Migrant workers are making thousands trimming marijuana in California

A visit to the Emerald Triangle during the marijuana harvest season.

ByABC News
April 20, 2017, 4:30 AM

— -- They sit for hours at a time, hunched over tables with scissors in one hand and marijuana in the other. The work is tedious, but it pays well — for now. This once mostly black market trade is slowly becoming more regulated, hindering the flow of quick under-the-table cash.

Hours meld, the sound of snipping and sticky scissors clinking when they are dipped in jars of alcohol as the workers groom the weed.

Most people sitting around this table in Mendocino County are migrant workers. They flood into the region during the cannabis harvest in the fall. They are the trimmers, those hired to cut marijuana for hours on end. Many trimmers in the county looking for work this season have come from all over the U.S. and all over the rest of the world, including Spain, France, Portugal and Switzerland.

“You want to get all the big leaf — and all the leaf — off the flower stuff so it shows in a beautiful way,” said cannabis farmer Tim Blake. “You really want to trim it perfectly if you’re going to sell it.”

A cannabis trimmer works to cut marijuana in Northern California, October 2016.

Blake, 60, is a self-described activist who has been growing cannabis for 45 years.

Blake’s 155-acre farm is across the road from his dispensary, Healing Harvest Farms, in Laytonville, California. The farm is home to 99 marijuana plants that look more like trees, standing 6 to 13 feet tall. On average, he said, they produce 400 pounds of weed annually.

The towering plants are harvested every fall. Before the weed is sold, it has to be cut, dried and trimmed.

“The very best flowers are always going to be trimmed by hand,” Blake said.

“Why do we trim? It’s obviously financial motivation, for sure. It’s not fun work,” said Bishma, 31, who has been trimming weed for eight years. He goes by Bishma in Mendocino but declined to give ABC News his legal name.

A cannabis plant on a marijuana farm in Mendocino County, California, September 2016.

California passed Proposition 64 in 2016, which legalized recreational marijuana in the state. But even before that, Blake’s medicinal marijuana farm was legal under state and county ordinances.

“It’s not like a free-for-all, grow wherever you want, whatever you want,” said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman. “We certainly have limits and conditions and ordinances. Our citizenry understands that if they don’t want law enforcement to come to their house ... then all they have to do is comply with the law.”

Blake, like other growers in the county, is restricted to no more than 99 plants and has to undergo inspections on his property.

“For the most part, the federal government has said that if the state law is complied with, that the federal government will not get involved,” Allman said before the 2016 presidential election.

Despite the medicinal measures Blake has followed and the passage of Prop 64, the future is still uncertain when it comes to marijuana and legalization under the Trump administration.

In February, White Housepress secretary Sean Spicer spoke about differences between recreational and medicinal marijuana and said, “I do believe you will see greater enforcement” of federal restrictions on recreational use.

A group of workers cut and trim marijuana plants during the cannabis harvest season in Northern California, October 2016.

A recent Yahoo News/Marist poll, Weed and the American Family, reported that 52 percent of Americans surveyed age 18 or older have tried marijuana in their lifetime. It also found that “there is overwhelming support for the legalization of medical marijuana,” with 83 percent of Americans behind it, and that a majority of Americans, 56 percent, “think marijuana use is socially acceptable.”

Marijuana laws in the United States differ from state to state and county to county. Even though Prop 64 passed in California, the state is still in transition when it comes to recreational marijuana. There is a strong sentiment from people in the business that as laws evolve to legalize recreational weed, it will have an impact when it comes to trimming and money.

The first person who hired Bishma to trim paid him in cash — no taxes. As a self-proclaimed world-class trimmer, he brags about how fast he is, which means he can earn more.

“Really slow trimmers can make as little as $100 a day, if they’re not any good,” Blake said. “A really great trimmer can make up to $400 a day or $450 a day. An incredible trimmer can make $500 a day in product.”

A cannabis trimmer cuts weed in Northern California, October 2016

Trimmers working on Blake’s farm this year said they were hoping to make anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 during the harvest.

As laws evolve, marijuana is becoming more of a regulated industry.

Blake said that he always hires only American citizens as trimmers and that he had them work for barter, trimming in exchange for medicinal marijuana. But for the first time this year, he said, they will receive monetary compensation and be expected to pay taxes.

“I don’t think we’re going to get paid as much as we used to or even still getting now, because taxes are coming in now,” Bishma said. “We never had taxes before, ever. Nothing.”

“Trimmers are going to get paid through salaries,” Blake said. “It’s going to be the end of the gold rush for trimmers.”

ABC News’ Luis A. Yordan contributed to this report.

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