The Underground – Parts 5-8: Mobility and Infiltration of Women in the Cannabis Economy

Share this with your friends

Editor’s note: This article is a continuation of Brandie Wilson’s series, The Underground. It is a sociological analysis of the role of women in the underground cannabis economy of Humboldt County and Northern California. The first article in the series can be viewed here,   the second installment can be viewed here, the third part can be viewed here and the fourth can be viewed here.

Access and Identity Management

Women operating in the underground marijuana economy have learned to be savvy about identity management in relation to their daily operations. Many women have numerous diverse rolls to fill between both economies throughout a day, and many times these identities cannot over lap. Through a need to be versatile, many women have found ways to operate in mainstream society while never divulging the other side of their life, which is entrenched in the federally illegal operations of the underground economy. Women of the underground have honed the very distinct and useful skill of managing identities when interacting with the larger society.

Identity management and diversity of roles is a common topic of discussion regarding women and the marijuana economy. It has been discussed in most research about women and marijuana.

For this female grower, absolute discretion was imperative. She was fully employed in her community in a traditional work setting. Sharing her experiences with coworkers was not an option and indeed, could in fact create conditions that would lead to her being fired. The Internet provided her with first hand experiences yet she did not have to socialize with other growers and run the risk of tainting her reputation in the community (69).

This excerpt from research done by Karen August in 2010 exemplifies the way in which women use tactics to shield their grower identity form the rest of the communities they in which they participate. This is one example of how women are using growing as a secondary career and not as a way to define themselves in terms of their career.
The notion that women are not involved at high levels is in my experience, due to a lack of access on part of the researcher. This is directly in line with what I have found not only through my years of participation but also through interviews with women as well. Identity management is a large part of the daily lives of all participants in the marijuana economy. Not knowing they are there means they are doing it well.

Women researchers and men in general may have limited or no access to the numerous women within the marijuana economy. These women are hidden in plain sight, yet invisibility and inequality dominates the body of knowledge surrounding this area of research. If there is little to no access on behalf of the researcher, one cannot simply default to the idea that women are not operating at high levels or that they are being subjugated to hyper-sexualized positions. It is a matter of networks, ethics, skill, trust, and countless other variables.

Ethnography requires spending a substantial time period immersed in one’s chosen “field” to record and make sense of a way of life often different to one’s own. The aim is to discover the shared understandings, values and beliefs, which inform behavior by observing and participating in a chosen social context. Participant observation (the main method of ethnography) enables the researcher to take an active role within the group and minimize disruption to the natural flow of social life (Moore, 1).

Without a network already in place, it may take a researcher quite some time to find any true perspective regarding the marijuana economy. Participants who have spent roughly a year researching the economy have done the majority of research regarding the underground marijuana economy. I warn against the idea that an outsider can gain true knowledge of such a guarded and suspicious group within a year. The first year of an underground economy participant’s experience is not really telling of what the underground economy looks or acts like as whole. The only group that a first year participant usually has access to are the lower-level workers. To find and build relationships with networks of high-level people, one must continue researching past the first year. The first year is simply a training ground of sorts. This is where you prove yourself, try on different jobs, socialize in different networks, learn how the system works, and build a reputation for yourself.

For example, people that are in their first year, regardless of the job they are holding, usually have less status than folks who have been around for a number of years, thereby limiting their access to networks and knowledge. There are people who have been around for years that do not grow but have earned high levels of status and trust. A trimmer that has excellent skills and has been around for a few years will have a very high status, and their skill will be desired in numerous places, which will give that trimmer more status than a first year grower.

Similarly, someone who has just simply moved here and started growing will have less status and influence than that of the seasoned trimmer. Furthermore, a broker that has been in the network and proven himself or herself to be proficient at their job is very highly regarded and respected. It is not the job you do or the gender you are. It is about the reputation you have, the years in the economy, and the drive to move through the economy that gets you the positions that you want.

In the following quote by August regarding the structure and networking of the underground economy she has done an exemplary job of showing how the networks and structure of the underground economy operates.

While there is no overarching hierarchical structure, there is an informal hierarchy within the smaller groupings of the growing subculture. The conversations within the small networks are where reputations are frequently established. These informal conversations are points where creditworthiness is established on the most basic of levels and experience. It is an exchange point for trustworthiness as well as behavioral evaluations. Acceptance into the group may be determined by the outcome of such assessments (65).

This does not show any gendered bias or gendered based ideology, and from my research and experience this is how things are run. If a person has the status and trust to obtain different jobs, then they will gain the ability to move through networks. This status and trust allows a person to obtain jobs that suit their skills and desires. Occasionally a person will run into people with gendered beliefs about who should fulfill specific jobs within the economy. However if this is not the network that a person wishes to participate in, then that person may seek out new and different groups that operate more inline with their ideologies.

The Victim/Victimizer Approach

Literature suggests women of the underground economy are mainly being subjugated to low level, sexually exploited positions such as the poster girls for weed or grow hos*. Placing judgment on an individuals right to use their body in any way they see fit in order to maintain a life they choose is a very large and degrading judgment on behalf of the outsider. Frameworks like these that demonize men and women for using whatever resources they own to propel them into the life that they want essentially strips all agency from the persons who are utilizing their resources. In essence, this is another form of slut shaming. More over, when the term ‘grow ho’ is used, it is generally in relation to women. However, it is not an accurate assumption that men are not ‘grow hos’ as well.

The increasing number of male grow hos is rather awesome, since this is a position that is perceived to be a female-only role. I know from personal experience that I have encountered numerous male grow hos and at different levels of the underground. I have had a number of them myself and with all different functions and with differing status. However, the discussion of grow hos is a very large and important discussion in and of itself and needs to be handled in another discussion, so I will only touch on it here. The men in the marijuana economy are subject to exploitation just as the women are. The underground economy of the marijuana industry does not limit who can or cannot exploit themselves or others.

This line of thinking continues to further the notion that women are abused and used up by the men of the underground economy, which also places the women as helpless victims and men as those doing the victimizing. I have seen women and men use the resources they have to get what they want. Not only women do this but men as well.

Moreover, the term grow ho should not default to women or hold such a negative value. Why wouldn’t it occur to researcher that we have a large group of men with fat wallets and women who want to take advantage of that and live a life of non-traditional labor and luxury?

If we continue to say that there are no women present, then we will find what we are looking for, an absence of women. However, I do warn further researchers that if we overlook all of the previous work done by men and women to make the marijuana economy work for all of those in it regardless of gender, we will be missing generations of community work.

*Grow ho: A slang phrase which means an attractive person who starts as a low-level employee in a grow operation and becomes romantically or sexually involved with the primary operator/owner.

All About Dispensaries

In California, dispensaries are the only place in which the marijuana industry is even vaguely legitimate. However these are not the only place in which information can or should be gleaned. There are huge issues between the dispensaries and the rest of the underground economy of California, which also connects to the rest of the country through underground trade. This is not something that outsiders would necessarily know, and thus further solidifies that outside voices speaking for those inside the daily actions are simply skewing what we believe we are seeing.

Showing dispensaries as the only place that women can thrive and be present in the marijuana economy is problematic for numerous reasons. One reason is that by reproducing what is perceived as a male-dominated economy as unsafe for women, we are subversively labeling all of our men as victimizers and our women as helpless victims. I urge future researchers to not do this, as this is a very tricky space to be in, and as we reach the end of prohibition and move more towards regulation, we will be looking for research that will help inform policies. Having problematic research will only further the misconceptions that the men of the marijuana industry are only subjugating women.

This perceived subjugation comes in the form of outsiders placing no value on domestic work. What is being viewed as low-level jobs that women are restricted to are generally of a domestic nature. Child rearing, cooking, cleaning, trimming, and countless other tasks that are deemed women’s work are somehow then considered unsavory.

The findings suggest that while gender dynamics in the marijuana industry are similar to those of other agricultural industries, the gender division of labor in certain subsets is distinct. These distinctions specifically relate to “trim-work,” male dominance in many arenas of the industry, and the increasing ability of women to manage their own cultivation operations. Alisha Adleman states in The Grass Ceiling

Large outdoor marijuana production sites provide opportunities for different types of labor and employ both men, for management and labor positions, and women, for trimming positions. Ownership, construction, and management have historically been masculine roles in agricultural businesses. Traditionally, trimming was reserved for women. Now with indoor scenes, or cultivation sites within homes or other indoor spaces that women can run, more men are seen trimming for a living (5).

There has been an increase of male trimmers over the years for a few reasons. One, this underground market is ruled by the people operating within it. Both men and women are working together at different levels to reach the end goal of equity. Just as women were feeling subjugated to only trimming work, similarly men were tired of being reduced to that of only labor. During the time when women were obtaining high level roles in the industry, men were working to obtain trimming jobs.

However, I would assert that the reason even though it may have been patriarchal was in essence similar to that of agrarian life style. Large outdoor scenes require intense physical labor for long periods of time in the heat. This is not appealing to most people. Also the background of the person has a lot to do with it as well. I know many men who are from cities that want nothing to do with mountain work. Similarly, I know women from rural areas that want to work mountains much more than they ever want to trim.

Women in the underground economy tend to stay back a bit more and draw less attention to themselves as far as their grower identity is concerned. Many women in the economy use growing as a secondary identity rather than their defining identity. With this being said, in my research I have found no shortage of women at any level and assert that the information is out there. It is up to the researcher to gather that information. Furthermore it is the responsibility of all researchers embarking on this work to not be so quick to dismiss what they don’t see as simply non-existent. This is a very skilled group at identity management, and that must be accounted for.

If researchers are attempting to inform policy, then they must be aware of what they are asking of the people within the economy they are discussing. Wendy Chapkis states “While some of the effects of the hyper-gendering of drugs may benefit individual women, the social effects of the association of marijuana with men may undermine efforts at broader drug policy reform (84).”

Yes, policy reform needs to happen. Women’s voices need to be heard, and we need to be accounted for. However, this cannot and will not happen from an outside perspective. This community and economy is too entrenched in illegal activity to allow full access to just anyone who wishes to research it. In my experience, one must participate fully for an extended period of time to gain full trust, access, and knowledge of how it truly operates.

From my experience, the desire of making an illegal presence and actions public to the legal world is generally advocated by people who lean toward the legalization groups. The majority of people that are entrenched in the legal and policy faction of marijuana tend to be people from the more mainstream walk of life. These are people who are not mainly operating in an illegal economy, and therefore do not have their freedom at stake daily. NORML has done some groundbreaking work and has made great progress in the legalization of marijuana. NORML has also lobbied many communities and states for laws and legislation that have positively affected the marijuana community. However, we must find a safe place for those with the true knowledge to participate in this discussion.

Is it right for us to ask women or men to step forward and show themselves without safeguards in place? The burden of showing what is truly happening in relation to gender within the marijuana economy should not be on the women enacting their daily life, but on the researcher. Many of the women and men I know, and have talked with have nothing to do with the legalization of marijuana simply for the distrust of the government, outsiders, and dispensaries.

The legalization movement, mainstream media, and all things entangled in the legalization area may remain up to the people that are operating in the larger legitimate economy. This is not because the underground does not care, but safety is the first priority for this group. Showing yourself publicly while entrenched in a life of illegal actively in the legitimate legal sector only puts people and their networks at risk. That is an unfair request to ask of those who manage their safety as a daily routine. This is not to say that as women, growers, and participants in the underground economy they do not care. On the contrary, they care a great deal. This is their livelihood, safety, and future. It is simply a matter of safety. Still, there are those who are willing to enter into this discussion that have the background and solid knowledge of this economy.

Anyone embarking on this research should not have any preconceived ideas about how anything is run. Only then will the researcher be able to gather the true scope of operations within this life and economy. Once you do have that access and have realized what you have come across, there will be many ethical issues that must be addressed. My beginning was not one of intent to research, and in fact I had no idea what I was doing. This opportunity came to me during a great change in my life.

Mobility in the Underground

Women are here and we do the same jobs as men, and we do them just as well as our male counterparts. It is mainly outsiders that are making noise about the issue of women being restricted to sexually exploitative low-level jobs within the economy, as well as using the tactic of exploiting perceived notion of violence toward women to make this issue more prevalent than it truly is. Yes, there is violence, but I do not see that it is any more prevalent than in larger society. Furthermore, what is viewed as violence from the outside can often simply be explained in terms of protecting self, identity, and possessions.

The marijuana economy is subject to thieves, police, and people looking to exploit any resources they can. This makes for a community that is very guarded from outsiders, not because of a desire to be violent, but as a mechanism of personal and community safety. To reduce the marijuana economy and the people in it to violence is a bit skewed, since the research is little and we do not really have solid data to back up claims.

The women in Adler’s work who were dealers were often the old ladies (wives or girlfriends) and occasionally took active dealing roles but for the most part remained in the background of their dealer mates. Adler found this was due largely to the social constraints created by male dealers. The men were reluctant to deal with women, feeling they did not have the personality for the business. Women did occasionally work as smugglers as well but for the most part, the women in Adler’s study were seen as “eye candy” for the men. In contrast, Raphael did note one woman in his work, a single mother who grew marijuana as supplemental income to support her family. In other instances, the women in Raphael’s work were involved romantically with male growers.

This is a common idea, that if a woman is partnered with a man somehow she has less power afforded to her and that he must have been the one who brought the resources. However, I have personal knowledge of a different type of partnership. I have partnered with a man, and just like the excerpt above I have found through my interactions that people think that I came with nothing to the partnership. However, I was the owner of ten lights and my partner was the owner of four. When we began to live together it was due to a near fatal accident that I was in that had left me physically unable to care for my garden. Even though I had the larger number of lights, more networks, and had taken on more roles in the marijuana economy than my partner; it has been a common misconception by outsiders that the man in this relationship is truly the owner.

This seems to be a very common misconception by people. I know of many women who brought the majority of resources to the relationship, and these are things that would not be something that outsiders would ever have the chance of knowing simply due to the lack of access. I urge future researchers to be reluctant to reducing women to secondary partners. Simply because a researcher has not had the opportunity to encounter such women of power and access does not mean they are non-existent.

August’s research further solidifies what I have seen, encountered, and heard form within the marijuana economy. Money and access is the true factor that helps people decide to grow. The growers I interviewed overwhelmingly began growing to reduce the expense of supplying themselves with marijuana. Said one grower, “Money. There was no reason to buy pot when we own a house.” This motivation surfaced in all nine interviews as did the notion of having access to high quality weed grown organically (August 63).

This is an economy driven by money, and I would have to assert that both genders in this economy are being ruled by money. Money is the true ruling factor in the economy, not gender. This can be shown in the idea of grow hos. In the marijuana economy, when we talk about grow hos we often default to women simply because the framing of the entire economy and its actions are that of males exploiting females. However, grow hos do not have to be women. In fact I have had male grow hos, and so have many other women growers and brokers that I know. It is not the gender that determines the work, it is the willingness of the person to do it. If a man wants to be the one who trims, cooks, cleans, runs the house, and does the majority of the domestic work, that that is something that should and is allowed to him. I have seen this and have encountered it on numerous occasions.

In recent years, the nuclear and agrarian topologies of family and farming has been changing in direct relation to the larger economy. Women have been gaining more access to high-level jobs and larger status positions. This has all been done by the hard work of women and the rest of the communities that have supported them. The other side of the gender paradise is that an increasing number of men have found the ability to stay home and are in charge of the domestic duties as well as raising the children while their women significant others are the ones out in the work force. When we have discussions saying that women are reduced to menial domestic jobs, we are also forgetting the very important time for rearing of children that is being made available to parents regardless of their gender. The marijuana economy is allowing for families to have at least one parent stay home for a few years and rear the children.

However, hard labor does not mean that women cannot do the same activities as men; it just may take some creative applications or cooperation. I have been told of stories where mountains that are all women will work together and accomplish the same things as mountain worked by their male counterparts. Three interviews with women in the marijuana economy flush out what the most recent and noticeable change in the gender dynamics have been since 2009 (which also happened to be a very intensive year of camp busts). Women and men have made great accomplishments, working together in bridging the gender gap in the marijuana economy since the arrival of this legal entity of prohibition.

From my research, I have found that since 2009 a real change in the daily gender dynamics of the underground economy has been emerging. During this time the number of busts in Humboldt County and Northern California was significant. The risk became great to even be a participant in this economy, much less an owner. However, as the risk has grown, so has the number of women owners, and managers, thus leading me to believe that women who find value and worth in this economy will not be deterred simply because of legal issues. If this were the case, then we would have seen a decrease in the number of high-level women since 2009, and we have seen the opposite.

Research and articles that discuss how dispensaries are changing the face of the marijuana economy negate all the work that has come before it by people of both genders that have been entrenched in the marijuana economy for decades. Discussions that place women as just now coming up into positions of power within the marijuana economy also set the discussion in terms of males as the dominating and controlling power and women as scrounging for any scraps that fall off of the male table of power and ownership.

Showing women as the bakers and tincture makers only solidifies the idea that the dominant positions are for men, since the bakers, trimmers, and domestic worker are women. This is simply not true. Furthermore, having voices only from people involved with dispensaries is flawed simply by the nature of relations between growers, dispensaries, and customers which is all too often in the favor of the dispensaries. Many growers, regardless of gender, do not have any respect for or desire to do business with dispensaries. This is due to the fact that many dispensaries pay low prices to the growers, yet make customers pay inflated prices.

I would like to state that I have had the privilege of interviewing one woman who runs a dispensary, and I find that her business model is a bit different that that of the exploitative dispensary. This specific dispensary pays the grower according to the level that their weed has been tested at. If the product is good and has been tested for quality, this dispensary pays a reasonable price. Another very wonderful quality of this dispensary is that all hospice patients receive their medication for free. This is a very good step in the right direction, however the rest of the medical patients must pay prices that are higher than street prices. Yet the dispensary does only pay a few hundred dollars more per pound than street value. Not only do growers have to wait to be paid from the dispensaries, but they also must put their safety at risk by offering up their information when giving their weed on consignment to dispensaries.

As we look at dispensaries as the place where gender change is happening, let us look at the jobs within them that women are occupying. In these dispensaries, how many of them employ women as the master gardener? Are these women being stuck in low-level positions such as baking and trimming?

In the under ground economy, any job you want that is available can be attainable by any gender, given the right networks and reputation are in place. These only come from time in the economy, which earns trust and status. If information regarding the marijuana economy and its structure is what is being sought, I urge you to look deeper into the underground economy in conjunction somewhere with research regarding dispensaries. Unless the researcher is specifically studying dispensaries or comparing the two, dispensaries alone cannot and will not shed light on the true operations of the underground economy.

How I Got Involved

Defining the economy as male and doing all research at a gendered starting point positions the researcher and reader where the idea that women are oppressed is already in place from the inception. I too was under this impression, due to all that I had read. However, once in the economy, I realized that women were everywhere. I just had to ask the right questions and show the right set of actions.

It is my assertion that men tend to be the gatekeepers in to the economy. One possible reason men are still mainly the gatekeepers is simply that men have been in control of safety, and the ones who are the faces of the growing community for the most part. A large part of this reason is that for a long time men have been the dominating power. However, this has been rapidly changing and that change must be accounted for or all discussions will remain skewed and dichotomous in nature. Upon entering this economy, I had no concept of the gender dynamics, and daily operations within it. I began with no desire to do anything but gain access to cheaper weed, the ability to support myself, and do some traveling. I was able to do all of this and more.

During my first trim season in 2009, I began to realize that I was mostly trimming with women and that the men were the managers and owners. During this time, I did have a male friend who was a very good trimmer, however he was having trouble obtaining trimming jobs solely for the fact that he was a man. The gender dynamics were not just subjugating women to certain roles but men as well. This man who wanted to trim had no trouble finding labor positions but was commonly turned away from trimming.

This was also during the time, according to my research, that much was changing in the way of the gender roles within the economy. It was due to men and women wishing to break out of the roles they thought they were destined to remain in. At the same time, my friend was whole-heartedly addressing the issue of a lack of male trimmers, I was seeking out where women were at higher levels.

As I moved though networks and found higher positions over time, I realized I was surrounded by men. Men were the bosses, owners, and managers. This is in line with what Karen August reports in her research of the marijuana economy. In her research, August spent a year living with a male grower and doing the daily life, job, and tasks that growers in northern California do on a regular basis. Just like myself and many others have found, she saw that men tend to be the gatekeepers into the economy, thereby creating a position where all you see at first are men. One must be a little more savvy and subtle to find the women.

However, finding the voices of women in the true marijuana economy is a bit more difficult than walking into a dispensary and asking for an interview. True knowledge from the current marijuana economy requires entry into a guarded world, and this entry requires trust. This trust is gained through the participant showing qualities that promote and further the participant’s main purpose in the economy. This time in the economy is also a very crucial aspect to being able to accurately describe the changes that have taken palace, as well as to gaining access to those that have done the work and taken the risk. It may take longer periods of time to develop links to communication with those people.

Each network in the economy functions similar to each other in that there are goods and services for sale or trade, but many networks operate in different manners regarding ethics and values. Each smaller network within the larger one hold its own values, and those values and ethics are representative of the people within them creating those parameters. Each of these smaller networks may not be right for everyone. For example men dominated the first group that I came into. Some of these men were very unethical and lacked values that are needed for a business that has longevity.

One in particular was abusive to women and had severe anger issues. He also was very poor to his workers. This man soon ran out of folks that would work with him. The people he had been working with had been in the economy for some time. However, because this man had bad business ethics and abusive actions he lost all quality workers, his lady, and his children. This man had to resort to dealing with cartels and soon that would be over as will. He is a prime example of what happens when you abuse networks and the people within them.

For the most part, women are no longer being regulated to low-level positions in the underground economy and haven’t been for quite some time. Those reporting on the gender dynamics and the regular operations of the marijuana economy are mostly men. This also is part of the issue; we need to look carefully at the way that the legitimate economy way has acted toward gender dynamics during certain points of history in relation the marijuana economy. It is a very strong mirror to that of the larger legitimate economy.

Even though it seemed that women were and are low-level workers they have always been present. Disregarding all of the work they have put in throughout the generations that has made room for woman at all ranks within the economy is problematic and very one-sided. There have been women working along with men for quite sometime, and these are the women and men who have made it possible for women to become a much larger part of the economy. The space for women was not created by dispensaries and in fact was made by the women and men working in the underground economy for a large number of years.

In the end, this is an underground economy, so nothing is given to you on a silver platter . You must seek out what you want and work to attain that. Once I began to seek women out, a whole new world and view of the economy was revealed to me. This came through time effort and creating a reputation for myself. This was all work, and this is an identity that you can’t take off. This identity is the way people within the underground economy keep themselves safe and the second they dismiss that they are at a much greater risk.


For previous Ladybud  articles about the underground economy, click here.

Photo Credit: OpenClips under public domain via Pixabay