'Real People That We Care About Are Being Exploited' - POLITICO

'Real People That We Care About Are Being Exploited' - POLITICO

'Real People That We Care About Are Being Exploited' - POLITICO
Oct 02, 2022 4 mins, 40 secs

Outside, state, federal and county law enforcement were raiding the massive unlicensed cannabis farm where the women had worked for two months.

Before they were done, the officers would uncover 6,000 pounds of processed marijuana, over 72,000 cannabis plants and more than 200 workers, both documented and undocumented, who were detained for questioning and then released.

In a July interview with POLITICO, the two women and Isabella’s 30-year-old daughter, Maria described a nearly two-year-long ordeal of itinerant labor on marijuana farms throughout southern Oregon.

The Q Bar X Ranch was at least the ninth farm the women had worked at — and the second where they said they were held prisoner by men with rifles, forbidden from leaving even to go to the grocery store or seek medical help.

citizen, but Leticia and Isabella are undocumented workers.

If you buy marijuana illegally somewhere in the U.S., there is a very good chance that it was grown by people like Isabella, Maria and Leticia.

labor law: undocumented agricultural workers at an off-the-books worksite in an illegal industry.

Instead, it’s thriving in places like southern Oregon, where illegal weed farms are camouflaged beside their legal counterparts — and then ship their unregulated and untested marijuana to states as far away as New York and Florida.

Undocumented workers on such farms face unsanitary working conditions, exposure to illegal pesticides and chemicals, rampant wage theft and the threat of violence.

“All the ingredients are there for major abuse,” said Jamie Padilla, a former United Farm Workers organizer who worked with men and women like Isabella and her family.

Its cause is clear: As long as there are Americans purchasing unlicensed marijuana, that crop will be grown somewhere — and often, it will be grown by workers like Isabella, Leticia and Maria.

The Oregon Legislature in the last 12 months set aside more than $31 million for law enforcement and advocacy groups working to combat illicit cannabis cultivation and help undocumented workers in the industry.

When those laborers are also undocumented and employed in the illegal cannabis industry, they become essentially unreachable by anyone seeking to defend them, workers’ advocates and union officials say.

UNETE has successfully advocated for wages for undocumented workers at legal grows, Keesee says, because licensed growers have to keep records.

But, she added, she gets reports of unpaid wages and worker mistreatment from both legal and illegal cannabis farms.

Between January 2021 and August 2022, Jackson County Sheriff’s Department in southern Oregon reports coming into contact with 249 workers (documented and undocumented) on 27 unlicensed cannabis grows.

The Sheriff’s Department in neighboring Josephine County, where Q Bar X Ranch is located, reported 344 workers detained between February 2021 and July 2022, at 26 different farms.

These numbers are low estimates of the number of workers on each farm because so many like Maria, Leticia and Isabella flee before they ever encounter law enforcement.

Criminalization “is creating all the incentives for us to cheat,” said Nathan Howard, co-founder of licensed cannabis farm East Fork Cultivars in southern Oregon.

Leticia, Isabella and Maria found out about the first cannabis farm they worked on through a contratista they had met while picking other crops.

The woman said the cannabis farm would pay as much as $15 an hour — significantly more than other agricultural jobs in the area.

The contratistas also guaranteed that the farms were licensed: “They said they had a permit,” Maria said.

But when Isabella, Maria and Leticia showed up at the farm to work, the woman was nowhere to be seen.

Even after working some farms for two to three months, the women said, they were never paid a cent.

Occasionally, after they’d waited to be paid, the contratistas would show up and transport the women to the next cannabis farm.

Male workers “spoke about how they would grab women,” Leticia said.

The contratista who told Letitia, Isabella and Maria about the jobs they held was likely a middleman for those who ran the cannabis farms.

Many agricultural employers rely on this method of sourcing workers — particularly to find cheaper, undocumented workers — when it comes to staffing their operations.

“Even American citizens have trouble in some of these unlicensed grows,” said Megan Carvalho of Cannabis Workers Rising, an offshoot of United Food and Commercial Workers that wants to unionize the cannabis industry.

The Oregon legislature in the last 12 months set aside more than $31 million for law enforcement and advocacy groups working to combat illicit cannabis cultivation and help undocumented workers in the industry.

“How can the state be more effective on this, if we have evidence here that [human trafficking] is part of what our workers are experiencing?” said Marsh, a Democrat, explaining that her task force is working on “what law enforcement agency does that work — to actually start to identify the trafficking elements?”.

“When the policemen entered … we just ran away with whatever we were wearing,” Isabella said

“My entire body was scratched, because we were throwing ourselves against [the bushes],” Isabella said

Instead, it’s thriving in places like remote Southern Oregon, where illegal weed farms are camouflaged beside their legal counterparts

That was the last time the women ever worked on a cannabis farm

Now, Isabella, Leticia and Maria share a studio apartment and earn a living in other industries

“We work at vineyards,” and “sometimes we clean houses, and things like that,” Leticia said

“We simply want to earn money to send money to our families,” Isabella said

Isabella, Leticia and Maria say they will never again work on cannabis farms — legal or illegal

“It’s not like you had to do more than scratch the surface to hear stories like that,” said Padilla

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