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Workers at L.A. pot dispensaries form labor union

The move is partly aimed at defeating the city's proposed ban on businesses that sell medical marijuana.

March 23, 2012|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
  • Rick Icaza, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, speaks at a news conference announcing that employees of Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensaries had formed a union.
Rick Icaza, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770,… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

With the fate of the city's medical marijuana industry in question, workers at more than a dozen Los Angeles pot shops have formed a labor union in part to help ward off a proposed citywide ban on dispensaries.

The employees joined the ranks of grocery workers, healthcare providers and pharmacists at the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 770. At a news conference Thursday, the president of the union vowed to leverage the "full force" of its 35,000 members to keep dispensaries open.

The City Council is weighing a ban that would forbid businesses to sell marijuana but still allow patients who are seriously ill and their caregivers to cultivate it.

In January, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich called on the council to revoke the city's existing ordinance, which uses a lottery to choose which dispensaries to allow. He said a court decision limits what cities can do to regulate dispensaries.

The California Supreme Court plans to review rulings by lower courts on how much oversight local governments can have over medical marijuana operations. But a ruling is probably a year or two away.

Councilman Jose Huizar has been the major champion of the ban. His Eastside district includes Eagle Rock, where community activists have complained about the neighborhood's large number of dispensaries.

Huizar has close ties to labor unions. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor endorsed him during his reelection campaign last year, and UFCW members walked precincts on his behalf.

But the debate over dispensaries could put him at odds with those allies.

Huizar did not return calls for comment.

Rick Icaza, the president of UFCW Local 770, said the union plans to put the heat on city lawmakers to find a workable ordinance that avoids a total ban on dispensaries, and that unionizing the workers "is the next step in professionalizing and stabilizing this new sector of the healthcare industry."

Yamileth Bolanos, president of the Greater Los Angeles Collectives Alliance, which represents dispensaries, said medical marijuana activists welcome the union's help.

"It's time to bring in some big guns," she said.

A ban would affect more than just medical marijuana patients, she added. "Not only are they threatening access for patients, they're also trying to take jobs away from our employees."

Bolanos said all of the 14 marijuana dispensaries whose employees have joined the union are either members of the alliance or are accredited by the group. Each dispensary has five to 15 employees.

Don Duncan, the California director for Americans for Safe Access, said he hopes union membership will help legitimize a sector that he says is misunderstood. "I think this brings medical cannabis into the field as an industry," he said.

Other branches of UFCW have already unionized employees of dispensaries in Colorado and other parts of California.

At the news conference, Delphine Pregnon, a pharmacist and longtime union member, said her industry and the medical-marijuana industry aren't so different.

"Medical cannabis dispensaries are just another place for people to get their medicine," she said.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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