With the passage of Proposition 215, California became the first state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana. Nearly two decades later, it has fallen behind. As other states have moved to regulate the cannabis industry, California’s industry remains the Wild West.
The absence of a clear set of state regulations leaves a wildly inconsistent set of local ordinances that can literally vary from block to block. To the growing frustration of consumers and neighbors alike, this semi-legitimacy has also left workers vulnerable to a host of potential hazards.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
California protects consumers and workers alike with a successful program of licensing and industry standards that apply to virtually every profession that involves producing and selling a consumer product. This well-tested framework is the reason that you are guaranteed that the person who cuts your hair has the training to do so, and that you have recourse if you get hurt or head lice from an unscrupulous barber or hairstylist. For another example, the licensing of acupuncturists has taken this once “alternative” therapy into the mainstream, made them safer for consumers and cracked down on illicit practitioners.
Yet medical cannabis is a multibillion-dollar industry where anything goes.
There are no statewide standards to ensure criminal background checks on growers and sellers, or to test whether potency levels are as advertised, or to make sure that cannabis is tested for dangerous chemicals. In 2013 a dispensary in Maine was found to be using toxic chemicals and was only fined and punished because of state regulations there.
A lack of oversight does a disservice to professional workers who are smeared with misconceptions about what they do. That’s why cannabis workers are leading the call to strengthen the safety and legitimacy of their profession. They need to know what strains work best for cancer patients, or for those with glaucoma or severe anxiety. Imagine if pharmacists did not have similar industry standards.
Without minimum standards for those who grow, process and sell cannabis, workers are vulnerable in an industry with a notoriously high turnover rate. At the Maine dispensary, workers protested because they were being forced to break the law, not to mention being exposed to unsafe chemicals. Unfortunately, California workers lack the protection to speak up about dangers on the job or poor working conditions.
We are pleased to see that legislators are recognizing the need to professionalize the medical marijuana workforce and to keep the industry in the hands of legitimate operators who have worker safety in mind.
Two bills have been introduced this year that would implement industry standards and protections for workers in this industry. As these measures – Assembly Bills 34 and 266 – move through the legislative process, workers will advocate for strong protections and for an apprenticeship program to train workers in safety and best practices.
While there are many opinions surrounding marijuana, medical cannabis has been in California for nearly 20 years, and now it looks likely that voters will weigh in next year on outright legalization. Cannabis workers believe California can once again move to the front of the pack by protecting workers and consumers in an industry that will certainly grow and become an even bigger part of our state’s economy.
Jim Araby is executive director of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Western States Council.