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High Expectations

Budding labor tensions in the cannabis industry

I was sitting in my apartment, annoyed and paranoid, as the phone rang for the tenth time that night. Word had reached my circle of stoners that I was holding a quarter pound of pot, and I had become their all-hours dispensary of dry Mexican brick weed. This was, I supposed, the life of the dealer. I hadn’t foreseen that a side hustle was going to work its way into my otherwise deadbeat, layabout lifestyle when a wiry construction worker/weed dealer with Ric Flair hair offered to front me a QP. He was old friends with my girlfriend, and we were always buying quarter bags, so he suggested we take enough to sell. I’d been to plenty of drug-dealer pads, and, as long as the big fish tank wasn’t mandatory, I figured my apartment fit the bill. As a longhair driving a Volkswagen bug in the Deep South in the late eighties, I’d been busted for possession three times in the last three years. I probably didn’t need to up the stakes, but it beat getting a real job. The problem was that all the people who kept calling and randomly showing up didn’t have any money. They just wanted me to smoke them out. So when I ran out of weed and was too short on cash to pay back Ric Flair, I should have seen it coming.

After I scraped up enough money from my girlfriend’s tips for a week to make up my deficit and repay the plug, I politely declined his offer to front me some more so I could go pro. Slinging weed was hard work. Back then, if I had told him I was “burnt out,” he would have thought that I had gotten way too blitzed on my own supply. That was the nomenclature—I remember fucking up at the Italian restaurant I worked at and forgetting to put the artichoke hearts in the antipasti after some coworkers and I “took out the trash” and smoked a bowl in the alley. “Don’t be a fucking burnout, man,” said one of the other potheads who worked there for $3.35 an hour.

But that was another world. Marijuana, now legal to more than half the people in the country, is branded as wellness. When we think of the cannabis consumer, we are as likely to think of a soccer mom hitting a vape pen as we are of Sean Penn falling out of a smoky VW van in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even the terminology is obsolete. When a weed dealer—er, budtender—complains of burnout, they’re talking about work, not weed. And, toiling in this late capitalist shitshow of an economy, their disenfranchisement is hardly exceptional. Everybody is burned out, especially the young people who have never known anything but low wages and high rent.

Like most retail workers, budtenders skew youngish. You have to be over twenty-one, but it is relatively low-paying (many budtenders I talked to started below $15 an hour) without a regular schedule or good benefits. But unlike other retail—at, say, Target—there is a lot of excitement surrounding the industry. As someone tempted by the seemingly easy cash of the underground trade, I understand how a broke kid in Baltimore might have seen a chance to be dealt into the job market when the sale of recreational weed to adults became legal in July 2023 and brought Maryland nearly $800 million before year’s end. It’s a new industry, and there’s a lot of room for growth and innovation amid the ganja and cash. Yeah, I’ll hit that. Unfortunately, at the service level, it’s mostly a contact high.

It takes more than chill vibes to work a modern weed shop. It presumes an understanding of THC, CBD, and terpenes—the chemical compounds that give plants their specific odors, flavors, and medicinal effect. Some sense of the endocannabinoid system in the human body is a plus, along with a working knowledge of which of the hundreds of goofily named strains (Alien Gift, Sour Bobby, Hurkle, Chernobyl) have what effect. “Hi there, young man. I suffer from anxiety, and I am looking for something that will chill me out without making me sleepy. I don’t want it too heady with all the existential dread, but I like a little woo-woo, you know?” It’s a long way from the dude with the baggies and the blacklight poster who can’t tell you anything about the schwag you’re buying except that it’s righteous. But it can also be grueling, even for retail; you’re part cashier, part bartender, and part pharmacist. And while you don’t have to worry about getting busted, a panoply of laws and regulations govern the industry, and budtenders have to follow them to a T. Some of these laws, like not being allowed to touch or smell the product, might rub patrons accustomed to touchy-feely dorm-room pharmacies the wrong way. And since it is still federally illegal, and therefore unbanked, there is a lot of cash on hand; the cops won’t kick in your door, but someone might. Not only is it an all-cash business, but there is almost no depreciation in the resale value of heisted product. If you are lucky enough to work somewhere with security, there are armed ex-cops on guard, which is sure to bring the old paranoia roaring back. Wasn’t legalization supposed to take the guns out of the weed biz?

On top of that, there’s not actually a lot of room for advancement. On the retail side, you can basically either be a budtender or a manager of budtenders. Or you could go into the cultivation or manufacturing side and work in a giant, corporate indoor grow facility. Or spend your days grinding weed and rolling joints in kief-filled rooms of questionable ventilation. There are also ancillary gigs, like supply manager, testing, transportation, and security—but, really, among the roughly 428,000 jobs in the legal weed industry in America right now, very few of them are comfortably middle class. There was a wave of optimism among the upwardly mobile, dreams of learning the trade and breaking out on their own. But as in most gold rushes, the claims don’t often pan out. Because of the reality of licensing expenses, state caps on the number of vendors, and the difficulty of acquiring loans due to federal prohibition, the business is largely controlled by people who were rich enough to open a business without a loan in the first place. And since states are legalizing piecemeal, the industry is consolidating as Multistate Operators (MSO) levy their success in one market to weasel in and make a stake in another.

The level of discontentment in the industry puts it with other retail and service jobs, where unionization is one of the few encouraging trends. In the last couple of years, hundreds of Starbucks coffeeshops have successfully unionized. Workers at Target have been organizing. Even the employees of Wells Fargo, one of the worst of the big banks, have formed a union. Likewise, advocates at United Food and Commercial Workers see cannabis as ripe for organizing. “I don’t think anybody starts to work for a grocery store with super high expectations,” says Travis Acton, a UFCW organizer in Maryland. “But the cannabis workers do, and they get let down.” In Maryland, a deep blue state with a Black Democratic governor and a Democratic supermajority in the legislature, the focus on social equity for Black license holders—i.e., bosses—has created a rift with labor.

A Friend with Weed

Maryland decriminalized cannabis possession in 2014, and medical dispensaries opened after a long delay in 2017. There were no Black-owned businesses in the first round. When the state moved to create a new set of licenses as a corrective, it was held up by a lawsuit from the “vertically integrated” grow production and dispensary operation Curio, which argued that granting more licenses would harm their market share. Sinclair Broadcasting CEO David Smith was a major investor in the wellness-branded weed enterprise, founded by big-time Democratic donor Michael Bronfein and his daughter Wendy. The whole reason that a guy like Smith, who in 2018 was forcing anchors on his nearly three hundred local networks to air pro-Trump propaganda, was in business with the ideologically opposed Bronfein is because federal prohibition protects the market share of a new class of drug lord, or cannabis oligarch, who brings their own wealth into this new arena. After a small uproar, Curio dropped the suit and remains one of the biggest weed businesses in the Baltimore area, even though one of their dispensaries was recently fined by the state when employees were caught on video taking product from the dumpster, repackaging, and selling it. Needless to say, the Maryland world of weed remained as white as mildew on cannabis leaves.

This framing sets up an unnecessary intraleft battle between race and class in the Maryland cannabis industry.

When it came time to craft the legislation surrounding recreational cannabis—a much bigger market than medical—it was important to many legislators to guarantee some market share to people who were harmed by the drug war, predominately Black and brown people. Baltimore is in many ways the epicenter of the drug war, both in reality and in the popular home box office of the American imagination. In 2005, at the height of zero tolerance, the police made over one hundred thousand arrests in a city of just over six hundred thousand. Between 2000 and 2007, the arrest rate for marijuana increased by 155 percent. The ACLU and others have found that the city’s Black population faced the brunt of antidrug laws at rates that were highly disproportionate, given that Black and white people smoke about the same amount of weed.

Crafting the recreational law was an opportunity to exorcize leftover phantoms of the drug war and correct past mistakes with medical legalization by providing a special class of “social equity” licenses, specifically to those who reside in a geographic area that the Office of Social Equity has identified as boasting more than 150 percent of the ten-year average for cannabis possession charges in the state. “We want people who actually suffered from the war on drugs to have the opportunity to finally benefit,” says CT Wilson, a delegate in the Maryland House of Representatives and a champion of the equity inclusion. “Just because they came from poverty doesn’t mean they have to stay there.” Ademola Oyefeso, the director of UFCW’s Legislative and Political Action Department, agrees but thinks that lawmakers like Wilson are setting up a false dichotomy between labor and the kind of wealth that can become generational. “I think some of the legislators in our state have decided that there is a cost of creating a low-wage income to create a few millionaires or you know, hopefully one day, a couple of billionaires,” he says. The problem, according to Oyefeso, is that the legislation’s equity focus is solely on licensees. Favoring owners over workers reinforces the imbalance of Black neighborhoods affected by the drug war. “Equity in licensing is easy,” he says. “You don’t need to create cannabis billionaires, but you can create cannabis millionaires, and a whole bunch of middle-class jobs.”

This framing sets up an unnecessary intraleft battle between race and class in the Maryland cannabis industry, where a largely Black and nominally progressive leadership focuses on the Black upper and middle classes at the expense of working-class and poor Black people. Wilson hasn’t responded to a request for comment, but there is no indication that he is opposed to organized labor in cannabis—rather that the concern lay elsewhere, on creating Black-owned cannabis companies. But the exclusion of labor provisions wasn’t just an oversight. Kayla Mock, a lobbyist with UFCW, was working to have the legislature include a “labor peace agreement” in the state’s recreational cannabis code, which would say that business owners wouldn’t interfere with organizing efforts and unions, and workers wouldn’t picket, strike, or otherwise interfere with business as they did so.

Such agreements aren’t radical or new. They are common in the hospitality industry. When casino gambling was legalized in 2012, Maryland legislators built a labor peace agreement into the bill. Other generally pro-labor states, such as California, have taken a tip from their playbook and baked labor peace agreements into the cannabis industry. “What we’re looking for politically,” says Mock, “is something in the regulations that says a labor peace agreement is required if and when licensing happens.” Though it seemed like a natural fit for Maryland, the legislature failed to include such a provision. Oyefeso, who grew up in a Black neighborhood harmed by the drug crackdown, sees Maryland’s failure to protect those workers by including a labor peace agreement in the law as “a legislative betrayal that abandons Maryland workers in favor of corporate CEOs.” He thinks there is no need to create this division between race and labor in the cannabis field. Unions are not going to hurt Black business owners, he says, but will spread the equity and reparation more widely within the state’s Black community.

He’s not alone. Black cannabis entrepreneurs like Hope Wiseman, co-owner of one of the state’s very few fully Black-owned cannabis businesses Mary & Main, have spoken out in favor of a labor peace agreement. Wiseman wrote an op-ed arguing for labor peace agreements because Mary and Main’s employees “overwhelmingly come from minority communities”—as she and her partners do—and should “have opportunities to earn a living wage, in clean and safe working conditions, with ample opportunities for upward mobility, and other protections.” Though the state did not include a labor peace agreement in the cannabis law, Mary & Main has internally implemented one. Without the agreements, employees in dispensaries are able to organize, but many who have tried faced serious pushbacks from bosses who seemed a little too eager to keep their stash.

Don’t Bogart That Vote

When employees at the Star Buds in Maryland tried to organize in early 2022, they faced immediate resistance from management—exactly the kind of response that a labor peace agreement would prohibit. Star Buds is the kind of MSO that is becoming increasingly common in the industry. They start out in one state and then take partners or create franchises in other states, benefiting both from having locals on paper and from the scale and money of previous operations. They can make a lot of money doing this. Brian Ruden, the founder of Star Buds, called it “the dot-com boom all over again.” Despite the money they were bringing in, when employees at the Maryland branch of Star Buds began to organize, management acted as if a union would put them out of business. “They started taking everybody into group meetings, and then meetings one-on-one and harassing the employees. And saying you can’t vote for the union. You’re not allowed to talk about your wages,” says Miranda, who was an employee and one of the organizers, and preferred not to use her last name. “Then came the captive audiences with the anti-labor attorneys, who would sit there and just hammer away.” The effort ultimately failed, and Miranda left Star Buds—and the industry altogether. “If you want to get into the industry, you need to prepare to make some sacrifices,” she says. “And if you want to organize in the industry, you should be prepared to be sacrificed.”

When a weed dealer—er, budtender—complains of burnout, they’re talking about work, not weed.

A number of campaigns have fared better: as of this writing, twenty-seven Maryland dispensaries have successfully joined unions. UFCW organizer Travis Acton says that many concerns are pretty universal—wages, consistent schedules, and staffing—while others are specific to a single store. Workers at Story Cannabis, in Mechanicsville, decided to organize in part because the new MSO owners instituted a tip pool that aggregated tips and rolled them into paychecks. “Previously workers had been able to receive their tips directly,” says Acton. “They took that money home at the end of the day and, you know, they were very thankful and happy to have that walking-around money.”

William Askinazi, co-owner of Potomac Holistics in wealthy Montgomery County, resisted the effort at first. But when the union won, he embraced unionization as the future of the industry. Burnout wasn’t the only issue facing this new crop of cannabis clerks. When employees began to compare salaries, they realized many of them were being paid different wages for the same job. Workers now have paid time off, an explicit pay structure that has built-in increases, and the implementation of a sexual harassment policy. In the future, Askinazi says, “a great majority of the cannabis industry in Maryland will be unionized.”

Grow Future

Ras Crucial, a Rastafarian who has been in the weed trade in Baltimore since the 1990s, has applied for a social equity license. Instead of the tens of thousands of dollars it took for the first round of medical licenses, he paid about $6,000 applying for licenses to process, grow, and sell marijuana. If he gets them, he will be one of the few Black-owned, vertically integrated weed vendors in the state; the kind of business that could theoretically be hurt by aggressive union organizing. Though Crucial has worked union jobs in the film industry, he is somewhat dismissive of organizing the cannabis sales force because he believes that “selling herb is so subjective.” But he thinks that the growers, and therefore the plants, could benefit most from a union that could help pass on the “skill of how to cultivate cannabis” where there is a “metric that you follow.”

It’s just what happens when the nightmare logic of contemporary American capitalism gets its roots embedded in the world of weed.

In another strange twist, however, growers are classified as agricultural workers in Maryland and are therefore not protected by federal labor law. “Cannabis grow workers at a growth facility could not organize even if they wanted to,” Mock, the UFCW lobbyist, said, “for a lot of very racist reasons,” many of which date to Jim Crow-era policies of exclusion. When the National Labor Relations Act was crafted as part of the New Deal in 1935, Southern Democrats couldn’t outright deny Black workers protection. Instead, they barred agricultural and domestic workers—who were largely Black, especially in the South, where 40 percent of the entire Black population worked in agriculture—from protection under the National Labor Relations Board. In the decades since, fourteen states have created their own boards to oversee labor relations in fields not served by federal law. Maryland is not one of these.

In a moment when Maryland actually seems to be trying to create some kind of justice in the cannabis industry as reparation for the harm of the drug war, it is penalizing the agricultural workers who are growing the flowers that brought hundreds of millions into the state. We’re not talking gardeners either. Dispensaries sold around fifty thousand kilos of flower last year. Somebody had to cultivate that shit. For a sense of scale, Crucial’s grow license would be for a “microgrow,” which allows for ten thousand feet of flowering plants. Seems pretty big, right? But SunMed, the state’s largest grower, jumped from a 40,000-square-foot grow to a 240,000-square-foot one in 2023 in preparation for recreational legalization. SunMed’s boss, Jake Van Wingerden, told local news network WJZ that his grow uses fifteen thousand gallons of water a day. If that doesn’t indicate labor, what does? But without protection and an existing framework, options of organization are limited. Even though it’s weed and it’s supposed to be cool, the bosses usually still rake in the green while employees choke on dust.

Let Them Eat Kief

Budtenders may face burnout, but for growing and processing workers, weed can be deadly. Lorna McMurrey, a twenty-seven-year-old employee of the MSO Trulieve, came to work on January 7, 2022, to roll joints, sold as prerolls in the company’s 126,000-square-foot facility in Holyoke, Massachusetts. (Early reports say she was also grinding flower.) Trulieve has operations in nine different states, and, according to MassLive, reported more than $182 million in profit in June 2022 alone. McMurrey was not represented by a union. She had complained of asthma since she got the job. And on January 7, according to OSHA’s initial report, McMurrey “said she couldn’t breathe. Not being able to breathe Marijuana kief (dust).” At 11:00 p.m., she collapsed, dying in the hospital three days later of anoxic brain death. Trulieve agreed to a $14,502 fine but disputes the initial reports of the incident. OSHA’s second report does not directly list a cause of death, but Trulieve had been previously fined over $10,000 for violating “respiratory protection and hazard-communication regulations.” Early this year, employees in Trulieve’s cultivation facility in Arizona voted to join UFCW.

As weed smokers were wont to point out during prohibition, in the thousands of years people have been burning the bush, there have been no deaths reliably attributed to cannabis use (even though plenty of people on edibles have thought they were dead). But without protections, it seems likely that we’ll see more tragedies like this as the industry grows. Even if the corporate practices that now govern the field don’t always result in death, states that are legalizing cannabis need to help protect workers from this new kind of drug lord. And that’s not even the individual owners of any company; it’s just what happens when the nightmare logic of contemporary American capitalism gets its roots embedded in the world of weed.

I’m writing this as someone who has watched my own industry—journalism—implode under the weight of that logic over the course of the last decade. In fact, the same David Smith who invested in Curio, the dispensary whose employees were selling weed they took from the dumpster, bought the Baltimore Sun in early 2024. Ten years ago, when the paper was owned by the Tribune, they bought and ultimately destroyed the alternative weekly paper where I worked. Then the Tribune sold it to the vulture hedge fund Alden Capital. So it could be said that Smith is pilfering from the dumpster for his private stock too. It is grim, and I can’t pretend that I write this story as an entirely disinterested party. I’m never gonna be a weed boss. But, if journalism continues its hellward nosedive, I just might take another stab at slinging green.