2017 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

Against Their Will: Sexual Exploitation in Pot Country

About the Project

The Emerald Triangle, a remote, heavily forested region in Northern California, produces most of the marijuana used across the United States.

Most people know it as a hippie haven and the birthplace of medical marijuana, an industry that began deep in those redwood groves more than half a century ago.

But decades of battles between law enforcement and marijuana farmers have created a culture of silence that’s easily exploited by predators. Seasonal workers known as “trimmigrants” are especially vulnerable. They travel into the region every year for coveted, lucrative jobs trimming buds on pot farms, but few know the conditions and the potential for abuse that await them.

Uncovering those abuses proved a difficult task, exacerbated by the secrecy that surrounds the underground economy and the shame of sexual assault. But Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that, as the industry has grown, more victims of assault and trafficking have sought help from local service providers, but workers rarely report their abuse to officials. When they do come forward, rural law enforcement agencies – overwhelmed by crime and the highest rate of missing persons in the state – rarely investigate.

Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter spent the better part of a year immersed in the Emerald Triangle’s mountain communities. She talked her way onto farms, slept on marijuana grows and in drying sheds. She off-roaded into illegal grows. She spent months tracking down and gaining the trust of victims of sexual abuse, who were hesitant to revisit the worst moments of their lives.

In the process, she unearthed dozens of stories of sexual assault, human trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors. She folded those stories, the statistics and the culture into the gripping narrative of a rape case with special significance: Humboldt County’s first prosecution of a grower for sexually assaulting a worker. She chronicled the devastating crime, the community’s telling response and the sheriff’s failed investigation.

Producer Michael Montgomery joined her to create a radio/podcast version of the piece.

The effort paid off. The California Growers Association immediately called for reforms, urging its pot-growing members to take a public stance against abuse. The association’s executive director, who grew up on a marijuana farm, said the story brought tears to his eyes.

“A multi-generational failure of public policy has given safe-harbor to criminals in our communities,” he wrote in an email to members. “It is time to stand together as beacons, embracing change and solutions as we illuminate the darkest shadows.”