* Legal marijuana businesses could provide new workers,
* Organized labor helped push successful marijuana ballot
* Legalization could create hundreds of thousands of new
By Samuel P. Jacobs and Alex Dobuzinskis
WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES, Feb 6 The medical
marijuana shop next to a tattoo parlor on a busy street in Los
Angeles looks much like hundreds of other pot dispensaries that
dot the city.
Except for one thing: On the glass door - under a green
cross signaling that cannabis can be bought there for medical
purposes - is a sticker for the United Food and Commercial
Workers union (UFCW), the nation's largest retail union.
The dispensary, the Venice Beach Care Center, is one of
three medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles that are
staffed by dues-paying union members. Another 49 in the city
plan to enter into labor agreements with the UFCW this year, the
Together, the dispensaries are a symbol of the growing bond
between the nascent medical marijuana industry and struggling
During the last few years, unions, led by the UFCW, have
played an increasingly significant role in campaigns to allow
medical marijuana, now legal in California, 17 other states and
In the November elections, UFCW operatives also helped
get-out-the-vote efforts in Colorado, where voters approved a
measure that made possession of one ounce (28.3 grams) or less
of the drug legal for anyone 21 and older. Washington state
approved a similar measure and both states require regulation of
marijuana growers, processors and retailers.
Union officials acknowledge that their support stems partly
from the idea that the marijuana industry could create hundreds
of thousands of members at a time when overall union membership
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month that
union members - who accounted for 11.8 percent of the workforce
in 2011 - now make up about 11.3 percent of all American
workers, the lowest percentage in nearly a century.
Retail unions such as the UFCW are fighting the rise of
part-time workers and a steady drop in real wages over the last
two generations. Organized labor also has been under pressure
from Republican governors such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker, who
led an effort to curb collective bargaining rights for public
workers in that state.
Union officials say there are now 3,000 UFCW members who
work in the cannabis industry, a tiny fraction of the union's
1.3 million members.
Industry advocates acknowledge that the legal marijuana
industry's potential to produce jobs is difficult to project.
One reason: uncertainty over how the U.S. government will deal
with an industry whose product is illegal under federal law but
increasingly accepted by state laws.
Since Colorado and Washington state voted to legalize
marijuana on Nov. 6, President Barack Obama has said his
administration will not pursue recreational pot users in those
However, the president has not said whether the U.S.
government will allow widespread sales of the drug that would be
legal under some state laws but not federal law.
PLANNING FOR A BOOM
Despite such uncertainty, the marijuana industry's growth
potential intrigues unions and retailers, among others.
An analysis by Sea Change Strategies, a research firm for
non-profit organizations, estimated that the medical marijuana
market could grow to $8.9 billion by 2016.
A study by Washington state's Office of Financial
Management said legalization could result in $1 billion in sales
per year in the state, which is home to about 2 percent of the
For people like Dan Rush, who leads the UFCW's cannabis
division, the numbers hint at big things to come for the
"Since Election Day, we've had a rush to join the union" in
states where marijuana is sold legally, said Rush, who has
become a key player in the union's efforts to promote the legal
use of the drug. "I can't keep up," he said. "That's a direct
result of the best poll in the world being Election Day."
Rush said that if the industry expands, as he and others
hope, it would support jobs across the country, from growers to
truck drivers to carpenters to retail clerks.
The scale of the business could rival that of a major U.S.
crop or the alcohol industry, according to UFCW officials who
estimate that 100,000 workers could be added to their union in
By joining a union, marijuana workers could have more sway
in pressing for higher pay and benefits such as healthcare.
Unlike business owners in other industries who typically
view unions warily, some legal marijuana retailers welcome the
prospect of a unionized workforce - for now, at least.
Marijuana retailers have invited the UFCW into their shops.
They think the union could give legitimacy to their business and
support against competitors who, the retailers say, undercut the
industry's standing by operating outside the law.
"It's the difference between being - I hate to use the term
- but a street dealer and being a legitimate business operator,"
said Brennan Thicke, 38, one of the founders of the Venice Beach
RESISTANCE IN COLORADO
Other marijuana business owners aren't as enthusiastic about
unions being involved with their enterprises.
Perhaps the toughest staging ground for the UFCW's marijuana
efforts has been Colorado, where an individualistic spirit
guides many of those who have tried to get a toehold in the
medical marijuana business.
The retailers there say they are conflicted - grateful for
the legitimacy that labor's involvement could bring their
businesses, but worried that the support could undermine the
already shaky financial footing of their small operations.
One marijuana business owner in Denver said he considered
aligning with the UFCW but eventually backed away. He said he
was worried that having a union shop would hurt the value of his
business by driving up employment costs.
"Colorado isn't a big union state anyway," said the owner,
who asked not to be identified. "I was surprised that they put
so much focus and money in here in the first place."
'IT WAS A STRUGGLE'
The UFCW's Rush, a thick-shouldered 52-year-old with a laugh
turned to gravel by Lucky Strike cigarettes, is based in
The city became a major hub for medical marijuana after
California became the first state to allow marijuana for medical
treatment 17 years ago. Marijuana is prescribed as a pain
reliever for a range of maladies.
Cannabis businesses, Rush said, have helped to revitalize
the downtown and have put millions of dollars in tax revenue
into Oakland's coffers.
He recalled that when the union was deciding in 2009 whether
to get involved with the legal marijuana industry, not everyone
in the leadership was sold.
"It was a struggle," Rush said. "Folks were not ready to
Eventually, he helped to persuade enough labor leaders that
the same union that organized Hostess bakery workers could
represent people who made pot brownies.
"Whether it was semolina or cannabis, this happens to be
where our industry is growing," said UFCW spokesperson Dawn Le.
A major goal of the union's marijuana effort involves Obama
- who enjoyed broad union support in winning re-election in
November - to stop federal crackdowns on pot dispensaries that
are legal under state laws.
Last year, federal authorities in California targeted more
than 200 medical marijuana businesses, including the first in
the country to unionize, in a show of force that highlighted the
gulf between federal and state marijuana laws.
Union leaders say they aim to help businesses navigate the
difficult legal climate and pressure lawmakers for change.
In Los Angeles, UFCW Local 770 is pushing a ballot measure
that would set zoning and safety standards for medical pot
dispensaries. For years, police and residents have complained
about the impact that less-than-reputable medical marijuana
dispensaries have on some neighborhoods.
Dispensary workers and owners who have aligned themselves
with the union say that some competitors undermine prices and
security by flouting labor laws and avoiding taxes.
"I feel safer with the union around," said Ayrn Taylor, 23,
an employee at the Venice Beach Care Center.
UFCW gathered enough signatures for a local ballot measure
in May that would limit the number of dispensaries in Los
Angeles to fewer than 130.
The 50-plus dispensaries with union ties would be allowed to
stay in business, said Rigo Valdez, an organizing director with
UFCW. One city councilman estimates there may be as many as 900
dispensaries now open in Los Angeles.
If the union-backed initiative is successful, it would put
most of those dispensaries out of business and make the UFCW a
dominant player in one of the nation's most important markets
for legal marijuana sales.
(Jacobs reported from Washington; Dobuzinskis from Los Angeles.
Editing by David Lindsey and Christopher Wilson)