Medical-marijuana advocates lobbying Congress this week got powerful new allies to help them make the case for getting federal prosecutors to back off: labor leaders.
The 1.3 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents meat packers, retail and grocery employees, is joining with advocates for pot dispensaries to push the Justice Department to ease off on those that sell the drug where it’s permitted locally. If that happens, legal cannabis -- projected to reach almost $9 billion in sales in several years -- could be a growth area for unions struggling to find new members.
“We’re in uncharted territory here, and the union could play a critical role,” Harley Shaiken, who teaches on labor and the international economy at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an interview. “On some level, whether it’s a supermarket or a marijuana dispensary, you’ve got similar issues in the workplace.”
Pot used to ease pain related to ailments such as cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis was a $1.7 billion market in 2011, and may increase to $8.9 billion in five years, according to a report from See Change Strategy LLC of Olney, Maryland, that was financed by American Cannabis Research Institute. California accounted for three-quarters of revenue in the year studied, while Colorado was the fastest-growing, most business-friendly market, it said.
There are almost 25 million potential patients eligible for medical marijuana under current state laws, according to See Change. While 19 states or localities, such as the District of Columbia, have legalized the medicinal use of cannabis, the drug remains illegal under federal law. Separate statutes in Washington and Colorado made possession of as much as an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana legal in those states.
“We have our work to do to educate Congress, and that’s where the UFCW helps us,” Jeff Jones, executive director of the Patient ID Center in Oakland, California, a unionized medical-marijuana cooperative, said in an interview.
The Obama administration initially pledged a hands-off approach to pot dispensaries, unless they were linked to illegal firearms, underage sales or criminal activity. Instead, activists say the Justice Department has ended up taking an increasingly aggressive stance against them and their landlords.
“What we’ve seen has been the exact opposite” of what was promised, Kris Hermes, an Americans for Safe Access spokesman, said in an interview. “We are all left scratching our heads.”
Attorney General Eric Holder defended the administration’s approach in a congressional hearing last June, saying it has only targeted those who “are taking advantage of these state laws and going beyond that which the states have authorized.”
A department spokeswoman, Nanda Chitre, referred to a memo issued in June 2011 that reiterated the circumstances under which marijuana sellers would be prosecuted, when asked for a comment on the matter.
In a sign of the growing political potency of the issue, Americans for Safe Access held what it called the first-ever Washington conference on medical marijuana at the Mayflower Hotel, the almost century-old Washington landmark where former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover regularly ate lunch for 20 years.
The 300 people who attended wrapped up the meeting by conducting door-to-door lobbying visits to Capitol Hill. They want Congress to pass a bill to establish a procedure for the federal Food and Drug Administration to review cannabis, and for possible approval for legal use. The measure also would prevent federal prosecution for medical use in states where it’s legal.
“The 19 jurisdictions that permit medical marijuana are operating in a patchwork of inconsistent local and federal laws,” U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who met with the activists, said in a letter to House colleagues on Feb. 14. Medical-marijuana use is legal in Oregon and Blumenauer has proposed a federal excise tax on legal sales.
So far, unions are joining hand-in-hand with the industry to help push for the procedure-establishing legislation and urge the Justice Department to ease off.
“Our goal is to give them the dignity that their sincerity deserves,” Dan Rush, director of the medical cannabis and hemp division of the Food and Commercial Workers union, said in an interview. In addition, “this is a growth industry, and people are looking for jobs.”
Unions “provide us with some level of organization,” said Jones, with the Oakland dispensary. If the federal government shifted its policies, marijuana sellers could be as ubiquitous as local pharmacies “overnight,” he said.
In addition to the political firepower, Rush said that retail workers processing or selling marijuana have many of the same issues as other retail or food-processing workers. They need health insurance, pensions, continuing education and other benefits.
“There is no difference between medical cannabis workers and a meat cutter,” he said.