The War on Drugs will never end anytime soon, but some progress has been made to make marijuana at least medicinal marijuana legal in the United States with the help of an unlikely source. As more and more states legalized medicinal and non medicinal marijuana use, the more mom and pop dispensaries are popping up across the nation forcing the federal government to take action on a battle they might not win especially with growing support from the medical community and now labor unions. As you stroll down the busy streets of Los Angeles lines with a variety of wares for sale you might notice something a little bit different about your neighborhood friendly medicinal marijuana shop around the corner and for that matter pot dispensaries that dot the city. The difference you ask: On the door underneath the green cross, representing medical marijuana can be purchased here, is a sticker for the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) which is the largest retail union in the U.S.
The Venice Beach Care Center, one of three medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles staffed by due paying union members, symbolizes the growing the bond between medical marijuana industry and struggling labor unions. Another 49 in Los Angeles plan to join with the UFCW this year the union says, Reuters reports. During the last few years, the UFCW has increasingly become involved in campaigns to allow medical marijuana in California, 17 other states, and even Washington D.C. In the November elections, UFCW operatives helped efforts in Colorado where voter approved the measure that allows 21 years of age or older to carry at least one ounce or less of the drug. A law similar in Washington was approved as well as regulation of marijuana growers, processors and retailers according to Reuters. The strategy behind the support of marijuana from UFCW partly comes from the hope that the marijuana industry will create hundreds of thousands of members at a time to rebuild the labor union membership. Retail unions and organized labor has struggled to keep their collective bargaining power in recent years, but hope that the 3,000 UFCW members who work in the cannabis industry will keep growing. The problem remains whether or not the U.S. government will accept the industry whose product is illegal under federal law but increasingly accepted by states making it difficult to predict the number of job that will be created as well. The president has already said publicly he will not pursue recreational pot users in Colorado and Washington since the legalization on Nov. 6, but will the government allow widespread sales of the drug since it is still illegal on the federal level.
Even with an uncertain future, many in the marijuana industry see great growth potential especially unions and retailers. According to Sea Change Stragtegy, a non profit research firm, estimates the market could grow to $8.9 billion by 2016 (think of all the tax money people) and a study done by Washington state’s Office of Financial Management said legalization could bring $1 billion in sales per year to the state which hols only 2 percent of the U.S. population. Dan Rush, leader of the UCFW cannabis division, hopes the industry expands to supports jobs across the country from growers to truck drivers to carpenters to retail clerks and could rival the alcohol industry or U.S crops estimating that 100,000 workers could be added to their unions in California alone. For now, marijuana retailers have invited the UFCW into their shops in hopes to legitimize their business and gain support against those who operate outside the law.
Of course not everyone supports the idea of unions in the marijuana industry, a prime example of this can be seen in Colorado where retailer see the legitimacy that the labor unions bring but worry that the support could crumble the shaky financial footing of their small operations. As one retailer in Denver explained that the concern is having a union shop will drive up costs and hurt the value of his business: “Colorado isn’t a big union state anyway. I was surprised that they put so much focus and money in here in the first place.” The struggle to legitimize a demonized industry continue in state’s where marijuana has been legalized. The UFCW’s Rush who is based in Oakland, California, remembers in 2009 when deciding to get involved with he marijuana industry as not all the leaders were sold, but eventually was able to persuade enough leaders that the same union that organized Hotess bakery workers could represent the people who made pot brownies according to Reuters. Last year in California federal authorites shut down 200 medical marijuana business including the first unionized shop demonstrating the gap between federal and state laws. Union leaders hope to help these business navigate through the legal jargon and pressure lawmakers to change as UFCW local 770 in Los Angeles is pushing a ballot measure to set zoning and safety standard for medical pot dispensaries as police and residents have complained about less reputable shops in some neighborhoods. Ayrn Taylor, 23 who works at Venice Beach Care Center, says, ” I feel safer with the union around.” The union gathers enough signatures for the local ballot in May limiting the number of dispensaries in Los Angeles to 130, while the 50 plus union dispensaries would be allowed to stay open even though their are 900 dispensaries believed to be in operation in Los Angeles according to one city councilman. If the ballot is approved, it would put most of these out of business and make the UFCW a major player in the legalized marijuana market.