Union muscle shaping marijuana debate in NY state


In a time of extreme uncertainty in the marijuana industry, one thing is still certain, business is booming.
According to data released in a 180 page report last month by Medical Marijuana Business Daily, retail medical cannabis sales in the U.S. are predicted to rise between 10-15% over last year – potentially earning up to $1.5Billion in 2013. Fueled by legalization in Washington and Colorado, and favorable marijuana polling across the country, the Marijuana Business Factbook 2013 predicts that we will see that billion and a half in weed sales double in 2014, to $3Billion nationwide, and then double again to upwards of $6Billion annually by 2018.

That’s a lot of 8ths and ounces to be weighed and packaged and put on the dispensary shelves by a budding workforce of thousands of new managers, budtenders, receptionists, security guards, vendors/cultivators, and on and on and on.
That healthy crop of potential dues-paying-members quickly caught the eye of some powerful labor unions, leading to an unlikely fellowship between blue collar and blue jeans. In fact, at its high point, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union was proud to have over 2000 cannabis-related workers among their ranks. But these days, Federal raids and ambiguity in state laws have seen that number trimmed down to only around 500 dues-paying UFCW weed workers nationwide.
Knowing that their strength lies in their ranks, some of the strongest labor unions in the land are rallying to the cause of cannabis, using their collective voice to call for legalization and medical use, hoping to push their membership rolls above and beyond their previous highs.
Most recently, the New York Post is reporting that the UFCW, in conjunction with the RWDSU (Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union) – collectively flexing a combined roster of over 1.5 million members – plans to campaign on behalf of legalizing cannabis for medicinal use in New York state, and has been working with local lawmakers to craft the new legislation. With new laws on the books, the unions aim to add thousands of much needed new members to their diminished ranks.
RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum announced the unions’ intentions, saying, “We want to make sure that if the cannabis industry comes to New York, that it is regulated and that it provides good jobs with decent standards for workers. We want to be on the ground floor.” He went on to say that legalizing marijuana is “ethically the right thing to do”.
Predictably, law enforcement officials rebuke the unions’ claims, painting them as lobbyists for “an intoxicating and potentially very profitable drug”, rather than truly being advocates for the regulated distribution of medicine.
Stuck in the middle is the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. Until now, the Governor has tap danced around the marijuana issue, publicly stating his scorn for medical marijuana, but at the same time calling for state-wide decriminalization of small amounts of pot seized by police using controversial stop-and-frisk methods.

The UFCW/RWDSU alliance, with their decades of experience in the political arena and the voice of over a million members, hopes to push the Governor and the rest of New York’s state lawmakers in their direction.
Historically, unions have been effective in shaping public policy and politics to benefit their members. In this fight though, their opponent is not a greedy CEO or corporation that can eventually be outlasted or outspent. They now face the Federal Government as their primary foe and so far, have been unable to protect their members facing raids and arrests. Their varying degrees of effectiveness highlight the limits of their political power in a new arena, as well as the strength with which the Feds plan to oppose the inevitable.