"This is like the calm before the storm," says Lisa wearily as she takes a few comforting puffs of her piña-colada-flavored e-cigarette.
It is an uncharacteristically quiet Saturday afternoon in the west Sonoma County restaurant where Lisa, 27, works as waitress. After her smoke break, she emerges from the kitchen and makes her way to the dining room, brushing off her apron and methodically running her fingers through her hair to effect a look of calculated casual. "When it's totally slow like this, I'm thinking to myself, 'Yay, I might make $20 today!' That's why I do the other thing."
That "other thing" is working as a bud trimmer in the county's thriving marijuana industry. As the harvest season for outdoor-grown pot ramps up, bud trimmers like Lisa are in demand. They groom buds for market, trimming off stray leaves and stems.
Because of the illegal nature of much of the pot business, it's difficult to gauge the size of this labor-intensive sector of the marijuana economy, but the work represents a significant source of under-the-radar revenue for local and migrant workers alike. According to a widely cited report by ArcView, a marijuana trade group, the state's industry is valued at $980 million. And as many people who live in Sonoma County know, there is a vast amount of weed grown here, and all that pot needs to be trimmed.
OFF TO WORK
Eva, 61, stocks her mini Igloo cooler with coconut water, organic Fuji apples, two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a yerba mate drink for energy. She knows it's going to be another long day, at least 12 hours, and she comes prepared.
"The drive along the coast is gorgeous," she says. At one point in her two-hour drive to her job as a trimmer, she stops for a mocha at her favorite spot, where they put homemade whipped cream on top. Upon arriving at work, she has to get out of her four-wheel vehicle to open two gates. After the second gate, she lets her dog, Rosebud, out to run the long stretch of road that leads to the main property.
The home itself looks as though it's been carved out of wood by hand. Yellowing posters pinned to the wall promote concerts that have long come and gone. Curtis, the longtime proprietor of the enterprise, sits comfortably in the sunroom sucking rather fiercely on a large joint attached to a roach clip, itself attached to a long-stick; he looks a little like an aristocrat smoking from a cigarette holder.
Eva greets Curtis and assesses the work ahead of her. She places her Red Rooster scissors in a clay jar filled with rubbing alcohol, puts her reading glasses on and sifts through the lawn bag of marijuana buds that Curtis has laid before her. Eva needs to make at least $200 to replace two spent tires on her car. She looks at the clock behind her, which reads 9:10am. Curtis pays by the hour, not the pound.
A recent article in High Times listed "trimmer" as the No. 1 job in the booming pot industry. Considering that marijuana is now legal in Colorado and Washington state, and legal for medicinal use in 23 states in addition to Washington, D.C., it's not surprising that there's increasing need for nimble fingers to shape weeds into buds.
"Trimmer is a very popular job in the marijuana industry, and will become even more popular as more states legalize marijuana for medical and/or recreational use," says Colby Ayres, marketing manager for Hemp American Media Group, which owns and operates one of the many employment agencies that list legal jobs in the pot business. "Most dispensaries and cultivation centers need multiple trimmers to properly trim the large quantities of marijuana being produced."
Ayres says the qualifications are basic: trimmers must be 18 years or older, must pass a background check and must not have any felonies. Some dispensaries and cultivation centers hire experienced trimmers only. While the demand for trimmers in the legal and medicinal sectors is high, there's also demand in the illegal sector.
Casey worked as trimmer but got out of it 14 years ago.
"I think I was one of the only people in the business who did not smoke pot," she says, as she opens a packet of Stevia and pours it into her latte. "It just wasn't my thing."
She works "full-time-ish" in the restaurant business, but at one time, she worked Monday through Friday as a trimmer for a major grower and dealer in Marin County.
"I actually got the job through my mother," Casey says. "My parents were in the pot business as long as I can remember. My dad was a dealer back in the day, the '70s–'80s. He got out of it in the early '90s and gave it over to my mother. She knew 'Alex' from the business, and he told her that he needed trimmers. I needed a job at the time, so I started trimming."
Lisa makes a quick exit through the restaurant doors en route to her car. "Oh, man, I'm so fucking glad that is over," she yells. After what turned out to be a busy night, Lisa is ready to go home. She opens the car door and sinks into the driver seat with a deep exhale.
Lisa is young and pretty, in spite of her years as a methamphetamine user. She's been clean from meth for more than four years, but still indulges in a little weed or "wax pen" or "dab," a distillation of marijuana's active ingredients. Tonight, she goes for the weed. She packs a small pipe with bud and lights up. Lisa is from California's Central Valley and has been trimming pot since she was 16.
- ON THE JOB Trimming is labor-intensive work not without hazards like fatigue and respiratory problems—and sticky fingers.
"It started when I lived in Laytonville (Mendocino County)," she says. Lisa and her friends "trimmed weed for lunch, free weed and pocket change." Now 27, she is married and the mother of a six-year-old special-needs child. She trims to supplement her living.
Lisa insists she is not a tragic figure, stuck in the cog that perpetuates welfare and government assistance. She's worked at the restaurant "for over two years," she says, "but as you know, it doesn't totally pay the bills. Quite a few people, almost everyone I know, is involved somehow [in the trimming business]."
Lisa remains tight-lipped about the people she works with. "Everyone is very secretive," she says. "They don't like anyone new coming into the circle. I just go in and do my job, then come home."
Eva is a 20-year veteran of the trimming business and, like Lisa, began her stint in Laytonville.
"I started doing it sporadically about 1990 when my last child was in high school. I was working for a friend who taught me how. I would get $15 and hour, but then a couple of years later, I learned to trim faster and started making more money."
The sunlight in Curtis' trimming room begins to fade and the chill of evening sets in. Curtis turns on a light to illuminate Eva's work area. Because Curtis' makeshift surroundings lack central air and heating, Eva places a sweater over her shoulders. She has been working for seven hours.
Because these women don't work for growers in the legal sector, there can be an element of paranoia attached to the work. Eva used to work in Covelo in Mendocino County, a Wild West marijuana town east of Willits.
"There were a lot of robberies and break-ins from the locals," she says. "Also, the police, if you had a certain amount of money, they would take your money and you'd have to go to court and explain where you got the money and why you had it. I stopped going up there for that reason."
"I never really got scared," Casey says. "I mean, there were a couple of instances where I felt a little paranoid. One time, I was alone in Alex's house trimming and there was a knock at the door. I looked through the peephole and didn't recognize the guy standing there. Alex didn't tell me there would be anyone stopping by, so I kind of hid in the corner until he went away. It was the first time I thought, 'Wow, I am doing something illegal.'
"Also," she continues, "[Alex] would have me deposit large sums of money in his bank account. I couldn't just put this wad in the ATM; I had to go into the bank with all of this cash and a deposit slip with the name of his fake business and hand it off to the teller. One time the teller just flat-out asked me what my boss did, and I told her this story about him owning a heating and cooling business."
Laughing, she says, "God that was brutal!"
A fire forced Casey out of the business. One night, she says, the news ran a story "about a warehouse in San Francisco that just went up in flames, and a 'bumper-crop' of pot was found. I didn't really think anything of it until I got a call from my mom about 10 minutes later telling me not to go into work tomorrow. It was Alex's warehouse that caught fire. So right then and there, I was out of a job." Which may have been a blessing in disguise, she adds. "It was nice not having to lie to people when they asked me what I did for a living."
Given the growing trend toward legalization, the legal consequences may be minimal to none.
"The legal trouble trimmers could face is a difficult one for which to provide a concrete, one-size-fits-all answer," says Christine Cook, assistant district attorney for Sonoma County. "Each case depends on all the facts and circumstances. The prosecution of marijuana cases by this office which have no violence or other egregious factors is a low-level priority."
Aside from the legal implications, trimmers also can face occupational hazards. The work is fatiguing and can aggravate sinus infections. And, of course, you end up smelling like weed.
"This one lady I trimmed with used to cut a few holes in a trash bag and wear that while she trimmed," Eva says.
She drops her scissors in the alcohol solution and replaces them with another pair that have been soaking, thus dissolving the resin that develops through trimming the sometimes sticky buds. She changes scissors every 20 minutes.
"Curtis usually has really good weed."
Eva laughs, takes a gulp of her yerba mate and continues trimming.
While growing and selling marijuana is big business, trimming is not. Eva remembers her work in Covelo. "It was a great gig! I worked 8 to 3, Monday through Friday, was paid cash under the table every day, and I had all this free time and was making more than enough money to live off of. But that was several years ago, and I was a single woman with little to no expenses, except my rent and a few bills. I couldn't do it today."
Lisa does it for supplemental income. "I'll work as many hours as I can, usually six to eight hours. I get paid about $200 a pound. I don't really have any days off, but my husband and I make it work. My son is happy and healthy," she says, her voice trailing off.
Eva considers trimming her sole occupation, but not a very financially rewarding one. "It takes a lot just to make a few hundred dollars, and it does get harder and harder, especially when I have to take care of people." She assists her 90-year-old mother, who also helps occasionally with Eva's at-home trimming jobs. "I am very low-income."
Despite feeling exhaustion, Eva remains positive.
"There are a lot of people who would be on the street if they didn't have these trimming jobs," she says. "It's nice that I don't have to get dressed up to go to work, but I'll only be doing it for as long as I have to."