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Forget legalization.

Once you see unionization, you know mainstream is on the way for medical marijuana.

Earlier this month, scores of press and politicos attended a pivotal press conference in an industrial zone of Santa Ana at South Coast Safe Access – Orange County’s first legal marijuana dispensary – to announce the first county’s unionized pot shop.

Get ready for many, many more.

Think beyond the two-dozen lucky budtenders at South Coast Safe Access who now get better hourly pay, a health insurance plan and a pension.

Up until now, politicians at virtually every city in Orange County had banned dispensaries as nothing but trouble – seen as bad for business when it came to local elections.

Dispensary owners can be eclectic to say the least and largely disorganized as a trade. Their business model – often disparaged by local law enforcement leaders like Sheriff Sandra Hutchens – is still developing. So up until this year, city officials across Orange County largely stayed away.

Yet the organizing action at Safe Access is a game changer.

These bud tenders now have a voice – joining more than 20,000 fellow workers with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 324.

With the UFCW jumping into the pot business, expect the industry’s political profile to step up considerably and quickly across Orange County.

Consider Newton’s Third Law of Motion.

For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.

Moving forward, when city politicians look to ban dispensaries – the electoral (and fundraising) math won’t be so straightforward as in years past.

At the same time, elected officials that want to partner are likely to find a reliable pair of allies – choc full of fundraising potential.

Just look at the turnout for this month’s press conference.

Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez – running for U.S. Senate as a conservative Democrat – was on hand.

Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez speaks about medical marijuana regulation.
Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez speaks about medical marijuana regulation. Credit: UFCW

So were officials like liberal congressional candidate Joe Dunn, Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nugyen (also running for the 46th Congressional District seat) and Santa Ana Councilman David Benavides.

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Credit: UFCW
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Credit: UFCW

There are already signals that other local politicians are talking to the UFCW and dispensaries about shops in Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa and Laguna Woods.

“The partnership is now something that city councils, whether Republican or Democrat, know it could be win-win for a city,” said UFCW Local 324 Executive Vice President Rick Eiden. “It generates revenue and at the same times provides quality jobs that will require some training and certification.”

Just-say-no may be a thing of the past.

“If cities don’t want to recognize the opportunities to work with us, then we will go to directly to the voters,” Eiden said.

Gov. Jerry Brown last fall signed into law a series of bills seeking to set up a regulatory framework for medical marijuana by January 2018.

I sat down last week with Eiden and South Coast Safe Access President Derek Worden to learn more about how the partnership came into effect and get a sense of what’s coming.

Expect more and more professionalization.

Unionization means introducing things like training and certification programs.
“This brings legitimacy to the industry,” Eiden said, adding that dispensary owners “are looking to deflect the negativity that surrounds their industry.”

Worden said the concept is already taking off.

“Since we did this, lots of other owners are calling,” he said. “Other owners are asking where our employees are at, in terms of pay, how benefits and dues work.

Since Santa Ana became the first city in Orange County to license medical marijuana dispensaries a few years back, there are nine other legal dispensaries beyond South Coast Safe Access.

Worden said many other owners are curious and want to get a parameter of additional costs for labor pacts.

“For us, it’s about being proactive, Worden said. ”This is happening, so how do you address this in a way that is going to be palatable to the public, to public officials, to law enforcement.”

“Unions are best possible partners in this because of their influence in legislature, and with local legislative bodies,” Worden said.

“It brings with it a comfort knowing the industry is starting off at elevated level,” Worden said.

That also carries a price.

Worden acknowledges his labor costs just went up about 30 percent by offering higher wages, insurance and pension benefits.

The UFCW got budtenders at Safe Access the similar medical and paid leave benefits that CVS and Rite Aid workers get as well as a similar pension – where a worker is vested after five years of service.

His workers went from starting at $10 an hour to $13.50 and Worden estimates the benefits package has generated about an additional $4 an hour per worker.

“There’s a significant increase in labor costs,” Worden said.

Yet there’s also big upside beyond the political muscle that comes with organized labor in California.

“We’re providing sustainable, liveable jobs,” Worden said, adding that as benefits and pay get better, the type of worker gets better.

“This is reintroducing the American way of doing business.”

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