The Trinity Pines area in Trinity County, Calif., part of what is called the Emerald Triangle, where marijuana farms have flourished. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times California’s ‘Green Rush’ Takes Hmong Back
to Their Opium-Growing Roots
By THOMAS FULLER
JUNE 3, 2017
HAYFORK, Calif. — The red and purple opium poppies that his family grew on a mountainside half a world away were filled with an intoxicating, sticky sap that his mother traded for silver coins to feed her children and pay for their escape.
Adam Lee smiles at the memory of a childhood in war-torn Laos and voyage to America, where he spent decades adapting to life in big cities.
Now 47 years old, Mr. Lee has returned to the mountains — the Trinity Alps of Northern California — and to a career farming a different mind-altering crop for his livelihood: marijuana.
“We’ve got big dreams,” Mr. Lee said from a hilltop overlooking his marijuana farm.
Mr. Lee is part of a diaspora of about 1,000 ethnic Hmong families who have come to this remote and relatively poor corner of California to grow marijuana.
Photo Adam Lee is part of about 1,000 ethnic Hmong families who have come from across the United States to live in this corner of Northern California to grow marijuana. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times California is home to the largest population of Hmong in the United States, with nearly 100,000, and most initially settled in the Central Valley. Over the last decade, many have moved north, and others from around the country are migrating to this part of California to take advantage of the growing marijuana trade.
They are a small slice of what has become a huge industry across the state. In Trinity County, they are reinvigorating a strug-gling, rural area that was losing population.
The legalization of recreational marijuana in November set off a so-called green rush in California, which has been a center for cannabis-growing for decades. Like the gold miners who scoured the same Northern California hills 150 years ago, marijuana entrepreneurs have come hoping to gain great fortunes.
The Hmong, a hill tribe that fought alongside the Central Intelligence Agency in a covert war against Communist forces in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s, were known for their skills as opium farmers. The trade continues to help finance insurgencies in a part of Southeast Asia known as the Golden Triangle. It is not lost on some Hmong here that they now live in a part of California called the Emerald Triangle, named for the thriving trade in marijuana.
Many in the state see marijuana farming as a commercial opportunity, but for the Hmong, many of whom strug-gled to assimilate in California in the early years, it is also a chance to return to their farming roots and rural lifestyle.
For some of the older Hmong, who worked as janitors and factory workers when they arrived in America, the bucolic surroundings help soothe the lingering trauma of war and allow them to be among kin and long-lost friends.
“It’s the independence of living free — you can live off the land,” said You Ping Vang, an ethnic Hmong who was born in the United States and is the founder of Lonestar Trade, a company that sells the marijuana grown here. “This is the life that they left. They love it.”
In a county that is more than 85 percent white, the Hmong are conspicuous. Their assimilation is still a work in progress, residents say.
Photo In Trinity Pines, three mountains connected by a network of uneven dirt roads, small plots dot the steep hillsides. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times “We’ve scrambled to figure out how we can incorporate their traditions,” said Debbie Miller, the superintendent of the Mountain Valley Unified School District, where 30 of the 280 students are Hmong.
“We’ve had declining enrollment for a while, and they’ve brought children to us,” Ms. Miller said. “I hope more of them come.”
Mai Vue, the founder of Conscious Cannabis Resources, a nonprofit organization that helps Hmong farmers navigate the growing thicket of regulations applied to marijuana growing, estimates that more than 1,500 Hmong live in Trinity County, which has a population of about 13,000.
“When they first came here eight years ago, they were scared to even go to the grocery store,” Ms. Vue said. “I would go, because my husband was white. It was just fear, I think, on both sides. It was: ‘This is a small town. Maybe they don’t accept us.’”
Photo Mai Vue is the founder of Conscious Cannabis Resources, a nonprofit organization that helps Hmong farmers navigate the growing number of regulations applied to marijuana growing. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times In neighboring Siskiyou County, Hmong who are cultivating marijuana sued the sheriff and other officials last year for what they said was voter intimidation.
But in Trinity, Hmong are gaining acceptance. Last year, a Hmong team won a prize in a prestigious local barbecue competition. At the school holiday pageant, the students put on a Hmong fashion show.
In November, Bobbi Chadwick, a farmer, was elected to a seat on the Board of Supervisors under the slogan Unite Trinity, which was understood as a sign of uniting the Hmong and the white population. Ms. Chadwick has befriended her Hmong neighbors, organized a banquet and compared slaughtering techniques.
“Six men came to the ranch, and we harvested two hogs and a goat,” Ms. Chadwick said.
From the jungles and refugee camps of Southeast Asia, the Hmong came to America starting in 1975, during the Communist takeover of Laos and the fall of Saigon. They arrived impoverished, disoriented by the industrialized society they met and, for the most part, undereducated. They scattered around the country in climates that were foreign to tropical hill dwellers, enduring subzero winters in Minnesota and Wisconsin and the baking heat of California’s Central Valley summers.
Photo Bobbi Chadwick, a farmer, was elected to a seat on the Board of Supervisors under the slogan Unite Trinity, which was understood to mean uniting the Hmong and the white population. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times Mark E. Pfeifer, a scholar of Southeast Asia and the editor of the Hmong Studies Journal, describes the Hmong as a late-blooming immigrant success story, shedding reliance on government assistance and finding niches in the American economy, like Asian restaurants in Michigan and the flower business in Washington State.
In 2015, the Census Bureau estimated that 285,000 Hmong were in the United States.
In an area here called the Trinity Pines, three mountains connected by a network of uneven dirt roads, the older Hmong have regained a lifestyle familiar to them, farming small plots on steep hillsides.
Driving his pickup truck through the Pines, Mr. Vang called out the states where his Hmong neighbors migrated from.
“These guys are from Alaska, and they’re from Arkansas,” Mr. Vang said. “Texas. … Minnesota. … He’s from Wisconsin.”
Photo For the Hmong, marijuana farming is not only a commercial opportunity but also a chance to return to a rural lifestyle. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times Mr. Vang’s father, Neng Vang, worked for the C.I.A. as a radio operator in Laos during what is known as the Secret War. He was a lieutenant in the army of Vang Pao, the leader of the Hmong anti-Communist army that worked alongside American military advisers.
“We were scattered around the United States, north, south, east, west,” the elder Mr. Vang said.
Now, at age 61, he is jarred and delighted by random, tearful reunions. He meets old army buddies, childhood friends and long-lost cousins, all of whom have come to Hayfork to grow marijuana.
At a gas station in town, he ran into a junior officer, his former subordinate in Laos.
At a local garden supply store, an old classmate stopped him.
“He told me: ‘I thought you were still in Laos. I thought you were dead,’” Mr. Vang said. “We had not seen each other since we came to this country.”
A visitor to the Vangs’ farm is greeted by reminders of the homeland. In the kitchen is a cleaver next to a thick cross section of a pine tree used as a chopping block. On the gas burner is an hourglass-shaped pot for cooking sticky rice. A mortar and pestle serve to crush spices.
The elder Mr. Vang said that while the Hmong felt at home in Trinity County, he was not sure how long they would stay. The regulations that county and state officials are imposing on marijuana growers — every growing plot must have a house to certain specifications — are driving many Hmong to question the future profitability of the business. Small-scale growers across the state are increasingly up against much larger industrial farms.
The Hmong are not the first East Asians to flock to Trinity County during a boom period. In Weaverville, a 45-minute drive from Hayfork, all that is left of the Chinese community that came for the 19th century gold rush is a Taoist temple that has been turned into a museum.
Mr. Vang said he hoped the Hmong would get permits and make Trinity County a more permanent home.
“If they allow us to grow, the Hmong will stay,” he said.
HAIS TXOG CALIFORNIA...GREEN RUSH...
( KEV NPLUA NUJ LOS NTAWM MARIJUANA )
Kuv kuj tsis tau mus Tshawb Fawb kom paub tseeb paub meej tias
nyob rau Xeev CALIFORNIA raws li tsab XOV XWM hais saum nov ne
TXOJ CAI...Hais TSEEB npaum li cas rau kev COG...MUAG...thiab SIV MARIJUANA...
Raws kuv nkag siab ces...Tib neeg yeej muaj cai COG...MUAG...SIV...
UA TSHUAJ los yog SIV UA KEV LOM ZEM xwb los yeej tau...
TAB SIS QHOV CHAW KOJ YUAV COG...KOJ YUAV MUAG...THIAB YUAV SIV
PUB UA NYOB TWG & UA NTAU NPAUM LI CAS...?
THIAB LEEJ TWG THIAJ PUB SIV TAU...?
HNUB NYOOG SIAB NPAUM CAS THIAJ PUB SIB TAU...?
( YOG TSIS PAUB TXOG TEJ NOV CES THAUM KAWG MUAJ KEV TXHAUM
XWS LI KOJ COJ MARIJUANA MUS MUAG RAU ME NYUAM KAWM NTAWV
UNDER 18 NYOB TOM SCHOOLS PUAS TAU...? )
TEJ NOV KUV KUJ TSIS PAUB TSEEB LAWM...
Raws li PAUB YAV TAS LOS thaum lub HAUV PAUS mas tsuas
PUB COG...PUB MUAG...thiab PUB SIV UA TSHUAJ KHO MOB XWB...
COV COG TSIS PUB COG TSHAJ LI 20 TSOB XWB...
TAB SIS TOM QAB NOV CES HO TIAS UA TAU TXHUA YAM LI LAWM NO
CES KUV KUJ TSIS PAUB QHOV TSEEB LAWM...
YOG LEEJ TWG YUAV MUS UA...BUSINESS...TXOG MARIJUANA
YUAV TSUM TAU MUS TSHAWB FAWB KOM PAUB TSEEB PAUB MEEJ
THIAJ TSIS YUAM KEV...
YOU MUST KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU CAN & CAN NOT DO...!
VIM THAUM YUAM KEV TUAJ LAWM
YUAV RAUG ...POOB NYIAJ & MAG TXIM...!
TXAWM LI CAS LOS XIJ PEEM...TXAWM LEEJ TWG YUAV COG...YUAV MUAG
thiab YUAV SIV NO LOS YUAV TSUM MUS UA NTAUB NTAWV KOM RAWS TXOJ CAI...
KOM TAU DAIM NTAWV ...PERMISSION...
TXHAIS TIAS...TXHUA TSAV YAM YUAV TSUM TAU THEM ...SE... ( TAX )
TSOOM FWV TSO CAI UA TEJ NOV LOS THAUM KAWG YEEJ HAIS TIAS
KOM TAU NYIAJ ( TAX REVENUE ) LOS NKAG RAU NYIAS LUB XEEV NKAUS XWB...
EVERY THING IS...ABOUT MONEY PERIOD...!
DAIM ...MAP...TXOJ CAI RAU TXHUA LUB XEEV
NYOB MESKAS NOV
TXOG KEV COG...KEV MUAG...KEV SIV...MARIJUANA
TIAS LUB XEEV TWG TSUAS TSO CAI LI CAS TXOG ...MARIJUANA...XWB !
GREEN...RECREATIONAL USE APPROVED
( NTSUAB...SIV UA KEV LOM ZEM/ SIV UA KOM QUAV TSHUAJ & VWM TAU )
GRAY...MEDICAL USE APPROVED
( TXHO...TSUAS PUB SIV TAU UA TSHUAJ RAU KEV KHO MOB XWB )
BLUE...CANNABIS DERIVED CBD LAW PASSED
( XIAV... PUB SIV/TSO CAI SIV )
( LIAB...TXHAUM CAI )
LIAB YOG TXHAUM CAI TXHUA YAM
XWS LI YUAV...COG...MUAG...thiab SIV... YEEJ TXHAUM TAS NRHO...
HAVING SOME AMOUNT OF MARIJUANA IN YOUR HANDS/POSSESSION IS ...ILLEGAL...PERIOD...!
XIAV... PUB SIV/TSO CAI SIV...
TAB SIS PUAS PUB...COG...thiab MUAG...?
KUJ TSIS MEEJ RAU QHOV NOV...!
TXHO...TSUAS PUB SIV TAU UA TSHUAJ RAU KEV KHO MOB XWB
COG PUAS TAU...? MUAG PUAS TAU...?
KUJ TSIS PAUB MEEJ...!
TEJ ZAUM LUAG TSUAS TIAS...TUS YUAV SIV YUAV TSUM TAU DOCTOR'S
DRUG PRESCRIPTION...TUS MUAJ MOB TSUAS MUS YUAV TAU TOM LEGAL DRUGS STORE XWB...
TSIS PUB COG...TSIS PUB MUAG...TSIS PUB SIV RAU TOM TEJ KEV...
NTSUAB...SIV UA TSHUAJ & UA KEV LOM ZEM/ SIV UA KOM QUAV TSHUAJ & VWM TAU
TAB SIS HO PUAS PUB COG...? PUAS PUB MUAG...?
TSIS HAIS TUS LAUS TUS ME YAUS UNDER 18 PUAS SIV TAU...?
PUAS SIV TAU TXHUA LUB SIJ HAWM & TXHUA THAJ CHAW...?
TEJ ...DETAILS...NOV YEEJ TSIS PAUB TSEEB LI...!
RAWS PAUB CES...TAM SIM NOV TXHUA LUB XEEV NYIAS UA NYIAS TXOJ CAI TAWM LOS
RAU NYIAS LUB XEEV SIV...
TAB SIS ...FEDERAL TUS QUB ILLEGAL...GROWING...SELLING...and USING LAWS OF DRUGS
and MARIJUANA IN THE USA...YEEJ TSEEM ACTIVE...
VIM LI NOV YOG THAUM TWG FEDERAL DRUG AGENTS XAV...ENFORCE/MUAB LOS SIV
TXHOM...NPLUA...RAU TXIM RAU LEEJ TWG...NYOB LUB XEEV TWG...THAUM TWG
LOS LUAG YEEJ TSEEM MUAJ CAI UA TAU...!
FEDERAL ILLEGAL DRUG CRIME LAWS ARE...STILL ACTIVE/ENFORCED
HAIS TXOG 3-HMOOB TXOJ KEV MUS UA BUSINESS
1. VIM NTAU LUB XEEV...YEEJ TSO CAI RAU KEV UA LUAM...MARIJUANA...LAWM
CES YOG LEEJ TWG NYOB RAU LUB XEEV NTAWD NWS YEEJ MUAJ RIGHTS
UA RAWS TXOJ CAI...
BUT YUAV TSUM PAUB TXOJ CAI KOM TSEEB KOM MEEJ THIAJ TSIS YUAM KEV...
2. YOG YUS YUAV UA LAG LUAM TXOG ...MARIJUANA...ACROSS STATES...
YUS YUAV TSUM TAU PAUB TXHUA LUB STATE UAS YUS MUS HLA NTAWD TIAS
LUAG TXOJ CAI TXOG...MARIJUANA...NOV NE LUAG TXWV TXIAV TUAG NTHI
LOS YOG LUAG HO TSO CAI RAU NEEG SIV NTAU NTSAWG NPAUM LI CAS...
YOG YUS TSIS PAUB QHOV TSEEB QHOV MEEJ CES...THAUM YUS MUS YUAV/NQA
LUB LEGAL STATE LOS HLA LUB ILLEGAL STATE CES YUS LOS MAG TXHOM
TOM LUB...ILLEGAL STATE...CES YUS HO TIAS YUS YUAV/NQA LOS TWB
YEEJ LEGAL LAWM CAS TSEEM HO MAG TXHOM NO THIAB...?
TSHEEJ ZOO YAJ & 1 TUS POJ NIAM HMOOB MAG KUAJ/CHECK TOM KEV FREEWAY
CES MAG TXHOM NYOB XEEV NEBRASKA...VIM XEEV NEBRASKA TSIS TSO CAI
RAU LEEJ TWG COG/MUAJ/NQA/MUAG/SIV...MARIJUANA...KIAG LI...
NEJ YEEJ POM RAWS DAIM...MAP...SAUM TOJ NOV LAWM TIAS
NEBRASKA YOG...RED STATE...ILLEGAL TXOG MARIJUANA...!
3. TXAWM MUAJ COV STATES UAS LAWV ...PASSED TUS LEGAL LAW OF USING MARIJUANA
LAWM LOS KUJ TSEEM TSHUAV...FEDERAL TUS LAWS TXOG...ILLEGAL DRUGS LAWS...
YOG LI YUS THIAJ YUAV TAU CEEV FAJ TIAS YUS NYOB RAU QHOV TWG THIAB UA DAB TSI
ES YUS SIV LEEJ TWG TXOJ CAI LOS UA YUS QHOV LAG LUAM...
4. THAUM LEEJ TWG MUS UA TEJ LAG LUAM LI NOV LAWM LOS YUAV TAU CEEV FAJ
TXHUA LUB SIJ HAWM...TIAS YUAV MUAJ NEEG PHEM TUAJ HUAB NOJ HUAB HAUS
TXEEB YUS TEJ MARIJUANA/QOOB LOO NOV THIAB NYIAJ TX.IAG...VIM LUAG YEEJ
PAUB LAWM TIAS LEEJ TWG COG...MUAG TEJ NOV CES YEEJ YUAV TSUM MUAJ NYIAJ
NYOB HAUV TSEV XWB...
5. LEEJ TWG MUS UA MUS SIV TEJ MARIJUANA NOV CES NWS KUJ ZOO NKAUS LI
HMOOB TEJ ...YAJ YEEB...NYOB NTUJ QUB QAB XWB...YUS COG, YUS SIV, YUS MUAG
CES THAUM KAWG YUS YOG TUS QUAV YEEB QUAV TSHUAJ RAU TEJ MARIJUANA NOV
LAWM THIAB XWB...VIM LI NOV TEJ MARIJUANA NOV THIAJ LI YOG
...ILLEGAL DRUGS NYOB MESKAS TEB LOS LAWM NTAU CAUM LUB XYOO...
6. TEJ BUSINESS QUAV YEEB QUAV TSHUAJ NOV CES YEEJ TSIS PAUB LUB SIJ HAWM TOM
NTEJ LI TIAS YUAV MUAJ DAB TSI ZOO LOS PHEM TXOG QHOV TWG LI...VIM TEJ NOV
NWS YEEJ TSEEM YOG LUB NEEJ HOM TSHIAB UAS TSIS TAU UA DUA...
NEEG YUAV SIB NTAUS SIB TUA UA PHEM LI CAS LOS NTAWM TEJ YAJ YEEB NOV NPAUM
LI CAS LOS YEEJ TSIS PAUB LI NAWJ...
LUAG KUJ HAIS TIAS...
...MARIJUANA ZOO UA TSHUAJ NO...
TAB SIS QHOV NWS YUAV PAB YUS LOS YUAV TUA YUS NTAWD
QHOV TSEEB & QHOV CUAV YOG QHOV TWG TIAG
CIA SAWV DAWS MAM COJ MUS KAWM NTXIV SEB
YOG LI CAS TIAG...?
TAB SIS...PEB YEEJ PAUB LAWM TIAS...MARIJUANA...
YEEJ UA TAU RAU YUS...QUAV TSHUAJ TAU/QUAB YEEB TAU...
YOG LI NWS THIAJ LI YOG...ILLEGAL DRUG...YAV NRAM NTEJ LOS LAWM...!