A Union For Medical Marijuana Distributors?

In California, medical marijuana is big business. As the industry grows, efforts are underway to unionize dispensary workers. Ron Lind, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 in Oakland, says unionization not only guarantees protections for workers, it also legitimizes the industry. And Calvin Frye, owner of Compassionate Care of Studio City, marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles, gives a first hand take on what its like to work in the bustling pot business.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, our money coach Alvin Hall breaks down insurance life insurance especially. What happens to your family if you're not there and your income vanishes? We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about marijuana. Throughout the week a number of NPR programs are taking a look at marijuana as part of the series, The New Marijuana. We're going to talk about attempts to unionize workers at medical marijuana dispensaries in California. This in advance of the ballot initiative there that could legalize recreational cannabis use for anybody over the age of 21.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union has so far brought into its fold about 100 dispensary workers in the city of Oakland. The UFCW believes that they are the first medical marijuana industry workers in the country to join a union. On the line with me to talk about this are Ron Lind, he's president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 in Oakland.

And for a statewide view, we've also called Calvin Frye. He is the owner of Compassionate Care of Studio City - that's a marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles. Thank you both for joining us.

Mr. RON LIND (President, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, Oakland): Thank you.

Mr. CALVIN FRYE (Owner, Compassionate Care of Studio City): You're welcome.

MARTIN: And Ron Lind, let me start with you. Why did you want to unionize these workers?

Mr. LIND: Well, we're a pretty active union politically in the city of Oakland and over the course of time we got to know some of the folks in this industry and develop some conversations with them and it was pretty clear there was an interest in both from the workers and not a lot of resistance, at least from the owners that we've dealt with so far. And discussing the possibilities of unionization for these folks, and it all kind of came together with the assistance of one of the councilwomen there in Oakland and it kind of worked out a couple of weeks ago.

MARTIN: And why were the workers interested in unionizing? What does this mean for them?

Mr. LIND: Yeah, well, this isn't your typical sort of labor-management struggle. This is about industry leaders and workers in a union kind of coming together to help build some legitimacy and some public understanding for workers that have operated in the shadows for a long, long time.

MARTIN: To that point, though, I was interested in whether this desire for unionization is part of a bid to legitimize the industry in general, or legitimize this work.

Mr. LIND: Well, both. I kind of think of, you know, one of the young women, one of our new members that was interviewed, she worked in a dispensary and she was interviewed on TV a couple weeks ago. And she said, you know, my parents have really not approved of my job working at a medical marijuana dispensary. Now I'm feeling proud because I can go home and tell them, I'm a member of a union. This is a legitimate job. I'm doing something meaningful.

MARTIN: And what about the national union? Did the national union support this?

Mr. LIND: Yeah, we've had full support from our national union. I'm a vice president of our national union, we've talked through this. Our mission as a union is to represent workers, not to make judgments on the industry that they...

MARTIN: Well, but you don't unionize people in sex workers, for example. And there are those who would make the analogy.

Mr. LIND: Yeah, but, you know, another analogy, there are lots of people that think that folks shouldn't consume alcohol. We represent thousands of members that produce alcoholic beverages. There are union members in the tobacco industry. You know, workers deserve to have a union. Just because they work in an industry that might be controversial, we don't think they should be denied that right.

MARTIN: But then why not unionize sex workers?

Mr. LIND: Well, I suppose if they came to us and had some issues and wanted to organize, we'd probably talk to them about that.

MARTIN: Calvin, what about you? How big is your operation?

Mr. FRYE: I'm a very small operation. I have for years only had about a 500-square foot facility and basically have only had, like, one or two volunteer employees. I've never been one of the big guys because in our industry during the Bush administration, they weren't so happy about what we were doing and they were cleaning up with raids and everything in between. So I always stayed small for that reason.

MARTIN: There is some ambivalence, as you know, about the industry, as we've just kind alluded to. For example, Los Angeles is working this week to close some 400 unregistered medical marijuana dispensaries. Are you affected by this? And what do you think about that?

Mr. FRYE: Well, I am one of the very few who opened back in 2005 and it was really only four or five of us. And we worked tirelessly to try to get the city to hurry up and put in some type of ordinance, some type of moratorium because of the fear that once this got out that, hey, you can go and just get a, you know, a shop and a license from downtown and now you can open up a shop. If that got into the wrong hands, then, you know, you'd have this wide scale proliferation of clubs. And so that actually did happen.

So, in 2007, when it was probably almost four or 500 clubs at that point, it was so out of control, that the city had to do something about it.

MARTIN: So, you support more order in this industry, more regulation. What's your view of unionization? You said you only have one or two volunteer employees. I don't know how Ron feels about that, the whole volunteer thing, but what about the unionization push? How do you feel about that?

Mr. FRYE: I think it's a great idea in that it gives an air of legitimacy to what we've been pushing for for so long. And now, as with most cases down here when there's legal action is usually that one particular person versus the state or versus the city. And now with the union, just like most things in America that started out, whether it was something that people liked or had different views about, once they were unionized, it wasn't the city against one person, it was the city against a whole union of people.

MARTIN: One of the reasons we were interested in talking to you is that you're African-American.

Mr. FRYE: Right.

MARTIN: And I was wondering whether there was some stigma attached to you as an African-American male selling marijuana. Because as you know, there's a disproportionate number of African-Americans incarcerated in connection with drug crimes. Many of these are nonviolent offenders. And so I just wondered whether there was any additional stigma attached to this for you as an African-American, any additional, perhaps pushback from the community for your participation in this field or any of that?

Mr. FRYE: Yeah. Ironically, back when I started, I actually even had my own activist friends that were in the movement literally came to me one day when Dan Rather was in town seeking dispensaries to interview, and really came to me with this straight face and said, hey, if CBS contacts you, can you make sure that you contact one of us so that we are interviewed and you're not interviewed because, you know, it's just a stigma. And, you know, we want someone articulate, blah, blah, blah.

Of which I was of course offended. And I made sure that whenever NBC or anyone came to town that I was interviewed as soon as possible. And obviously it worked out for my benefit. But, yeah, that's definitely there.

MARTIN: Do you think this overall push to both to unionize and to regulate the industry will ameliorate some of that?

Mr. FRYE: Well, what I would think and what I would hope, and maybe Ron can elaborate on this more, is that when you're in the union, you have certain type of protocol rules and the way that you carry yourself. And that was one of the biggest problems here in Los Angeles. After a while they're closing five, you know, four or 500 clubs now, is that there were no rules and regulations.

And when you're in an industry where it's already illegal federally and you're just working off of state laws that are kind of vague, it would help, I would think, for a union to get involved because I was quite sure that they would have some type of rules that, you know, they would have their people follow.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about efforts to unionize workers in the marijuana industry, in California specifically, the medical marijuana dispensaries. We're joined by marijuana dispensary owner Calvin Frye and the local UFCW union president Ron Lind. He's already organized workers in Oakland.

So, Ron, give me a sense of what about Calvin's question, is there some well, I don't know that there's any sort of code of conduct for people working in a union who are...

Mr. LIND: The folks that we've organized so far in Oakland work for employers and, you know, the owners that are amongst industry leaders and truly legitimate organizations. But, you know, because of the nature of the industry, we are including in our union contract exactly that, a code of conduct that spells out pretty clearly some guidelines around security measures, around, you know, complying with local ordinances and with state law.

And we want to be clear that we are working with legitimate employers, with workers that, you know, are trying to build good middle class incomes. And we, frankly, don't want to organize folks if they work for an employer that's not one of the legitimate folks in the industry.

MARTIN: Do you anticipate now that members of the union will support not just the marijuana workers, but other union workers will then work to support the ballot initiative legalizing further uses of marijuana beyond the medical use?

Mr. LIND: We'll be supporting them not just because we think it's good for our members, but we think there's obviously a great potential to create a lot of jobs in this industry and these are pretty good paying jobs. And it's not only good for workers in the industry, at least this is, you know, kind of my personal opinion, it's good for workers in general in California. Because, you know, we've got this huge budget problem, this crisis.

If the initiative passes and we can regulate it and tax it and maybe that will help stop some of the attacks that are going on against public employees right now and to help ameliorate that situation.

MARTIN: Calvin, can I have a final thought from you? You've been at this a long time, do you think that the day is coming when marijuana use or cannabis use will be seen in the same way that alcohol is, which is, you know, a lifestyle choice? Something that people adults have a responsibility to monitor in themselves, but ultimately and, you know, is regulated, is taxed, but is something that is not attached to a moral stigma?

Mr. FRYE: Yeah. I mean, if you just look at what Ron is just talking about the whole unionization right there, I mean, that's an obvious move in the right direction. And me, from a scientist background, I think marijuana has always been in the wrong schedule. It should have never been a schedule one drug in the first place.

And probably the biggest thing that I think will take us over the hump here is that as the truth comes out and you actually compare marijuana against alcohol or tobacco and look at the number of deaths and the real figures start to come out, then it'll be easier for those older people that are in power to finally relinquish those reigns of ignorance and I think it'll go ahead and move forward.

MARTIN: Calvin Frye is the owner of a medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles. He joined us from his home in Reseda, California. Ron Lind is president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5. That's the union that represents medical marijuana workers in Oakland, and he was kind enough to join us from his home in Milpitas. Thank you so much for joining us, gentlemen.

Mr. FRYE: Okay, thank you.

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