Marijuana dispensary workers in Los Angeles have joined a labor union to fight for their jobs in an industry that the federal government considers illegal.
Workers at 14 pot shops have formed the “medical cannabis and hemp division” of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 770. The 35,000-member union also represents grocery clerks, pharmacists and health care workers.
“This is the next step in professionalizing and stabilizing this new sector of the health care industry,” Local 770 President Rick Icaza said at a news conference last week. “This is a positive step towards successfully integrating compassionate care into our system of health care.”
Los Angeles currently caps the number of medical marijuana dispensaries, but the City Council is considering a full ban in light of a court decision that limits its ability to regulate them.
Icaza said the union would use its considerable political weight to pressure officials to find an alternative to a total ban.
That help will be welcome, said Yamileth Bolanos, president of the Greater Los Angeles Collectives Alliance, which represents dispensaries.
“It’s time to bring in some big guns,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “Not only are they threatening access for patients, they’re also trying to take jobs away from our employees.”
Pot clinics flourished in California after voters in 1996 voted to permit people to cultivate and possess marijuana for what became nearly any medical reason. As hundreds of dispensaries opened, cities and counties struggled to interpret the state law, which was light on specifics.
Some communities sought to outlaw the pot clinics under existing zoning and other ordinances, while others tried to regulate them.
Court rulings have further muddied the waters. Last month, a state appellate court ruled that cities cannot use nuisance ordinances to ban medical marijuana dispensaries.
A Los Angeles-based appellate court last year struck down Long Beach’s attempt to license marijuana stores, ruling the local ordinance conflicted with federal law. And another appellate court upheld Riverside’s right to close and prohibit dispensaries despite the state’s medical marijuana law.
Early on in the Obama administration, the U.S. Justice Department said prosecutors wouldn’t focus on pot dispensaries that were following state medical marijuana laws even though the entire industry was considered illegal under federal statutes.
But that attitude has changed, with federal prosecutors arguing that many ostensibly nonprofit clinics are raking in money by supplying marijuana to people without a medical need.
Since last year, federal prosecutors have warned California clinics that they are illegal, filed criminal and civil charges against some owners, and threatened to seize properties that are leased to pot growers. About 140 dispensaries in more than 20 Southern California cities have been told to shut down since October when federal authorities began their statewide effort.
The crackdown hasn’t dissuaded some communities from welcoming pot shops. Earlier this month, Oakland officials granted approval for four new medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, bringing the total to eight. Officials said the four dispensaries would generate $1.7 million in annual tax revenue for the city.