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 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 District Attorney 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, hardcore 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."
California 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 San Francisco 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.
Their circle came together mostly through the music scene and various peace-love-and-anarchy gatherings. At the world Rainbow Gathering in Argentina in March, Danielle, 21, of Israel met a German couple, Chris, 29, and Ginger, 32. Danielle traveled with her sister to Northern California, where she met a grower while listening to a band at a bar. She got a job and invited the Germans to come take part.
They joined three others from California and a brother and sister from Alaska.
The grow straddled the medical and illicit markets, selling to dispensaries and an illegal dealer in Kentucky, who paid much more. That didn't matter to them; the line seemed artificial. And while they supported full legalization, at least some suspected it would spell the end to this lifestyle.
"They would not pay us so good if it was legal," said Chris. "If it's legal, I won't come back, because it'll be $7 an hour."
It's not just that the price of marijuana will plummet, he said. It's that growers pay for trust as much as for labor.
"If it's legal, they don't need people to trust."
The Sebastopol trim operated under the aegis of medical cannabis laws, with the product going to a dispensary in the San Francisco area. All the trimmers had joined the collective; they were technically patients.
Jeremiah removed a branch of cured marijuana from a black trash bag, cut off the wizened flower buds and gently placed them in his tray.
In the old days, the processing largely ended at this step - with an Army-green bud that looked like the knotted, disheveled hair of someone who had slept under a bridge for a month. But since weed became an industry, consumers have expected the scraggly "sugar leaves" to be removed and the dried flower cluster to be delicately manicured to preserve and present the glistening resin glands that hold much of the buds' potency.
The work requires a deft hand.
Jeremiah twirled a bud in his fingers and picked away at the sugar leaves with his ARS curve-tipped scissors. He wore blue nitrile rubber gloves to keep the resin from gumming up on his fingertips. (Rookies learn the hard way not to rub their eyes.)
He put the tight, smooth-shaved bud in a pile on the side of his tray and picked up the next. Every now and then, he peeled the resin off off his gloves, balled up the "finger hash" and put it in a jelly bean jar to be cooked or smoked later. This was one of the perks of the job.
For all the romance and rebellion some instill in it, the trim circle had the rhythm of a sewing circle. People talked at a leisurely pace, without looking up. Silences were tapped out by a snip-snip metronome.
Paid by the pound, they were, in a sense, competing against each other.
"We all know Allie's the fastest," Jeremiah said. "We stopped complaining about it. But we know it's true."
Allie, with long blond hair pouring from her hoodie, also came from Oregon, where she grows indoor marijuana, in part to treat her epilepsy. Next to her was Cristal, one of the youngest. She was working at a sporting goods store in Michigan when she decided to follow her older sister here. "I had to get out of there and experience something new," she said. "Just meeting people out here has been life-changing."
Vaughn, from the San Francisco area, last worked on a trim circle in Eureka, where he was not allowed to leave the house for two months. "They see anybody coming or going as a liability," he explained. One day, a man in a suit, whom the trimmers took to be a member of the Mexican Mafia, came and took half the crop. Vaughn had to fight to get his pay.
Devin, from Massachusetts originally, took leave from his job on a tugboat in Louisiana to go to the Burning Man festival in Nevada, met people who knew the trim scene, and ended up here. Andy was a drifter, working at restaurants and ski resorts and the marijuana harvest.
"Last year, I worked for some dude on the side of the mountain that was totally illegal," Andy said. "It rained a lot and everything started molding. We had some difference over pay come payday. I refused to leave until he paid me. Next time, I told myself, I was going to be legit."
"Legit" is a relative term. The windows were blocked off for a reason. They asked a visitor to be blindfolded for the final half a mile to the house. This caution was partially in fear of robberies, but just as much to avoid raids by federal law enforcement.
The trimmers slept in the two bedrooms and spent nearly every moment together.
They joked that they were living a season of "The Real World," the long-running reality show in which young adults from different backgrounds are thrust together in a house. On other trims, they worked with people from England, Japan, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland and Israel.
Of course, the origin of the trimmer didn't matter so much as the personality. "Most people who can't be social all of the time and be in people's faces, they can't handle it," said Jeremiah.
This circle knew each other's dramas, ticks and gaffes. The Michigan crew brought a bite of sarcasm to the more complaisant Oregon crowd, cracking the others up with trash talk. "Suddenly we're in the third grade again and sitting in the playground," Allie said.
They all made fun of Northern California expressions like "hella" and "yeah it is" and groaned over hearing each other's music for the "fifth time." At night, they traded massages, played card games, watched movies and sampled the medicine.
"The amount of camaraderie is kind of staggering because we all come from different backgrounds and different scenes," said Jeremiah. "We've been like a family."
Cristal added, "We've all made plans to meet up next summer."
By Thanksgiving, the marijuana would be delivered and the trimmers dispersed, back to their old lives - until next fall.
By JOE MOZINGO
Los Angeles Times
Published: Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011
Snipping the bud: Prep work is a payday in the marijuana business