot farms and prepare the marijuana plants for sale by clipping the leaves from the buds, make a decent salary of $500 to $600 a day.
"We just clean it up, we just process, get it ready for sale, make it look pretty," said one trimmer.
But, they say, female trimmers can face problems - especially working on illegal grows - when the mundane work can turn sexual. These Humboldt County residents talked with the I-Team, but didn't want to show their faces.
"It's like, you know, 'I'll give you an extra 20 bucks a pound or, whatever, if you trim topless,'" said one trimmer.
Trimmers, rape crisis counselors, and law enforcement say they have seen an increase in recent years of trimmers sexually assaulted by growers and pot farm workers.
"There are stories every single year," another trimmer added. "Like really, really terrible kidnapping stories of people being held against her will, girls coming out of the hills totally dazed and confused and really, they're lost."
It is so pervasive that the North Coast Rape Crisis Team put out a flyer titled "sexual exploitation in the trim and grow scene." The I-Team agreed to not show the center's location in Eureka since trimmers come here for help dealing with cases of rape.
"Sometimes by one perpetrator, sometimes by many perpetrators," says Marian Hayes Mariani, the team's client services coordinator.
Mariani says female trimmers are sometimes driven to the pot farms deep in the mountains, with no marked roads and no way out. They live and work there for weeks, sometimes months.
"There are many areas in this community where there is no cell service," Hayes told the I-Team. "They're really isolated."
Another trimmer says a 25-year-old grower raped her when she was 14 years old. Trimmers, she explains, often don't report sexual assault because they work in an illegal business and are afraid of losing such a good income and of retaliation. "They want to go to the cops because they're so traumatized, but they don't because they fear for their life," she told the I-Team.
Leah Gee runs a group home for teens - some runaways, others on the verge of falling out of the foster care system.
"At least eight girls that I have served have been abused and raped and taking advantage of being taken up to the mountains, and I see the aftermath of that," Gee says.
Some growers recruit teen trimmers by throwing parties in local hotels and promising big money, says Gee. Sometimes, she says, they insist the girls wear blindfolds as they head into the grows.
"They're so traumatized that they get taken off and even more traumatized and nobody's looking for them," Gee says. "How do we find them -- there's three girls I still want to know where they are."
Sgt. Kerry Ireland heads up the Humboldt sheriff's two-person marijuana unit. "In a lot of places where there is no law-enforcement coverage at all, yeah, it's the wild West," he said.
When he last performed an aerial survey a couple of years ago, Ireland identified more than 20,000 separate grow operations in the county.
He says working sexual assault on the mountains is very difficult, and it's made tougher by the flood of what are called "trimmigrants" - people coming from around the world during the September and October harvest. They're looking for work and are easily exploited.
"They're in the middle of nowhere, they have very little resources as far as outside help," Ireland says. "It becomes a dangerous situation."
There's no way, he says, to have a clear picture of exactly how many women are being sexually assaulted in these mountains.
We do know that Humboldt has one of the highest rates of missing persons in the state.
The sexual assault issue may eventually go away with the trimmers' jobs.
Machines are getting better at trimming buds, and the trend toward cannabis concentrates doesn't call for the leaves to be taken off.
Click here for a look at stories and videos by Dan Noyes and the I-Team.
I-TEAM: Female pot farm workers say sexual assaults on the rise
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