‘Real People That We Care About Are Being Exploited’

But with federal decriminalization appearing unlikely this year, that leaves the burden of dismantling the demand for illegal marijuana on states and consumers.

Since November 2020, the number of legal states has jumped from 12 to 19, with Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Vermont and New Jersey launching adult-use markets. Reducing demand for black-market weed has had an immediate effect on its production, economists say. In roughly the same timeframe, according to Whitney, Oregon’s illicit cannabis production declined from about 3.5 million pounds in 2021 to about 3.2 million pounds in 2022.

However, state legalization isn’t the magic solution. How a new cannabis market is regulated has almost as much impact as legalization itself. Illinois began selling recreational weed in January of 2020, but only 32 percent of cannabis sold in the state last year was legal, according to Whitney’s report. Montana, meanwhile, opened its doors in January — and already, Whitney says, 75 percent of the weed sold in that state is legal — similar to more mature markets like Washington and Colorado.

“Regardless of legalization, if the cost remains high for individuals — it remains a barrier to purchase — then they’re gonna go to the [illicit] route,” the White House’s Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Rahul Gupta told POLITICO in September. “You could legalize it and it’ll still cost a lot.”

There are many reasons that the illegal market survives in any given state or city. Yet still, these states illustrate the impact of different regulations. Licenses to grow and sell marijuana are cheap and plentiful in states like Montana and Washington, while they are limited and expensive in Illinois. In Seattle, there is approximately one dispensary for every 15,000 residents. In Chicago, there is one dispensary per every 159,000 residents. Additional costs such as licensing fees and product testing are often passed on to consumers, and states with fewer cultivators enable producers and distributors to set higher prices.

New York, which legalized marijuana last year, will soon open its dispensary doors — but already in the gap between legalization and licensed sales, the gray market has flourished. You can buy marijuana at a New York City bodega — but none of it is licensed or regulated.

As the three women huddled under the plastic that August morning, law enforcement brought in bulldozers to clear the land of the tents, greenhouses and personal belongings abandoned by fleeing workers.

“When the policemen entered … we just ran away with whatever we were wearing,” Isabella said. “A lot of people ran away wearing pajamas, with whatever they had on and without shoes.”

As the equipment inched closer, Isabella remembers telling her sister: “We have to get out, otherwise they’re going to run us over with the machine.”

From their hiding place, they watched as two men emerged from a bordering river to retrieve clothes left behind. They followed them back through a tangle of thorny blackberry bushes and into the water.

“My entire body was scratched, because we were throwing ourselves against [the bushes],” Isabella said.

Later that day, a Hispanic man found the workers walking alongside a road and brought them back to his farm, where he explained the situation to his American boss and provided them with food and water.

That was the last time the women ever worked on a cannabis farm. Now, Isabella, Leticia and Maria share a studio apartment and earn a living in other industries.

“We work at vineyards,” and “sometimes we clean houses, and things like that,” Leticia said. “Sometimes we leave for the flower season” to pick tulips.

Their employers actually pay them. Yet the work is harder — and the pay isn’t as good, leaving them with next-to-nothing to support their relatives in Mexico.

“We simply want to earn money to send money to our families,” Isabella said.

Isabella, Leticia and Maria say they will never again work on cannabis farms — legal or illegal. But their places will be taken by scores of other undocumented workers, who will face the same exploitation.

“It’s not like you had to do more than scratch the surface to hear stories like that,” said Padilla.

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