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High Times: How Will Budtenders and Trimmigrants Fare If Pot Is Legalized?

Photo by Pandora Young

ShowGrow dispensary, downtown Los Angeles. (Photo by Pandora Young)

In February of 2013, the employees of Wellness Connection, a medical marijuana provider based in Auburn, Maine, were worried about their product. They’d observed mold and fungus on their plants too often; bugs were infesting their work areas. Some of the chemicals they were being asked to use, such as the insecticide pyrethrin, had known health effects. Brittany Wallingford told the Portland Press Herald at the time that about a quarter of her colleagues were sick, and suspected the mold was at fault; others blamed the insecticide, which Maine law prohibits using on medical marijuana plants.The workers weren’t just concerned about their own health. They also feared for their clients, some of whom were already seriously ill. That February, several employees at the company’s Auburn cultivation site staged a one-day walkout. One month later when, despite management promises, nothing changed, several employees joined the United Food and Commercial Workers union, and made plans to organize their workplace.  (Disclosure: The UFCW is a financial supporter of Capital & Main.)

Medical marijuana dispensaries had been legal in Maine for four years by the time Wellness Connection’s staff members lodged their complaints. The industry had begun to supplant blueberries as the state’s top cash crop, bringing in an estimated $78 million. But because the federal government classified marijuana in 2013, as it does today, as a dangerous and illegal drug with no recognized medical uses, organizing could be risky. Both the UFCW and the Teamsters had already successfully organized cannabis operations elsewhere. But if an employer retaliated against a worker for organizing, that worker might have nowhere to complain. It wasn’t clear whether the National Labor Relations Board would step in to defend employees of what was, on a federal level at least, a criminal operation.

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The Maine case was extreme. When state inspectors investigated the employee complaints, they found Wellness Connection of Maine guilty of 20 different violations, including use of pesticides and the manufacture of a highly concentrated form of marijuana called “kief” that was prohibited under the state’s medical marijuana law. Employees also alleged the company had used intimidation tactics to interfere with their organizing efforts, and asked the NLRB to intervene.

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The federal agency’s advice memo on the Wellness Connection of Maine complaints is rich with detail about the specific tasks of cannabis workers, from the rough trimming of leaves and stems to the processing of bud through a machine called a “twister.” (“The twister uses a rotational vacuum and cutting process to remove the remaining stems and leaves from the buds, which have the most medicinal value.”) The document also succinctly summarizes the state of the market as it existed in late October 2013, when the memo came out: “The state-authorized medical marijuana industry is currently worth approximately $1.5 billion,” it reads, “and could grow to $6 billion in 2018.” It was already a market too big and too persistent to ignore. It was, therefore, “appropriate for the Board to assert jurisdiction . . . even though the Employer’s enterprise violates federal laws.”

“That was a turning point for us,” says Jeff Ferro, lead organizer with the UFCW’s Cannabis Workers Rising campaign, which was established in 2011. “Until then, the federal government hadn’t weighed in on workers’ rights in the cannabis industry.” It was a huge step toward legitimizing jobs within a nationally booming business.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have now passed laws legalizing some form of medical marijuana; Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia have additionally lifted prohibitions on recreational use. Other states, including California, have measures on their November ballots to consider the end of cannabis prohibition. Both the Teamsters and the UFCW have organized dozens of marijuana-related businesses in several states, with contracts that guarantee everything from pension plans to tuition reimbursements for employees and their offspring.

All has not gone smoothly. In April of 2015, the UFCW in New Jersey withdrew an organizing petition in the face of legal complications; one year later, a cannabis dispensary worker in Colorado was allegedly fired for his organizing activity. Ferro believes that labor rights will firm up as cannabis continues to go mainstream, due to the industry’s need for strict standards and a skilled workforce. “A budtender needs to understand what a consumer needs and should expect. They have to know the strains — indica, sativa, all the hybrids out there — and be trained in them.” Standards have to be developed; tests have to be run. Legalization could lead to entirely new job categories.

“These are not dead-end jobs we’re securing,” Ferro says. “They’re career-builders.”

ShowGrow dispensary, downtown Los Angeles. (Photo by Pandora Young)

ShowGrow dispensary, downtown Los Angeles. (Photo by Pandora Young)

California’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which will appear on the November ballot as Proposition 64, emerged from strenuous negotiations in the legislature with a “labor peace” agreement attached, which prohibits cannabis business owners from interfering with organizing efforts. “It doesn’t mean we won’t disagree on what a good contract looks like,” Ferro says. But it does mean workers won’t need to call in the NLRB.

To hear Ferro tell it, the industry now has the potential to revive the middle-class in the states where it’s legal, and compel other states to follow suit. For the moment, at least, while other countries’ laws remain strict and exporting marijuana remains a felony, “Jobs in the cannabis industry are jobs that can’t be offshored. They are jobs that are confined within the states where they’re permitted. Owners can make money and still afford to pay their workers enough for the employees to raise their families and send their kids to school.

“If we build it right, we can make these jobs into good, sustainable, well-paying, stable jobs. They’ll form the backbone of a new labor market in this country.”

If is a huge word, and the challenge to building the cannabis industry into Ferro’s ideal is a daunting one, starting first with the decades-long nature of a shadow economy about which little is commonly known. From the “budtenders” who mind the dispensary counters to the “trimmigrants” who clip the cured bud during the fall harvest season, the cannabis labor market has more variables than indica has strains.

This uncertainty comes into play especially at the harvesting and processing ends of the pot trade, which in California happen mostly within the Emerald Triangle (comprised of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties) from September through December. Itinerant laborers flock to “trim camps” during those months to potentially earn $200 a day grooming bud for the market, working long shifts and sleeping on site. First-person accounts of their experiences abound on the Internet, most of them relatively idyllic, as agricultural-job stories go. “A lot of the workers enjoy meditation, yoga and playing light music in the evenings,” promises the “Trim Camp Counselor” on RealitySandwich.com, adding that your employer will generally provide vegetarian meals — “and if you are lucky, they will be organic.” Writer Sera Higgs on the Matador Network, tells of equally good times — Higgs made $5,000 over five weeks and spent half the time “drinking and dancing.”

The Higher Path, a unionized Sherman Oaks dispensary. (Photo by Pandora Young)

The Higher Path, a unionized Sherman Oaks dispensary. (Photo by Pandora Young)

But Higgs, who like most trim-camp blog memoirists, writes from the privileged perspective of a dabbler, admits there’s a downside. “After a few weeks your hands are calloused, your lower back crippled, your wrists ache and all the days merge into a green haze, so much so that the spiky, conifered ridges of the Californian mountains look like lines of untrimmed buds just itching to be snipped,” she writes. “Trim camp consumes you.”

The stories of workplace abuse are “infinite and chilling,” she adds, and include “foreign trimmers getting their passports stolen, growers not paying them and throwing them off the farm, sex-starved rednecks paying more for girls to trim with their tops off.”

The plural of anecdote might be data, to paraphrase the late political scientist Raymond Wolfinger, but at the moment, no one has collected enough hard information to scientifically establish what life is like for marijuana workers. “We don’t know the past and current conditions of the labor force,” says Fred Krissman, an anthropology professor at Humboldt State University in Arcata. The studies — the thorough, comprehensive and peer-reviewed academic kind — have not been done, Krissman says.

No one even knows, for instance, how many undocumented foreign workers labor in the Emerald Triangle’s fields, forests and greenhouses. Mikal Jakubal, whose documentary film One Good Year chronicles the lives of Humboldt County pot growers, puts the figure at 10 percent; the California Growers’ Association, an alliance of industry professionals, says it’s more like 40 percent.

“If longtime growers with deep roots in the industry have such divergent points of view, who knows?” Krissman says.

He finds this strange, but not a mystery. Marijuana’s federal classification under the Controlled Substance Act makes universities and foundations reluctant to back studies of anything having to do with the drug. While some researchers do conduct federally funded research into marijuana’s medical benefits and psychoactive effects, they need to clear a series of subjectively placed hoops to qualify for government support.

“When I studied immigration and legal crops, every grant I wrote received funding for 25 years,” Krissman says. “I couldn’t fend off all the money being thrown at me. The federal government, California, private foundations — no one knew how to say no.” Marijuana has been different. “I’ve applied to the National Science Foundation [NSF] and several private foundations and received no interest.”

With the caveat that “everything I can say for now is speculative,” Krissman says he nevertheless believes that, at this moment in time, most marijuana growers curry their employees’ loyalty more often than they abuse them. “Their ethic is, ‘We want to treat our workers well so they don’t rise up and screw us over,’” Krissman says. “If you can make big bucks and pay your employees well to safeguard your security, it’s worth it.” If, on the other hand, you pay sub-minimum wage and abuse your workers, “what’s to keep them from telling their friends where the grows are and organizing a ripoff?”

He also floats a “somewhat squishier” explanation for the decent labor conditions: Cannabis culture was founded on ideals of individual freedom and compassion that haven’t completely gone away. “In cannabis culture people tend to be more cooperative, and want a better planet for everybody. They’re not just getting everything they can for themselves.”

For those “very diverse reasons, currently the marijuana industry is an agricultural anomaly,” he says. Anecdotally speaking, “the conditions and wages of labor are far superior for marijuana workers than for any legal agricultural industry.”

Krissman doesn’t necessarily expect those conditions to prevail once marijuana becomes legal in California. Producers of a regulated commercial concern all face the same calculus — “reducing inputs,” is how Krissman puts it — and few can afford to put people over profits. Wages are one of the few expenses that can be cut. If you’re managing a corporate agricultural enterprise, “you can’t tell John Deere you want a lower price on a tractor. You can’t demand a lower price for land. You can’t negotiate with Dow Chemical or Monsanto for a price break on your chemicals.” You can, however, exploit your workers.

Which is why, Krissman says, traditional agribusiness prefers a workforce made up of undocumented immigrants. Over time, corporate marijuana will, too.

The UFCW doesn’t have statistics on the demographics of marijuana laborers, either. But in Washington State, where marijuana was made legal for recreational use in 2012, the union has begun to at least gather data on what cultivating weed does to one’s body, with the help and interest of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“We brought NIOSH out to a cultivation place in Tacoma, and had them put sensors on people,” Jeff Ferro says. “[Cultivators] wore air monitors to determine what they were being exposed to. The trimmers wore gloves that monitored hand motion to see if there was a danger of repetitive stress.” As it turns out, there’s a high risk of carpal tunnel inherent in the task of snipping leaves away from tumescent colas, one that can be lessened by well-timed, workplace-mandated breaks.

Krissman, for his part, is working with the California Growers Association to codify the best practices of growers who are already committed to treating their workers fairly. “I would love it if the NSF or some other big foundation gave me $150,000 to do a group study of diverse types of marijuana grows across the Emerald Triangle,” he says. But for now, “I’m focusing on the growers who have organized themselves into groups to legitimize their industry, such as the California Growers’ Association. “At least I’ll be able to say, ‘This is the way we can do it right.’ Maybe from there, we can establish some standards.”

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