Carsten (left) and girlfriend Maya (right), both of Germany, and Beaver (back) of London head out after a free lunch at the Mateel Community Center in Redway, Calif. They were looking for trimming jobs to fund their travels but hadn't gotten any work yet. Credit: Sarah Rice for Reveal

Calling current standards threadbare, one of the largest labor unions in the country is pushing California regulators to better protect marijuana workers in the wake of legalization by requiring health and safety training.

Since Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting wrote about women trimmers sexually abused in the state’s top marijuana-growing regions, workers have begun emerging from the shadows of California’s secretive marijuana industry. Complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Cash-only payments. No pay at all.

The United Food and Commercial Workers was surprised.

“Prior to your article – it’s been mostly from the industry – it was kumbaya, everything’s hunky-dory, people are going to make a lot of money, everyone loves working in cultivation, everything’s so nice and so free,” said Sam Rodriguez, director of legislative affairs for the union’s Western States Council. “It was like someone came and lifted the hood of a BMW and found it has the motor of a Chevrolet and it doesn’t work.”

Rodriguez said Reveal’s investigation prompted the union – which helped pass last year’s medical marijuana laws and get Proposition 64 on this month’s ballot – to realize that labor practices in the industry were not what they seemed.

“We have a real problem here … that is devastating to workers,” Rodriguez said. “It’s obvious to us, given the story, that this is the tip of the iceberg.”

The move signals the union’s intent to organize marijuana workers in what will be the nation’s largest marketplace for legal pot. The union was the first to organize marijuana workers in California beginning in 2010, and now has about 1,200 card-carrying members who work at dispensaries in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. The union also plans to support legislation to require training in the next session.

For California’s secretive marijuana growing industry, the union’s public push is just one sign that times are changing.

Under the new law, regulators will begin issuing licenses to growers in 2018. Protections afforded all workers in the state will apply, but little in California’s new marijuana law addresses the unique working conditions of the bud trimmers – known as trimmigrants – and other pot workers.

The Division of Occupational Safety and Health does have the option of creating regulations specifically for the marijuana industry. To do so, they are required to collect public input – which the union was happy to provide.

In memos emailed to the Division of Occupational Safety and Health and the Department of Consumer Affairs – the agency responsible for issuing licenses – Rodriguez advocated for creating a robust training program for workers, requiring that one employee of each grower be certified in health and safety standards, and compelling growers to keep and supply specific data on whom they hire, how much they’re paid and whether they’re provided with health insurance and sick days.

Workers are “suffering from a lack of regulations and oversight,” Rodriguez wrote in one of the memos. “Currently, standards and protections for workers specific to marijuana cultivation and production are threadbare.”

Rodriguez said that’s a problem in an industry that remains largely ignorant of labor standards. Growers seem unaware of the requirements, he said, and workers seem hesitant to come forward and identify themselves as marijuana workers, not to mention formally report abuses.

Lori Ajax, chief of the state’s Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation, declined to discuss specifics of the memo but said she was open to the union’s suggestions.

“We’re taking everything into consideration as we move forward,” she wrote in an email to Reveal. “The Bureau continues to assess the initiative and we’re working hard to develop a robust regulatory system that protects the consumer, the environment and the public.”

Time is short. The Division of Occupational Safety and Health will accept public input until Nov. 30, and is required to make recommendations to the Standards Board by July 1, 2017. The agency also plans to discuss concerns about violence in the marijuana industry next year in a new advisory committee on workplace violence.

Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @shoeshine.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.