Impoverished, indebted and disillusioned Montenegrins are heading off to California where they can earn hundreds of dollars a day on licensed marijuana plantations.
By Jovo Martinovic
Igor was an excellent student of medicine and specialised in obstetrics. Although his skills seemed in demand in his hometown in the north of Montenegro, he could not get a full-time job at the local hospital.
He was ineligible, in his words, because the policy of the ruling party was that only those “who support them and also get family members to vote for them” can get – or keep – good jobs.
So, Igor, not his real name, decided to turn the new page and depart for California, on the invitation of a friend from Podgorica who was already there.
He would work in the medical business only indirectly – as a labourer on the medical cannabis farms in Humboldt County.
Medical use of marijuana has been legal in the State of California since 1996. As of this year, it has been legal for recreational use as well.
“My cousin had already been there once. In six months, he paid off his mortgage on his house in Podgorica and bought a new car,” Igor said.
“I have a sizable bank loan here to deal with and if I can’t stay there [in California] long term, I would like to open a private practice in Podgorica,” Igor added, selecting the very last cigarette from a pack. “This is where I have arrived; nothing left here for me anymore,” he concluded, squashing the empty pack.
Igor is one of growing number of Montenegrins, many of them with skills, embarking for the same American destination after meeting insurmountable hurdles at home.
Inability to find work at home on one hand, and enticing daily pay rates on the other, have led to a new slang term for migrant workers seeking jobs in harvesting and trimming marijuana – “trimmigrants”.
Being a Montenegrin “trimmigrant” usually means tirelessly trimming and manicuring marijuana buds to eliminate leaves and stems with hand clippers.
None of CIN-CG/BIRNnine interlocutors wanted to give their real names. Some were getting ready for their first voyage “across the pond”, while others had already been there or planned on returning.
Their desire for anonymity is explained by the US visa application rules; all of them apply for short-term visitor visas, posing as tourists while they illegally work on the licensed pot farms.
Some claim they get jobs at pot farms through friends and relatives there. Others rely on intermediaries from Montenegro, some of whom charge commissions. But there is no regret on the part of trimmigrants, as they can earn a whopping 900 US dollars a day.
The Montenegrins have to organise and provide for their voyage on their own, having received assurance that there is a place for them in the marijuana fields once they turn up.
Many of the farms are owned by Bulgarian immigrants who moved to Humboldt County in large numbers over the previous decade.
Local American growers are present as well, and are favoured, as “true Americans” offer better pay and work conditions than the Bulgarians, according to our interlocutors.
Humboldt County, the destination for the trimmigrants, is only slightly smaller than Montenegro with wide access to the Pacific and dotted with pot farms.
California’s marijuana market keeps on growing and will likely be worth 3.7 billion US dollars this year, which could rise to 5 billion dollars by 2019, according to Business Insider.
“Another incentive for Eastern European immigrants, and you can see them all around, is the county’s low density population,” says Kym Kemp, a local blogger and journalist.
The county population is 150,000, some 15,000 of whom are pot growers, which is one in ten.
“On the other hand, law enforcement is made up of only 100 sheriffs and their deputies, so hunting for illegal workers is not … their top priority,” Kemp added.
Good and not so good intermediaries
Californian marijuana is an unavoidable topic in the cafés of Podgorica these days – especially the amounts of money that many have earned in the pot industry.
For Montenegrin circumstances, such incomes are huge, and many have wired or brought wads of cash with them.
The average salary in Montenegro is only about 500 euros a month, so the possibility of earning a month’s money in a day or two in California is very appealing to many Montenegrins.
Hence, intermediaries and brokers are in high demand, as they make all the arrangements at the farms, so that the trimmigrants know there is work for them much before they land in San Francisco.
Adding to the frenzy is a popular YouTube clip uploaded by Milos Beli Pavicevic of Podgorica, on which he protects himself from the summer heat with thick wads of 100-dollar bills, out of which he makes cooling fans as “Benjamin Franklins” rain upon him.
Three people that we spoke to mentioned Pavicevic as a good and well-intentioned intermediary for Montenegrins when it comes to accommodation and jobs at the pot farms.
Reportedly, he manages one farm himself. All our attempts to communicate with him were met by silence on his part, however.
Another person whose name came up as a pot intermediary is that of Snezana Djurisic, from Podgorica, whose Bulgarian partner is a co-owner of many cannabis plants.
Four women that we spoke to mentioned her name; according to them, hundreds of girls and women from Podgorica have found work “with Sneza”. She also ignored our overtures to give a statement, however.
Our interlocutors noted her as someone who “loves to charge commission on workers’ pay”.
Zdenka, who spoke to us over Skype from America, said she spent two months trimming marijuana buds “with Sneza and her Bulgarians”.
It was virtually around-the-clock work, driven only by desire to earn as much as possible. There was no coercion on the part of the owners.
The trimming was done by the women alone while the men grow and harvest the cannabis plants. The women had separate accommodation from the men.
Zdenka found out about Snezana through a mutual contact before she made up her mind about America.
Showing us a photograph of the house she stayed in, alongside 50 other women from Podgorica, she recalled that after a time she realised that “Sneza” had gone too far with her intermediary commission.
Her Bulgarians used to pay 130 dollars per pound of trimmed marijuana [454gr] of which Sneza took 50 dollars as commission, sometimes even more. I can trim up to 3 pounds a day and I knew women who could do 4 pounds, so you can imagine how much she was making every day from the 50 women just in this house in the picture.”
Zdenka later discovered that, with a basic knowledge of English, it was pretty easy to find the same kind of work with “true Americans” without paying any commission or finding an intermediary.
“All you needed was to go down to Eureka [the seat of Humboldt County] and ask around for trimming jobs. The Americans also provide food and accommodation and my net income hits 450 to 500 dollars per day,” she said.
In the meantime, Zdenka also managed to make her stay in America legal, so ruling out any need to return to Montenegro.
“I hope I will earn another 70,000 dollars before the summer sets in and then I will move to another state and get a decent legit job and pay tax like everyone else,” she said.
Samira, 36, met us in a Podgorica café to tell us her story over a cup of coffee. She has already worked at pot farms and is up for another round there.
As a single mother of two daughters on an often late salary of 250 euros a month in a local firm, she felt left with no choice. She entrusted her children to her mother and left for California.
She spent only a week at the plantation that Snezana Djurisic had arranged for her.
She was picked by a jeep in Eureka and taken to a farm not far from the town but complained that at night some of the Montenegrin women and Bulgarian men succumbed to booze and readily available drugs. Subsequently, she said she had to deal with insults and humiliation.
“One morning, after we finished the trimming round of the harvested stock and were paid, my friend and I simply asked a local guy to give us a lift to the nearest town,” she said.
They then found work with Americans, she says, who paid more and treated them well.
The pot grower gave them one of his houses to stay in, and later they hosted more women from Podgorica, both those who had abandoned Snezana and those who came straight from the airport for the first time.
Samira was able to earn up to 900 US dollars a day having trimmed 6 pounds of high-quality marijuana buds. The quality of marijuana wasn’t always that great, however, which affected productivity.
“There were also days when I could make only 150 dollars a day because the stuff was of inferior quality. All in all I have no regrets and I will go back across the ocean in a few months,” she said.
Maja, 33, who now lives in Illinois, told us over Skype that she had left her three children and sick parents back in Montenegro, being unable to provide for them. She had moved to work in America on a tourist visa and then overstayed.
She was one of those who didn’t leave Snezana but instead took part in a mutiny one month after her arrival.
She says that many of the women had finally realised that they were underpaid compared to other labourers in the Emerald Triangle, as they call the largest cannabis-producing region in the US, which is made up of Humboldt and two more counties.
Maja says the women realised that after Sneza took her commission, they were left with 80 dollars per pound, while the other growers earned 120 to 150 dollars.
“We told the Bulgarians: either we get what the others get, or we all leave. Eventually, they relented; our group was paid 125 dollars per pound from then onwards,” Maja said.
Dreams of moving out for good
Michael Montgomery, a California-based reporter and producer for the Center for Investigative Reporting and an expert on the Balkans, says the flow from Montenegro to pot farms in California shows what Montenegro is in.
“They have long attracted young people to help harvest and trim marijuana buds, so-called trimmigrants. The fact that doctors, lawyers and other people with high skills and of all ages are leaving Montenegro and working as low-skilled trimmigrants shows how messed up the country’s economy has become,” he said.
Although Montenegro’s official mantra is that “Montenegro is the regional leader in the EU integration process”, the jobless rate still exceeded 22 per cent at the end of 2017, according to Monstat, the national statistics bureau.
Milan, 55, from Podgorica arrived in California in June 2017, to prevent the seizure of his house and land, having defaulted on his bank loans.
The company that he managed for years went bankrupt and he was unable to service his debts.
The house and estate that Milan went to save were his grandfather’s home, which he had acquired at the beginning of last century, after toiling in the mines of Oregon and Alaska and then having done gold panning in northern California.
“Marijuana fields have become my fields of gold, and I am not far from the place where my grandfather used to live once,” he said.
“I had no choice and was on the edge of the abyss, both financially and physically. Back in Montenegro, I snatched the house and land away from the banks and my family is safe. I am so grateful to America; there’s no greater country in the world,” he said.
Milan has overstayed his tourist visa and has decided to stay on in California until he gets rid of all his debts in Montenegro.
“I will try to become legal in the US and later bring over my three children. Montenegro is a disaster unless you are into organised crime and in cahoots with those in the government,” he said.
Getting a visa to the US is the major obstacle that stands in the way of many dreams coming true. Once in, immigrants must find a way to make their stay legal and permanent.
To qualify for a tourist visa, a person must have a permanent job, which is regarded as a guarantee of their return home. The US consulate in Montenegro usually grants three-year multiple entry visas while Homeland Security usually permits visitors to stay up to six months per single entry upon landing.
That is handy for those seeking jobs in the pot farms, as the growing and harvesting season lasts from late April and early May till the end of October, while the work in the green houses is all year round.
Ivana, aged 30, works in retail in Montenegro for 300 euros a month and is anxious about passing the visa interview at the US consulate.
“I rang Sneza and made all the work arrangements there, but now I have to convince the consul that I want to visit America as a tourist with a monthly salary of 300 euros,” she said with a shrug.
Meanwhile, Zeljko, aged 29, a dentist, got his visa without a problem, saying he wanted to visit the US for fun. He aims is to earn enough money to open a private practice in Podgorica.
He will be traveling with his best man, an electrical engineer tired of waiting for a permanent post in the national regulatory agency because “the [ruling] party is still assessing whether he complies with the political ideology of the establishment”.
Another interlocutor, an economist by profession, got his visa approved because he holds a good position in a bank, from which he took unpaid leave for several months.
“My wife is sick and can’t work. My daughter and her husband recently lost their jobs and they have a little baby at home,” he said.
“My son works part time for a private entrepreneur for miserable pay while I have to service a bank loan and mortgage on my apartment. I will try to bring all of them over to America once I settle down,” he added.
A retired senior police investigator was in the queue for a tourist visa, hoping to work in the cannabis fields; for possession of the same, he used to arrest people in Montenegro.
“My goal is to whisk my family away from here, so my children have a future, as free persons who dare to speak their mind,” he said.