Cannabis Workers Rally on 4/20 for Better Working Conditions

At a union hall in midtown Phoenix, workers rallied for improved working conditions at dispensaries.
At a union hall in midtown Phoenix, workers rallied for improved working conditions at dispensaries. Katya Schwenk
For stoners — and Arizona's cannabis industry — Thursday was a THC-infused holiday full of celebration. For some local cannabis workers this year, however, 4/20 was a rallying cry.

Budtenders, cultivation workers, union organizers, and elected officials gathered in a union hall in midtown Phoenix on Thursday morning to call for improved working conditions.

"Make no mistake — cannabis workers make 4/20 possible," said Drake Ridge, the assistant director of communications for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99, the union that hosted the event. "Cannabis in Arizona is now a multibillion-dollar industry, and the very workers who made this prosperity possible cannot be left behind.”
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As the cannabis industry has grown in Arizona, so too has the push to unionize dispensaries.
Katya Schwenk

Cannabis Workers Push for Change

Since recreational cannabis was legalized in Arizona in 2020, the industry has blossomed, but the fruits of the industry’s labors haven’t been celebrated by everyone. With limited licenses and a push toward vertical integration, locally-owned outfits have been bought out by powerful cannabis companies.

According to High Times, legal marijuana sales topped $1 billion in 2022.

As profits have grown, so too has a movement to organize cannabis workers in Arizona. UFCW Local 99 has spearheaded the push to unionize dispensaries across the state through a campaign called Cannabis Workers Rising.

Despite resistance from companies such as Curaleaf — which in 2020 fired one of its workers, Anissa Keane, for attempting to unionize a dispensary — the effort has seen some major successes. Dispensaries across the state, including two Zen Leaf and two Curaleaf locations in metro Phoenix, have voted to unionize and are now beginning contract negotiations.

In January, the National Labor Relations Board sided with workers who brought unfair labor practice charges against Curaleaf. The regulatory board found that the cannabis giant "made illegal threats and promises to discourage employees from organizing, and created the impression that workers’ union activities were under surveillance by Curaleaf."
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Malek Kmeid, a cannabis worker, spoke to the crowd on Thursday.
Katya Schwenk

‘They Just Care About Money’

Yet, the fight to improve working conditions in Arizona's dispensaries continues, as workers emphasized at the 4/20 rally. Malek Kmeid, a dispensary store associate who works in Tucson, told the crowd that he and his coworkers struggled to make a living wage, despite the profits they say multistate cannabis companies are raking in. "There is no cannabis industry without cannabis workers," he said.

Angel Guerrero, a brand ambassador for cannabis company PuraEarth and a medical marijuana patient herself, told Phoenix New Times that since recreational cannabis was legalized in Arizona, companies have been prioritizing profits over working conditions and patient care. "They just care about money. That's all they care about," she said.

Guerrero said she hoped that the wave of union activity might change that.

Multiple elected officials, including state Representative Analise Ortiz and Phoenix City Councilmember Betty Guardado, spoke alongside workers in support of the unionization efforts.

"We know that so many voters voted to legalize cannabis because they were tired of the prison industrial complex profiting off of our backs," Ortiz said. "And now we have corporations profiting off the backs of these workers."
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk

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