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Dave Brooksher

Redwood Times

Questions have been raised about domestic and sexualized violence against women in the marijuana industry after a recent article in The California Health Report. Suzanne Hurt wrote that as an unforeseen consequence of rapid growth in the marijuana industry, “an increasing number of young women in the business are facing exploitation in the state’s remote northern redwood country.”

Hurt cited interviews with Mary Balletta, executive director, and Dawn Watkins of the Women’s Crisis Shelter in Southern Humboldt, located in Garberville. Balletta and Watkins work with local survivors of abuse, providing transportation, counseling, and referral services for victims who sometimes can’t or won’t call law enforcement due to fears of self-incrimination. Outside intervention can also put friends and neighbors at risk.

Balletta disagreed with Hurt’s assertion that marijuana-related violence against women was on the rise when contacted for follow-up by the Redwood Times, and said that she’d only seen situations like the ones Hurt described a few times. It’s likely that the conditions of secrecy necessitated by participation in the underground economy do exacerbate the problems posed by domestic violence. But like everything else in the marijuana industry, that’s difficult to measure.

When violence is perpetrated against female marijuana workers, the crime typically takes place in remote locations. That remoteness can make it difficult for the victim to report the crime or call for help. It can also complicate their rescue, and pose significant challenges with regard to escaping their abusers.

“The fact that we’re so rural makes a huge difference. You can call me and it’s going to take me an hour to get to you. You may not even have service,” Balletta says. “If you get out on a street in Eureka, there’s another house next door. You get out in the woods in Alderpoint, and there’s no house. You don’t see a light. You don’t know where you are.”

Advocates for survivors of violence against women point out that it happens virtually everywhere. Even if our community is exceptional in this regard, that’s difficult to prove.

“Is it a possibility? Definitely. But we can’t say yes or no as to whether or not that’s happening, because we don’t know,” said lieutenant Steve Knight of the Humboldt County sheriff’s office. “There’s an assumption that there are some crimes that are not reported, because the trimmers and growers don’t want law enforcement in the area due to fears of losing their marijuana crop. So they just don’t report it.”

“We would encourage people to report any crime to us. Our focus is the violence, and I think we proved that in the Shane Miller case. Officers didn’t get involved with the marijuana, because that wasn’t the objective. Our number-one goal is stopping violence,” Knight said.

Getting victims to come forward and ask for help is a challenge, even in communities where the marijuana industry is not a prominent factor. Balletta said that getting the person to make that initial contact is often her biggest success.

“It’s much easier to prevent than to heal the trauma of someone really getting hurt,” Balletta said.

The Women’s Crisis Shelter in Southern Humboldt, or WISH, maintains a 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-211-1188. You can also find them online at www.wishshelter.org.

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