Isaac Curtis spends most of his day driving to marijuana stores trying to make his presence known.
In January, Curtis started the slow, methodical work of organizing every corner of Eastern Washington's marijuana industry, from seed-planting to point of sale, under the auspices of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 1439. He frequents pot stores both recreational and medical, talking with owners and employees about the challenges the industry faces and the benefits a union could provide.
The UFCW, which represents 1.3 million workers, primarily in food production and retail, has taken the lead on unionizing employees in the growing marijuana industry through its Cannabis Workers Rising project.
Most of its efforts have been centered in California, which has the nation's largest medical marijuana market. When Washington state's recreational pot stores opened last July, the UFCW saw another opportunity to gain a foothold in the rapidly growing industry, quickly launching efforts to organize workers.
Although businesses and unions have traditionally had adversarial relationships, in Washington the relationship has been less antagonistic. With medical marijuana facing an uncertain future under an overhaul of the state's pot laws being finalized by the legislature, the UFCW and the medical marijuana community have found common cause in trying to keep dispensaries open.
Organizing Washington's cannabis industry, says Curtis, is different from others because owners of marijuana businesses tend to be people who have run from the cops in the past, shaking their fists at authority, and are generally more receptive to union ideals.
"You don't have a lot of private equity guys," he says of marijuana business owners.
So far the union has about 15 neutrality agreements with marijuana businesses statewide, meaning that the employers won't interfere with unionization efforts.
Although the union is making inroads with both recreational and medical businesses, most of its attention has been focused on the medical side. Both houses of the legislature have passed SB 5052, which will incorporate the medical market into the tightly regulated recreational market overseen by the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Proponents of the bill say it's needed because the medical market operates with little oversight and unscrupulous dispensaries are taking advantage of the situation, selling pot to non-patients while skirting the heavy taxes paid by recreational stores.
The legislation is likely to result in dispensaries being shuttered as they are rolled into the recreational market. Both medical marijuana advocates and the UFCW have been aligned in pushing for an amendment to the bill that will allow responsible dispensaries that have gotten business licenses, paid taxes and tried to operate as legitimate businesses to stay open, says Kari Boiter, Washington state coordinator for medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
The UFCW wants dispensaries to stay open because that would mean more workers it can unionize, says Curtis. During the legislative session, the UFCW's lobbyists successfully pushed for an amendment that would allow dispensaries to apply to stay open.
Hilary Bricken, an attorney with the Canna Law Group, says that marijuana businesses have struggled with the image that they are lawbreakers. Most marijuana businesses, she says, will likely consider unionization as a way to signal to regulators that they're following employment law.
Paul Lugo, director of the Herbal Connection, says that his Spokane-based dispensary has a business license and has paid taxes, which he hopes will let him keep his doors open after the legislature reforms the state's pot laws. He says he's also open to allowing Curtis to unionize his employees, which he expects will further convince regulators that he's operating a legitimate business.
"If you got behind the union, the LCB would look at that and say, 'Hey, these guys are responsible and want to take care of their employees,'" says Lugo.
With the industry so young, says Curtis, the time to get organized is now, because as it gets bigger it'll be more difficult to unionize.
"[The industry] is going to have huge operations and retail chains of marijuana stores," he says. "And that's where our more important work is going to be done, because if you are making $9 trimming weed with no benefits, a job at McDonald's might seem pretty good." ♦