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Unionising LA's weed dealers

As California's legal cannabis dispensaries multiply, who is looking after their rights?

Lincoln Boulevard is just a few blocks from Venice Beach, and the street’s 400 block is not dissimilar from a thousand others in Los Angeles. A Casablanca-themed Mexican restaurant holds its ground amidst strip malls, tattoo parlors, and the telltale green cross of one of the city’s 1,500 marijuana dispensaries. The open door of the Venice Beach Care Center bears the sticker of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The front window is emblazoned with signs supporting Measure D, which seeks to reduce LA’s abundance of pot shops to a paltry 135.

Brennan Thicke, the Director of VBCC, takes me through the lobby, past the languid smiles of customers, and into the back office, where six union workers assiduously package a table’s worth of marijuana. Thicke’s dispensary was the first of 62 unionized outlets in the city. He  speaks of a commitment to workers’ rights as part of a strategy to legitimize the embattled industry, and with luck, avoid local or Federal shutdown:

“There are so many places that don’t pay payroll tax, which means workers don’t get unemployment if the work gets cut off. We’re trying to legitimize for the sake of the patients, we think that all dispensaries need to come above board... so many places opened up with no regulation. The “Green Mile” on Pico Blvd. has 10-12 dispensaries within one mile.”

For Thicke, the unionization effort puts workers at the forefront of the chronic debate. Thicke employs 14 employees at his Venice Beach shop, all of whom receive a living wage and benefits. “Cannabis has been out of control since 2008, what’s happening here is a black eye for the movement,” says UFCW Organizing Director Rigo Valdez. “Cannabis workers understand that the union is fighting to protect their jobs and that they’re part of the fight.”

Each dispensary worker I speak with seems honored to dole out medicine that churns the appetites and spirits of terminally-ill patients.

Valdez envisions legitimate dispensaries providing a respective 30-40 well-paid jobs for a diverse population of Angelenos. Measure D, which would remove a lion’s share of the city’s dispensaries, is actually a compromise between sanctimonious local politicians who sought to do away with pot shops and a coalition of dispensary owners, many aligned with the union. Valdez states the original dispensaries were run by medicinal activists who started their shops prior to 2007. Today, the old guard is joined by a drove of shady profiteers who possess the business ethics and staying power of nitrous dealers at raves.

Each dispensary worker I speak with seems honored to dole out medicine that churns the appetites and spirits of terminally-ill patients. Car Nazzal, an artist who recently quit a unionized gig at a dispensary in Inglewood, seems well-equipped for the precarious nature of dispensary work: “I’m not a lifer at anything, things come and go.” Nazzal tells me about the time a customer showed up at the dispensary and caused an uproar by letting her young daughter idle in the waiting room. “Each customer had an opinion, it’s really split... everyone there was really split. It’s just unanswered at this stage.”

There is a clear rift between legislative efforts to stop dispensaries and a city flooded with easily accessible, high-grade weed. A recent City-sponsored ban was suspended when activists and dispensary owners submitted 50,000 signatures forcing a referendum, signatures Thicke says took only 12 days to gather. Leading up to the 2012 Presidential election, the Drug Enforcement Agency carried out high-profile raids in the city’s Eagle Rock neighborhood, serving as a sobering reminder that the Federal War on Drugs fails to recognize medicinal marijuana. Yet In November, the rpeople spoke again, with voters in Colorado and Washington approving recreational use. The UFCW helped get out the vote in Colorado, and now claims 3,000 cannabis workers in its ranks. Meanwhile, U.S. union membership, at 11.3 percent, is at its lowest since 1916, with post-recession job gains heavily concentrated in the low-paying retail and service sectors. The drive to organize this new class of workers is not only politically advantageous for the industry, it represents labor’s effort to create and preserve decent jobs wherever they can still exist.