Article by Judith Lewis Mernit, Salon
Twenty years after legalizing the use of medical marijuana, California voters will decide whether to permit the use of recreational pot. This week, in a special series, Capital & Main looks at what will happen if Prop. 64 passes in November. “High Times: How Legalizing Marijuana Would Transform California” reports on how a legal cannabis industry will affect the environment, workers and the state’s economy.
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.
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.