The Underground Part 1: A Sociological Exploration of Women in Marijuana

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As graduate school was coming to an end and life was changing, I needed to find a career path after academia. So I naturally turned to the underground Marijuana economy of Humboldt County. Trimming weed to pay the bills seemed like a natural progress for a soon to be Masters in Sociology. I had worked all those years to obtain a graduate degree, so the only logical next step was to take an entry-level job in the Underground Marijuana Industry as a trimmer. I wanted to play with the big boys, but quickly learned this game isn’t just for boys.

The more women I found, the more empowerment I was given and the more I realized the women of Humboldt are badass. We can work in 110-degree weather bucking 60 lb. bails of dirt and prepping 200-gallon smart pots, dig trenches, live in tents, and we can do this for months on end. All the while, we’re still participating in community work, cultivating friendships, running businesses and every other social role that we each carve out for ourselves. So when I continually read academic and media articles stating that my kind does not exist or that we are “eye candy,” I decided put my degree to use. With the help of many women I was able to bring our voices to the discussion. This article and the ones to follow in this series entitled “The Underground” are just that: our voices, experiences, triumphs and hardships.

In Northern California there has been an underground economy for marijuana since at least the 60’s when the first marijuana bust took place in Humboldt County. “The first known bust of a pot grower in Humboldt County went down on September 29, 1960, north of the city of Arcata, near a stream of water known as Strawberry Creek ” (from Emily Brady’s Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier). During this time the majority of the land owners and workers were predominately men, which was very representative of the legitimate economy of the time. “Labor force participation rates for women in 1950 were particularly low, compared with the rates in 1998.” During the years that followed there was not much research surrounding the true happenings, and daily functions regarding the lives of people working in marijuana economy. There were a few books such as Cash Crop and a few articles, but they always discuss the marijuana economy in predominantly male terms, taking for granted that there have always been women involved at many different levels.

The majority of research regarding marijuana is discussed in relation to men or maleness as the defining structure. Most of these discussions start by attempting to show how oppressed, non-existent, or victimized women are within the marijuana economy. This perspective and research stance is severely problematic for three reasons. These reasons are: restricted access on the part of the researcher, the default of dispensaries as a focal point for underground research, and slut shaming in conjunction with ignoring men entrenched in domestic work. As research and literature are excluding women, they are also dismissing large amounts of work done by males in regard to traditionally domestic work. This series is an effort to show that women exist and operate efficiently at high levels within the marijuana economy and have for some time, to shed light on the reality that women are not being victimized to the extent the media and outsider would like to believe and to explore the problematic areas a researcher might find themselves when attempting to research this economy. This is an ongoing, qualitative, participatory observation research project that started unknowingly in the spring of 2009.

Initially, my objective upon entry into this economy was not that of research. In fact, I came into this economy much like the rest of people that are working within the marijuana industry. That was for no other reason than money and all of the freedom that this type of opting out of the larger society brings. However, within a few months of working an entry-level position trimming, I began to realize that this economy does not operate the way that it has been portrayed through media and academic research, which began my search for an accurate account of how the underground economy of Humboldt County truly operates in relation to gender.

During this time period I observed, participated in and sought out all jobs available to me. I have also conducted four in-depth interviews and countless casual field interviews. The interviews are an ongoing collecting of data, which will increase and further our true understating of what is happening in regard to gender operations in the underground economy. At one point I had field notes for two years of work. These notes were very cryptic and coded and in no way could be discerned by someone else or connected to any one person or group. Some events occurred during my research that lead me to realize that the field notes (and the ways in which data is collected in the underground economy) were flawed and could be harmful to those in it or researching it.

In December of 2011 I encountered a situation that illuminated the issue of legal safety. From that point on, I began to realize that field notes regarding illegal activities were not appropriate even if password protected and cryptic. These notes would simply be a descriptive word with a date so that I would be able to recall the event that happened without putting the people of this economy at risk. Even with such precautions, I could no longer rationalize the idea that documenting what I had been encountering was a good idea, and I could no longer be writing field notes in this way and remain secure in that decision. From that point on, I had to change the way I gathered research, or even lived my life, as this work was my life.

The research until last year was always secondary. This became a game of memory and waiting for recurring themes to develop over time. I could write in a more general, over-arching format that was less detrimental to my legal safety, as well as protecting safer for those within the economy, which, I was wholeheartedly entrenched in. Many of these people I am still very close with today, and if at anytime I cannot recall small bits of important information I simply go to the source. Access at this level of research is more important than field notes. I no longer had to rely on what I believed people were doing, I was now able to simply ask them to tell me what they saw happening or believed themselves to be doing. From there, I was able to analyze what I had encountered in relation what is being told to me. This approach proved to be very useful and gave me access to a wealth of information. It also allowed me to note differences and similarities in a much more general context, thereby reducing the risk of legal actions against myself or the people that have given me their stories so freely.

Over time, as more people have heard of what I am researching and are confident that I will not give away the game or anyone within it, more people are coming out of the wood work to tell what they see happening. The discussion of how research happens in underground economies is one that has been happening for quite sometime, and there is no definitive right answer. A textbook recipe for collecting information does not work for life on the periphery. Each underground market acts in its own way with a very specific set of rules that work for that group. Tailoring research to each individual group and economy is essential to accessing true information. Underground economies are guarded and try to be somewhat secretive, and this secrecy may prove to be a stumbling block for an outside researcher. A large amount of time is spent in gaining trust and building relationships. For a researcher to gain any real entry into the underground marijuana economy, they too must put in the work to get the end result they are looking for.

This research project is ongoing and open and is constantly in transition as we move through prohibition. If you or anyone you know may want to contribute, or discuss this project please feel free to email the author at or the editor

For previous Ladybud Magazine articles about women in the weed world, click here.

Photo Credit: V.Vizu under (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons