Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle published an interesting story examining two fronts on which labor unions are trying to cash in on the passage of Prop 64 in November 2016, which legalized the sale and personal use of recreational marijuana in California. With its passing, California is poised to become the largest, most lucrative market for marijuana products in the United States (assuming the successes of craft beer and fine wines are fair markers). Nearly six months later, the industry is in its infancy with much to be decided on cannabis’ regulation.
On one hand, the Chronicle reports that the International Brotherhood of Teamsters is pushing to apply a provision in the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act of 2015 (MMRSA) that gives the Teamsters first rights to transport and deliver legal marijuana—giving the union a potential monopoly over a major segment of California’s weed business. That same principle, they argue, should also be applied to the distribution regulations that govern recreational marijuana. The position, however, is more smoke than substance.
The language to which the Teamsters point is solely in the MMRSA; it has no support in the language of Prop 64. Had California’s lawmakers intended union groups to run marijuana distribution, it’s fair to expect some expression of that aim in the bill itself. But even if the Teamsters aren’t able to convince the California legislature that the distribution guidelines of the MMRSA should apply to recreational marijuana as a matter of statutory interpretation, they may convince them it should as a matter of policy. The Teamsters say that a vertical integration between growers and sellers leads to self-regulation and the problems associated with that—e.g., corruption.
Growers and retailers say that adding an independent distributor as a mandatory intervening force does little beyond increase prices, potentially curb market-driven innovation, and keep smaller players out of the industry. Despite the Teamsters’ poor chances of extending the MMRSA’s reach to Prop 64, the same result could nevertheless occur. The newly-created California Bureau of Marijuana Control potentially has the power to implement regulations mandating independent distributors sit between growers and sellers (at least from the view of organized labor). The Bureau’s position on this important subject is still very much in the air.
The Chronicle also reports there is a nascent push to interlace unionization with marijuana training. This largely is to be accomplished through a proposed marijuana apprenticeship program conducted at the City College of San Francisco. One clear goal of the program is to boost long-term union membership. Under Prop 64, businesses with 20 or more employees in the marijuana industry must remain neutral during a union organizing drive and not engage in action to hinder any such efforts. But marijuana businesses tend to be very worker-friendly on their own. So it’s not clear what value unions bring to the table in any event. Will industry employees initially want to unionize if they already feel they are being treated well by their employer? Or will it take a less worker-friendly environment—e.g., when small shops are pushed out by multinational corporations—for the workers to start thinking about this issue? These issues very much remain in play as the effects of Prop 64 come to the surface in California.