Humboldt Co., CA investigates human trafficking at illegal marijuana grows

Eureka, Calif. –Humboldt county has the highest number of people reported missing across the entire state of California. The sheriff’s office said it’s an issue they’re aware of, and it’s their biggest concern with illegal marijuana grows.

“We have about 10,000 marijuana grows in our 4,000 square mile county,” Undersheriff William Honsal said.

While Humboldt county was the first of fifty-eight counties in California to offer a permit process for medical grows, Honsal said it has taken a while for people to apply.

“Out of those 10,000 or so marijuana grows, only about 300 now have put in for the permit process, and only about 15 have obtained their permits,” Honsal said.

With the majority of grows considered illegal, the sheriff’s special service team has been busy enforcing the law.

“They can face hundreds, if not millions of dollars of fines,” Honsal said. “For growing marijuana illegally, for damaging the environment, for doing unfair business practices, because they’re not paying taxes, they’re not paying payroll taxes, they’re not paying workman’s comp.”

That’s where Honsal says a whole other issue lies.

“This is an illegal industry, and it requires a lot of workers, it’s very labor intensive,” Honsal said. “If they can bring in free labor through human trafficking, they’ll do that.”

Honsal said he believes that’s the reason his county leads the state in missing person’s reports.

“We have people that call us every year and say, ‘my son or my daughter or my boyfriend or my friend went to Humboldt county to grow marijuana or to help process marijuana, trim marijuana, and we haven’t heard from them in six months… do you know what happened to them,’ and we don’t.”

Honsal said many of them are forced into slave labor, locked behind multiple gates in rugged, rural areas of the county. However, he noted sometimes victims do get away, and come forward.

“There have been cases where females have been drugged and raped and held against their will, and that… that has happened.”

Maryann Hayes-Mariani is the client services coordinator at the North Coast Rape Crisis Team. She works with these victims through the healing process, and the legal system.

“They’re very challenged, because they’re in an illegal operation, and when they’re calling us, they may allude to certain things that are going on, checking out the situation,” Hayes-Mariani said.

The sheriff’s Office is also asking victims to come forward.

“They feel like they can’t come and talk to us about it, and what we are trying to get the word out is that we are interested, we will believe you, you just need to come and speak with us about it, we’re more interested in the violent crimes,” Honsal said. “We want to go after the people who are hurting people.”

Both the sheriff’s office and the North Coast Rape Crisis Team are working  everyday to combat this problem. For more information on the services they provide, click here.

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