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States with legal pot consider how to protect cannabis workers

Leigh Giangreco, on

Published in News & Features

Most cannabis dispensaries are cash-only businesses, constantly at risk of being robbed. Indoor growing facilities use harsh lighting, and plants get sprayed with pesticides.

Those conditions can create daily hazards for cannabis workers, which is why labor organizers are trying to unionize them as legalization spreads and the marijuana workforce grows.

“Cannabis consumers might assume that cannabis companies are progressive and treat their workers with respect,” Jim Hammons, organization director for United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7, wrote in an email to Stateline. UFCW Local 7 represents 23,000 members, including cannabis workers, in Colorado and Wyoming.

“But the reality is that many are abusive employers, including the small companies, and act just like big corporations when it comes to their employees.”

UFCW, which represents grocery, retail, meatpacking and health care workers, has led the unionization charge. The union says it represents tens of thousands of workers in the burgeoning marijuana industry, including “budtenders,” processors, delivery people and cultivators.

The union first organized cannabis workers in Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. Colorado and Washington were the first two states to legalize cannabis for recreational use and in the years since, many other states have followed. Today, 37 states plus the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana use, and 21 states plus D.C. allow recreational use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonprofit that educates lawmakers and their aides.


“It all depends on what the state is, but I could safely say that we're leaving no state alone,” said Ademola Oyefeso, vice president of UFCW International, told Stateline. “Whether it's a red state or a blue state, we've been organizing.”

Cyndi Kazmirzak, a former budtender — akin to a retail position — at Windy City Cannabis, a dispensary in Posen, Illinois, said such efforts are sorely needed. Kazmirzak said customers often harassed her and her female co-workers, and that during her second week on the job, someone threw a cement slab through the store’s window. Last November, Windy City workers voted unanimously in favor of union representation. Requests for comment from Windy City were not returned.

“As workers, we were very confused as to why we didn't feel protected by our place of work or why we were just getting excuses,” she said. “I would leave work crying because I didn't feel safe or because my team didn't feel safe.”

Some large cannabis companies have allegedly sought to block unionization efforts.


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