Real Progressives
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Plight of the Cannabis Worker

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Introduction

I have been fortunate enough to have gained vast experience and access to cannabis in its various forms for nearly a decade. I’ve visited massive dispensaries in Colorado, the quaint cafes of Amsterdam and everything between; witnessed my home state transition from illegal to legal cannabis; lived in three post-recreational states; and worked for a state-of-the-art cannabis producer/processor for three years. It’s been a whirlwind of experiences that I never expected, having lived through the War on Drugs during my life up until then.  

We are only now seeing the budding of the cannabis industry, and the colossal obstacles that need addressing before surpassing the point of no return. A laundry list of concerns has been developing over the last five years. It is growing as fast as the explosion of the industry itself, estimated to reach a $90b worldwide market by 2026.  

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, profits are the game in nearly every industry. Cannabis will be none the safer. A network of overlapping issues plagues the cannabis industry: overwhelmingly wasteful, unethical practicestotal disregard for sustainabilitylack of diversitycapitalist exploitation of employees and latent activism with little action towards expunging the records and/or release of those incarcerated on cannabis related crimes; wealthy white men lacking the honor or respect for revolutionaries that came before, while tens of thousands (predominantly people of color) are still incarcerated, and generations of lives permanently ruined. Meanwhile, the groundwork is being laid for some to get rich off the profitability of cannabis.  

These past three years, I have been enlightened to the truth about cannabis capitalism. As I go on to share my story below, keep in mind this is just one of many. With hundreds more like me who have succumbed to their own exploitation, in just one facility alone, the horrors arise at the thought of how many more will be unable to escape the eventual grasp of “greed weed.” 

Surely, I must admit that as a white male I have had many privileges afforded to me throughout my life. That includes my rise in position. I am also very grateful to many of the people I met along the way who gave me opportunities to exceed even my own expectations. Were it not for their encouragement and support, I might have pursued other career options.  

There are many more folks throughout various departments that I never had the pleasure of getting to know. The bottom line is there have been hundreds of decent, hardworking folks within those walls who deserve more from their employer. There are likely thousands more throughout the industry. 

Many are not as privileged as I to have the ability to leave an unhealthy workplace. The majority of the workforce is afraid to “bite the hand that feeds us.” So many of us are just one paycheck away from homelessness.  

Many have come to accept inhumane treatment of employees as normal business practice. Now a paradox exists, as the nation screams for a livable income, Medicare for All and a Green New Deal with a Federal Job Guarantee. All the while, profits continue to take precedence over all else, whether that be our people or our planet. 

Truthfully, and quite shamefully, in the past I defended the actions of my long-term employers. I did this before I left a seven year career in the hospitality industry. Like many I held my tongue and didn’t complain. The fear of losing your job is powerful, and businesses know this, welcoming a challenge to result in termination and replacement. 

There’ve been numerous times when I’ve desperately wanted to walk away, whether for being disrespected or disregarded – only to always fall in line. Spending years of your life with a company, you eventually give in to the reality that your expectations may never come to fruition – year by year, through the ranks. In my case, it evolved from scrubbing toilets to developing and managing an entire department from the ground up; handling the inventory operations for the main facility and multiple properties across the country. When you have still seen little to no change or progress, it’s hard to feel proud.  

As with many who eventually leave their employer, I can’t seem to escape the urge to have my final peace, to put the experience all behind me – even upon fear of possible repercussions. Below, I have chronicled the highlights of my experience in hopes that more will speak out across our entire industry. Later I’ll discuss where I believe the cannabis industry as a whole should go from here and how some are addressing these grievances. 

Background

Never in a million years did I expect to become so involved with the cannabis industry. I grew up during the D.A.R.E. and Above the Influence campaign generation, with anti-drug propaganda still burned into my memory, as well as a visceral family history with alcohol. I first came into contact with cannabis as early as sixth grade. At the age of 10 my friends were smoking pot in their garages. I remember being too afraid of getting caught by my parents – and their wrath – to partake.  

Throughout my formative teens, the company I kept evolved. Eventually they led me to identify as “Straight Edge,” a hardcore/punk music subculture whose members abstain from drugs and alcohol. At school I was loud and proud about my stance, dress-coded by school administration for my clothing as “gang-related,” as Straight Edge members had begun to be classified in the late 2000s. This fueled my disdain for authority more and my self-description as a pariah, I felt chastised by school administration and classmates alike. Even within the Straight Edge and hardcore music community, I didn’t feel fully accepted.  

I look back upon my youth wishing I had not chosen to stand so proudly around my peers, as I think about the hypocrisy of my early twenties. I still wholeheartedly believe our youth should abstain from alcohol and/or drug use until their brains are fully developed. I also realize how easy it is for adults to now patronize the use of substances that they themselves likely use(d). There is nothing we can do to stop youth use beyond truthful education, not repetition of myths or fear. Even so, with the legalization of cannabis increasing all over the country and ease of access soaring, youth use has remained at a near constant level, or decreased.  

By my twenties, I was diving head first into alcohol culture. I was admitted to the hospital after being found alone and intoxicated beyond hope – not once, but twice, within just a few months. I had developed an unstable relationship with alcohol, never seeking to learn my limit until it was too late – throwing away everything I had desperately strived not to become after witnessing how alcohol abuse had poisoned my family.  

By this point, I had only smoked cannabis a few times. Alcohol had become my addiction as it was so much easier to get ahold of than cannabis. There were plenty of liquor stores that didn’t check I.D., in addition to the fact that I worked at a hotel/casino where I had made friends with the bartenders. While on the other hand, being the sell-out Straight Edge kid, I didn’t know who or how to ask for weed. I reached out to a friend for a connection just once. The unique and horrific hallucinogenic experience that followed convinces me to this day that it was laced.  

Eventually, cannabis had become a social drug for me. If someone offered, I would accept. I didn’t seek it out. My casual use most times led to fabled paranoia, whereas alcohol made me feel nothing. It wasn’t until I met my wife in 2014 that I started partaking on a regular basis. At the time, a ¼  oz (7 grams) could last us a month, if necessary. When recreational cannabis was finally legalized, the ease of access gradually changed, as did our tolerances. We had gone back and forth from flower, to concentrate, to spliffs, at what is the equivalent of ⅛ oz (3.5 grams) a day.  

After legalization and regular use, I became enamored with cannabis and hemp, and their vast capabilities. I ended my seven-year career in hospitality to try to get into the cannabis industry. I applied to dispensaries and grow facilities but could never get my foot in the door. I instead ended up working odd warehousing and retail jobs for two years which left me desperate and depressed. My wife and I finally decided to leave our home state in 2018, my sole intent was to finally break into the cannabis industry.  

Year One 

When we arrived in our new home, I applied for almost every dispensary or farm in town. I was still turned down everywhere I went. The county I lived in even had one of the highest assortments of cannabis businesses in the state. I kept seeing and avoiding a large number of job postings from a specific company, a notorious facility known to have a multitude of terrible reviews from former employees and customers alike. By now I felt I had no choice but to apply. 

Due to my lack of experience, I didn’t apply for any positions with the plant itself. To get my foot in the door, I settled for a custodial position, starting at $11.50/hr. During orientation I signed an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). In an effort to protect trade secrets, it stated I was restricted from working at another cannabis farm within 100 miles, speaking with the media, or taking to social media, among other things, for one year after employment. 

At first, every day felt like walking into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. 

A coworker (and now friend) started the same day as I did, and we engaged in a friendly competition with each other as the new guys. We gladly worked overtime, taking on new responsibilities and overall just loving to finally be here. My coworker was from a state with highly regressive cannabis laws. We both had experienced federal minimum wage labor in our home states, and the nearly $12/hr., especially with OT, was something near unheard of for us. With time, eventually my rose colored glasses began to shift to that of jade. Working in sanitation, I ran into countless instances that turned my glee upon being part of the industry into disdain.  

At one point another coworker and I started to speak out about our discomfort with entering and cleaning rooms in full PPE just a few hours after being sprayed with a pesticide. We were assured it wasn’t dangerous, as it was naturally derived from Chrysanthemums – the active ingredient being pyrethrin, a botanical insecticide made from the Chrysanthemum flower. While the room cleaning crews continued our work as demanded, a coworker and I began researching the laws regarding entry to rooms after pesticide sprays. We persisted in our complaints after learning that regardless of company claims, we were not to enter the room until a required 12 hours had passed. 

Management eventually complied with us, only after our direct manager brought the evidence we had collected. However, the concern was conflated with the fact we spent company time investigating safety requirements when we should have addressed the issue directly with our manager. They supposedly would have resolved our concerns in a day. Our worry over safety had in fact delayed numerous rooms to be loaded with their next crop of plants. 

These room cleans are an essential component to any cannabis growing operation, especially one of this size. We treated the facility much like the medical field would. Hospital level cleaning was conducted daily, and plant spaces sterilized from ceiling to floor. We’d create a concoction of various cleaning chemicals, mixed together in a bucket of water, from vinegar and degreasers, to bleach and others. It took more than elbow grease to scrub all the kief, resin, soil, and residual pesticides from the floors, walls, fans, HVAC, solenoids, risers, grow beds, and their rollers.  

One newer employee began criticizing the breathability when conducting cleans. They eventually quit, admittedly after harassment from coworkers that had become accustomed to the conditions. Oftentimes we’d have two to three rooms to clean a day, and were split into smaller groups to complete each room in two working days, many times with teams as small as two completing the bulk of work as assigned for “efficiency.” 

For as massive and sophisticated a facility as we were, we were carrying our highly corrosive and concentrated cleaning chemicals, acids and hydrogen peroxide in glass jars with metal lids meant for our flower. These were corroding away from the inside and continually needed to be replaced, until I suggested an alternative that was actually meant for use with such chemicals. The pungent, piercing smell when flushing the tanks and drip lines, even with protective gear, is still seared into my nose hairs. We often questioned the accuracy of dilutions being used to flush our tanks and feed lines, but did as instructed. 

The final treatment for the rooms was derived from the chemical Cl02 or chlorine dioxide. It required diluting the concentrated liquid with water and filling the tank of an atomizer. We wore full PPE to spray the room with the atomizer, in complete darkness with only a headlamp. After spraying, a separate Cl02 solution was placed in a small cup of water, turning to gas and dispersing throughout the room with the help of the fans. For safety reasons, this was to be conducted with a two person team to assist in moving beds and snags on the extension cord. Due to increased room turnover, many times we had to go in alone, as bodies could not be spared for the next room clean. 

(An example of the full PPE I was required to wear for many interactions with chemicals)

I wasn’t limited to just room cleaning, and I tried to do as much of everything as I could, giving me a sense of job security. Our cannabis contaminated glass waste frequently stacked up with thousands of jars destroyed weekly. We had no real system for destruction. There was some concern from management regarding the labels being left on the containers and the possibility of the labeled jars to be reused as knock-offs on the black market. We would have to shatter the labeled jars inside Sterilite tubs with a piece of scrap metal or against the walls of the dumpster. With shards flying, a dust mask and protective glasses were certainly required, but I can’t remember how many times I found small pieces lodged in my boots, hair or clothes. I eventually rigged together a bucket and lid with a hole cut through the center and a leftover metal strut to crush the glass “safely” before tossing the remains into the dumpster. 

Eventually I also became one of the main people responsible for the destruction of green waste in accordance with state law. Each state regulates their own compliancy systems, which are required to accurately track the status of a plant from seed to sale. Green waste scheduled for destruction must be held for 24 hours after logged into this system. When I was trained on this process, we were instructed to just pick a strain at random, and record the weight of the bag, as all the rooms’ waste are thrown together into green waste bags. Some rooms grow specific strains, while others have a multitude of strains. When collected for destruction, any indication of where it had come from or what strain was lost. Unless tagged by the employee at the time of removal from the hallway, it furthered the problem of ever being able to find the correct strain within the system. 

I had decided to take some initiative and research how we could compost our green waste and reduce our ecological impact. There were specific protocols for composting cannabis waste and I was interested in taking the more sustainable approach. Our disposal method consisted of grinding the waste with wood and cardboard, then sending it straight into the general waste dumpster headed to a landfill. In practicality it was just shy of being compostable. Being in such a low position at the time, my calls went unheard. I had done research on a local waste facility that met all the legal requirements to compost cannabis and had wanted to reach out personally, but was afraid to overstep my boundaries. Further still, no cannabis facility has composted their cannabis with the local waste company as of this writing.  

(Photos of green waste destruction throughout various stages.)

Destruction of solvent-treated cannabis was treated similarly. Given the state solvent-treated cannabis waste restrictions, there wasn’t much to be done with it. We would simply cut open the bags of liquid sludge and pour them directly into the dumpster, followed by an absorbent clay powder, layering two bags of waste for each bag of clay on average. 

Eventually towards the end of my first year I started to have some persistent pain in my back and legs brought on after rolling under a grow bed trying to repair a leak. I went to urgent care hoping to be sent for an x-ray or something, only to be essentially turned away. By the time I visited another facility, the pain had become a chronic problem. When detailing my concerns, I wished so badly to explain the cause of my pain. Instead I insisted it wasn’t work-related so as not to report it to the Department of Labor, becoming the subject of moans and groans during safety meetings should an insurance claim come forward, ultimately effecting employee paychecks. Much later, I began paying out of pocket to see a chiropractor at the recommendation of a coworker and my wife. 

After my injury I became primarily, as in often, the only front-of-house worker, keeping all staff break rooms, restrooms, hallways, etc. in tip-top shape.  One day I noticed that the carpets under the break-room cabinets were filthy, so I grabbed  a backpack vacuum and spent the next few hours on my hands and knees, trying to reach the hose into all the crevices.  There was so much dust and paperwork – most of which had come from two prior companies that had been in the building stretching back to the 1980’s. The most disturbing part? This being the primary location where our food was regularly served. 

Throughout my time in this role, I was awarded my department’s “employee of the month” on numerous occasions. The above mentioned vacuum instance helped me earn one. All this entitled me to was a parking spot close to the main door for two weeks, and possibly some company tokens for purchasing merchandise at a discount. 

From 2018 to 2020 the state minimum wage was increased each year from $11.50 to $13.50. The company increased the entry level hourly rate to a maximum of $14.00, with pay differentials for administrative roles and graveyard shifts. The first Christmas/New Year’s holiday period, my wife and I took time off of work to visit family. I had made my request following proper protocols, and yet the company inadvertently paid me for my time away, including holiday pay. When it was discovered, I was brought to the office and told that because the error was caught within 90 days, the company had the legal right to withhold pay from following paychecks until the overpayment had been corrected. I thought about quitting then, but feared the repercussions of finding a new job stacked with my existing debts, now coupled with the due overpayment from my current employer, so I let the hook sink deeper. 

Year Two 

Eventually my role shifted to an administrative one at the suggestion and recommendation of my first-day coworker. (They had transitioned to the role of Supervisor.) This is where the real insights began into the behind the scenes network of operations. In turn, it is also when I began my decline into company co-sponsorship. As I slipped further from my daily interactions with the majority of my coworkers and tucked neatly into the fold of my Manager, the inkling of complacence began to seep in. 

I was responsible for a number of administrative duties as my title implied, mostly dealing with the scheduling of various preventative maintenance throughout the facility from hundreds of HVAC units and equipment, to lamps, ballasts, pumps, and everything in between. I coordinated work orders, performed warranties and RMAs and accurately tracked thousands of assets. When I began, our inventory software was in complete disarray making preventative maintenance all the harder. I completely updated the entire system, printed thousands of labels, and physically went room by room to tag everything with easily identifiable, intuitive coding rather than enigmatic numbering to make reporting and conducting maintenance easier. 

We had our fair share of scares, some of which the local media would quickly snatch up to report on from fires or mold, to insects and other pests. Whatever the circumstance, word travelled quickly around the farm. Sometimes it would be word of mouth, such as when a video was shared among employees detailing falsified THC results, with the unmistakable labeling of my company’s brand. We also had an online company message board where communication throughout the facility was conducted. Each post was specifically and very boldly asked not to be commented on. Every once in a while as certain instances would occur, someone would become fed up enough to start a thread about the mistreatment of employees or concerns, only to be deleted and swept away.  

One such thread called for strike and unionization, even beginning with the first lines of Karl Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’ reworded to, “A specter hangs over the old [redacted] warehouse… it is a union.”  

(Screenshots of an employee’s message) 
 

The message board post reactions could vary from employee disputes with management or lack of communication on COVID tracing. I kept finding myself agreeing with my coworkers, but in the end I was still defending the company’s policy of “do not comment.” Looking back, had jealousy caused my lack of courage to speak out too? 

Sometimes these spats would extend over to social media, especially given that if you took to the message board you were almost certain to be fired. One incident that specifically comes to mind is when the kitchen’s ceiling collapsed. Photos were posted of employees continuing to make candy with drip tarps and buckets catching water while we waited for repairs to be made. I believe it’s since been taken down as I can no longer find it. 

Admittedly, a lot of the “entry level” employees in various departments didn’t have the insights I did in my position. At the time of the kitchen ceiling collapse I was even responsible for some of the work involved behind the scenes to have it corrected. Because of my bias, I remember thinking the posts were being blown out of proportion – until when it went on to detail how regularly the handicapped elevator had broken, rendering a wheelchair bound employee without adequate means to perform their duties. 

When employee information did somehow get out to a local union organizer, some employees were approached at their homes. Sadly I was not one of them. I had been approached from time to time by other coworkers who would whisper about unionizing. I believe ultimately we lacked conviction due to confusion over how each department would have to unionize according to their role – whether as plant workers, custodians, admins, or packagers. The company’s official response to unionizing efforts was to take to the message board and have business cards printed and given to employees. These directed them of their right “not” to unionize. When one response asked what the benefits to unionizing were, the CEO responded with, “Do your own fucking research,” only to delete their comment and later reply with a standard statement, presumably HR approved. 

(Business cards handed out to employees by management) 

Perhaps one of the scariest instances for me personally, of which most would be none the wiser, was a near catastrophic failure of the generator that backed up the extraction lab. Inside, a powerful HVAC machine runs with the purpose of immediately removing and replacing all the air in the room should any of the blast rooms suddenly fill with gases such as Butane, Propane, etc. We were repeatedly warned of the potentially fatal results should the lab quite literally become a bomb and were restricted from using certain cleaning chemicals within. 

I was tasked with maintaining a schedule of regular service to the generator. The very next day after servicing, we had a power outage and had to manually engage the generator. Initially, blame was passed onto the servicer, until it was revealed regular servicing had ceased with the last admin over a year ago. Luckily the lab had not been running at that moment, but to see the panicked look on my manager’s face, it was easy to recognize the severity of the situation. 

Year Three 

I was later nominated by the Directors to lead a newly formulating department. At the time, every department was conducting their own purchasing, and in some aspects duplicate and/or unnecessary purchasing was taking place. I was to take charge of all facility purchasing and maintaining inventory within a newly leased warehouse. 

For two months I was instructed to hold my promotion in secrecy. For a time, I didn’t understand why. It strained me mentally to keep in my excitement from my coworkers. Working next to them was painstakingly hard. Then when the time finally came for the announcement, it left some of us in a sour spot for some time.  

I learned the truth much later from my then-coworker, turned employee. A Director had made unfounded promises that they would be taking the lead for this new department. They had been asked to put countless hours into adding inventory into the new software to be used for purchasing, while I was forced to keep my secret. 

The turnover rate within my new department was somewhat staggering for such a small group. We started with only six people and later expanded to eight. One person left immediately in the meeting where the change was announced. For the two months I had known, there had been absolutely no interdepartmental discussion of what was happening to any of the other employees being transferred to this new department. I had been left to come in and explain that this was the way it was. Whether it was not wanting to take on a heavier role with no wage increase, understandably, or not wanting to fall under my specific leadership, I‘m still unsure. I was so confused and hurt, given the employee was a former coworker of mine in the custodial role and had moved on to their role when I had moved on to the admin. 

Another then left after a secondary position opened a few months later. My Manager explicitly requested external applicants only, without my employee even given a thought. I had felt so horribly for not standing by their side and demanding they be given the role, but again, I bent the knee to my superiors. Then that hired second person left shortly after, not enjoying our work environment and the passive micro-aggressions from employees, even after I attempted all I could to mediate the situation. Our third hire was finally a magical fit for us, and though they too shared their issues with the company overall, they enjoyed our small team. Only a short while later, they were forced to leave for medical reasons. Because they had not been there for 90 days, the company didn’t offer insurance, nor was I allowed to hold their position for them. 

Out of eight open positions and 11 employees we had in total the year of my role, I lost five employees. Purchasing and inventory roles are not appreciated positions to say the least. Many times no “thank you” or “good job” was heard.  

When I became the Manager, my team and I dealt with tens of thousands of dollars daily. It became a running gag in our office how many times we could spend more than we would make in a year or two years. Massive improvements were constantly made to the facility in all aspects affecting growth and increased profitability. Any improvements for employees remained minimal, though, at one point in time, we were requested to investigate options into increasing the privacy gap space between bathroom stalls in an attempt to prevent vandalism, and installing slanted toilets to reduce bathroom use time. Luckily, neither had ever been brought to fruition.  

Beyond providing employees health insurance, discounts on merchandise, donuts on Monday, and catered lunches Tuesday through Thursday, there was much left to be desired. Supposedly these “benefits” came directly from the owner’s pockets, while some argued it was a purposeful tax write off. In either case, it’s not especially noteworthy when many had complained of sickness after eating mishandled food. Most would have preferred a pay raise in its place. 

One of the greatest confusions to this day is how the actual finances of the business worked. Presumably, it’s a need-to-know basis, and I didn’t need to. Still, we took in cash from the dispensaries for our product every day, and our credit card was shut down at least four to five times. Each time we’d somehow get new ones issued under a completely different business name. Whether it had to do with the nature of the industry and its federal status (as we were told) or some other fraudulent way of moving money, somehow the bills were always paid. 

One of my top priorities when I began my new role was to attempt to reduce our waste and ecological impact. One of the key accomplishments I am actually proud to have made was the efforts to reduce our usage of single-use plastic. I began investigating bulk options for many of our suppliers’ products from office supplies and grow materials to kitchen ingredients and machinery. Flavorings, essential oils, food coloring, syrups, pens, paper, plant nutrients and pesticides, ethanol, isopropanol, are all various needs throughout the entire facility, regularly and consistently. We did whatever possible to reduce the amount of plastic and packaging we were responsible for. These were personal goals, not company mandates. 

One of our biggest successes was to work directly with a supplier and manufacturer to specifically design systems that ultimately saved tens of thousands of individual plastic use. This had been previously unfathomable. 

I tried to purchase locally and avoid purchasing from Amazon whenever possible. With our usage, many smaller businesses couldn’t keep up with our needs. Our Business Prime account was created and many products were sourced before my time. With so much being only available through them, it was often impossible not to use Amazon. They ended up being one of our top suppliers but at the cost of endless amounts of packaging. 

Many times, I would put together sustainable programs or alternatives only to be shut down for numerous reasons. In the final months of my employment, I was working on reducing the incredible waste used during our shipping processes. After doing the math on our usage for just one year, I discovered we were using enough kraft paper to line the entirety of 18 U.S. football fields. As one single cannabis facility, I immediately recognized the insane amount of waste we were responsible for.  

I began working with a rep to test a kraft paper forming machine used in many high volume shipping capacities. This efficiently formed paper for shipping, as opposed to the hand crinkling method we were using. The machines themselves would be leased for free, and we faced an upfront cost to switch to their specific paper. It, too, was turned down due to lack of return on investment. 

On the opposite spectrum, we had a few situations develop when the supply chain crisis was felt across the globe during the pandemic. I was constantly reminded how it didn’t matter how much it cost to procure, especially in an emergency. Production cannot fail anywhere in the facility, upon threat of job loss.  

We ran into many shortages in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. At numerous points I remember spending thousands of dollars just to procure all that we could from any suppliers as quickly as possible. Cost was not an issue. Thousands upon thousands of individual plastics – yet, whenever I would try to source an alternative product in a bulk 50 lb. size or larger, it would be turned down by a Director for not meeting their specific requirements. 

That summer, whilst attempting to comply with mandates, we had employees spread throughout the facility. In one section, particularly on the mezzanine, it’s probably the hottest ambient temperature in the facility. More concerned about the lack of labor from employees having to walk to and from the water fountain downstairs, but not wanting to install a tapped system upstairs, we ended up relying on a delivery service to supply drinking water for employees weekly. 

We worked directly with distributing companies, and they were hit hard by delays, ceasing custom cones orders to catch up. When we couldn’t supply our cones directly from the source, we ended up buying up all that we could across the country, again ultimately spending thousands more than we normally would have. Someone on Instagram began to take notice that our joints were missing our signature logo and began posting about it. All the while, their posts began to circulate among our management and circle back around to me.  

Immediately the question became, “Why are our logos missing from our joints?” and I felt the all familiar grip of fear for my job, but I had been communicating these supply chain issues and many others with department heads for months, urging them to prepare for a multiplex of issues around purchasing, and that delaying or reducing production in certain areas may be necessary.  

When the posts started to describe our brand’s inconsistency, members of management took it upon themselves to respond personally, and the comments eventually degraded into how successful we were at keeping output of thousands of joints consistent. Then the original poster brought up a good point. In retrospect, flexing the production of 80,000 joints in a week isn’t quite the impressive feat given the complete lack of sustainability it entails.  

For the majority of my time I was directly responsible to one Manager. I actually had the entire inventory team stripped from beneath me after the first month or so and handed over to another Manager. I was then in charge of only the purchasing team. Until later, sometime around the cone debacle, I, and my employees, eventually fell under them as well, after the owner realized, all of a sudden, that my former Manager had not been my direct superior… for the last year. 

While on the subject of the owner, in my time there, I spoke to them three times. The owners walk the hallways of the facility from time to time, but never stop to speak to anyone of low importance – even while attempting to maintain a “family” of employees. Most employees would likely not recognize them were it not for their magazine cutouts plastered on the wall as you enter the building, or for the fact that they don’t comply with their own mandatory head to toe glove/hairnet/beard net/scrubs and foot cover combo. 

The first interaction I ever had with the owner was after I had worked there already for two years and had been recently promoted to Manager. We were in a board meeting where they sat down next to me. Later they looked around the room writing down the names of who had attended. When I noticed them glancing intensely at the name badge at my waist, I told them my name, as we had never formally met each other. They replied with, “I already knew your name,” matter-of-factly, despite having never talked or interacted with me at all, and I didn’t know whether to feel intimidated or recognized.  

The other two times were over the phone where my job was threatened for mistakes I had made. Granted, in purchasing mistakes can be in the thousands of dollars. One of these instances was after I had been off the clock for hours. It left me miserable for days wondering if, or when, the hammer was coming down. 

Our owner had the audacity to regularly show up in their custom wrapped sports-car that cost easily over $100,000. Meanwhile the majority of their 500 employees are forced to park in the street or in an unpaved, pothole ridden lot wrapping the building. In the winter it’s an icy, slippery slope of a hill to navigate with employees damaging their vehicles. It remains unpaved, much to the chagrin of the employees and their vehicles. But hey, at least you’re rewarded with a nice two week parking spot if you are a good wage-slave. 

Upon my departure from the facility, I had made sure to seek the thoughts of my employee on whether they would want to take my role. Rightfully, they told me not unless they approached them, since they had been snubbed the last time. I informed them of how much I made at the time, as they had always been suggesting I ask for more money than what I had been offered. If they were given the role, they’d be doing so themselves. That day I went to my Manager, and told them if they did not offer them the position with a substantial pay raise, they would likely lose a highly valuable person.  

A few months prior, one of my former Managers accidentally texted me the wages for a few of the other Managers in our facility. I had planned to use them in future, but I pointed out the mistake anyway, and they asked me to delete it. I never got the opportunity to leverage a pay raise from it, but when I finally quit after nearly three years, I made a post to Facebook a few weeks later picturing the screenshot, in hopes that employees there would ask for pay raises. That day I received a call from both of my previous Managers, who left no indication of their reasoning for calling, which was obvious after no communication with me since my departure. 

After I finished my last day of employment, I witnessed the company’s graphic designer go on a homophobic tirade “in defense of God” in the comments of the owners’ daughter’s Facebook post in support of LGBTQIA. Being I was no longer employed, I called them out on their homophobia, to which they defended their stance in typical faux ally form, “I have gay friends/family,” and doubled down on the supposed word of the Bible. I emailed the owner with screenshots of the conversation and I called out the hypocrisy of their graphic designer being responsible for a Pride edition strain label while espousing such beliefs. I added that there had been no indication of any profits from their Rainbow Capitalism benefiting any LGBTQIA organizations or causes. I received no response. 

(Screenshots of customer comments)

It was fitting, for as far as I had made it “up the ladder” I never felt like I was in the circle. In parts of the building, photos line the walls of the managers’ gatherings/dinners. I had heard stories from the other Managers how well I’d have it now that I had become one. Yet, when it came to me, I never once had felt that appreciation from the owners for all that I did each day. Even during my invitations to the Director’s meetings, it felt as though I was being watchdogged to keep them in the loop on my team’s and my activities. The classic case of “this could have been an email”, until it became just that. Mandatory daily email correspondence of what we had accomplished, complications, etc., were required at threat of write-up. 

For our part in saving the company thousands, I was given $17.75/hr. and my employees a paltry $14.25/hr. I received a onetime $1,000 bonus when the department achieved a month over month reduction in purchasing goal. I remember asking whether my employees would be receiving any sort of recognition or financial stimulation for their efforts in the success. Being given that sum of money – which I desperately needed to pay debts – was one of the moments I felt truly empty inside. My employees who were equally, if not more responsible, received nothing, save for my utmost appreciation, respect and support.  

Conclusion

The money I made is already long since spent and gone. All this is not to say that I simply despise working entirely. On the contrary I rather enjoy pushing myself and feeling proud of what I can accomplish. Not unlike most in America, my limited income has provided me access to the most basic of luxuries. I am certainly thankful when comparing my life to others in much worse situations. Still, living paycheck to paycheck is the reality for many of us. While some will say, “pull up your bootstraps and tighten your belt,” no amount of assiduity or frugality will save us from the crisis that is the exploitation of the working class.  

For example, one department had somehow bargained their way into a 10-hour, four-day a week work schedule. The rationale seemed to be in the hopes of enjoying an extra day off, as mandatory overtime had become inescapable. The overtime eventually set in, as it always does. They had gained their day off, but all that had really changed was the expectation of their labor. 

While I was online recently, an ad popped up from UFCW to take a cannabis worker survey on unionizing. As I followed the link, I began to read the comments below and saw this wasn’t a problem only one cannabis company was facing. Dozens of comments appeared from all over the country from employees who are leaving, or wish to leave the corporate cannabis industry due to mistreatment or corporate hegemony. Some even stated they would prefer to return to the black market. The danger exists, but the appreciation does too.  

I also learned of the perspective of those that still choose to buy illicitly for the simple fact of how much more sustainable it seems to be. Think of the simple Ziploc bags commonly used for any quantity of black market cannabis. One could even argue most black market cannabis growing and sales happening today are in tight-knit circles, in backyards, or garage grow tents. While one must be on the side of caution regardless, many cannabis users in legal states are fully aware of the unjust transitions that took place with legalization and are consciously choosing not to participate. 

Many I worked with grew for personal use and sold on the side from time to time for a little extra profit. Some would ship/sell the company samples we were given on a monthly basis. Others had worked out ways to lift company products from right under their noses, even with hundreds of cameras rigorously placed in every corner. 

I’ve also taken to social media to decry the packaging practices in our industry. When you walk into a liquor store, and you see the aisle of tobacco products behind the register, you’ll notice something. Despite the branding and marketing of each product, nearly every single one is packaged the exact same way. Cigarettes in a small rectangular package, wrapped in plastic, and chewing tobacco in an aluminum or cardboard tin. There’s no excessive child restraints on them, or even on the majority of alcoholic beverages. At maximum our prescribed drugs are heavily resistant, but again, their packaging is consistent. 

What we see now is an influx in dozens upon dozens of cannabis product designs. Oftentimes these decisions are made in an effort to grab a consumer’s attention. As I approached sustainable packaging in my own arenas, the cost effectiveness became the single-most questioned aspect of a switch. At what point when dishing out more than 80,000 joints per week do you stop to think about your environmental impact? It’s difficult to say whether it’s a problem of the state by state regulatory bodies, or a reluctance from the greater industry to make positive change toward a sustainable future. And there lies the beginning of the problem. To say that every cannabis company in business today is just in it for a quick buck lacks nuance. But I guarantee, nearly everyone has to start at the same place.  

Imagine those that are just starting a cannabis business wanting to turn a profit as quickly as possible to allow them to expand, etc. They are going to be looking for the best deals. I can’t tell you what all factors into the price per gram, as it likely varies from farm to farm. These basic types of decisions are key factors. A few years later, they are approached by a company that’s developed a completely compostable alternative to current packaging, but runs at a slightly higher expense. When running a return on investment, if a certain percentage return isn’t met to get it running and keep it up, then the program will likely be nixed. 

It’s certainly a far cry from the days of growing in the foothills of the Emerald Triangle in Northern California; or the imports from the Middle East and Central America. Now massive indoor facilities are arising, and while the efficiency of indoor lighting increases each year, nothing surpasses that of the sun. At the end of the day, that is what they are attempting to recreate, albeit in a completely controlled environment. One thinks of the amount of electricity and energy required to run these facilities.  

From grow lights, HVAC equipment, fans, water pumps, hundreds of powered tools and equipment, and the basic utilities used by the hundreds of employees at any given moment. Then, we factor in the consumption of water – tens of thousands of gallons of water used weekly, if not daily. We are now mostly aware that one hamburger comes at the cost of nearly 700 gallons of water. Consider the flow of water from cattle drinking or watering the crops that they graze on, etc. The same is to be said about cannabis or any other product that relies upon water as a resource. 

Automation has also arrived and is slowly consuming more and more aspects of the cannabis industry. While the subject of automation is a complex one, I too heard the whispers of automation within boardroom meetings and saw it implemented throughout our facility. There are dozens of machines operating within the spectrum of cannabis work, from the knock boxes to fill joints, to trimmers, buckers and various other plant assists and all the means of packaging, sealing, filling, etc. As our civilization progresses, and new and innovative technology is invented, we should cherish whenever someone trapped within a career of inadequacy is freed to expand their horizons to better options, given those opportunities do arise, which ties directly into the case for a Federal Job Guarantee. 

However it’s interesting that when brought up, management didn’t want to panic the employees. They, too, felt folks would be better off not hunched over in a chair rolling joints for 12 hours a day, even though they hadn’t done much to make that job easier or more rewarding in the meantime. Their plan, if/when more automation arrived, was to transition any affected employees into new or existing roles, until they had settled, or moved on. For their part, they already allowed departmental transitioning after 6 month probationary periods. Their point being a valid one: for those that have never worked in the industry, these aren’t the environments you might imagine them to be in your fantasies of being a part of the green rush. Quotas must be met, management and sales teams are demanding more and more from their employees.  

It’s disheartening, to say the least, that this transition has taken place in just under a decade, after nearly a half century of advocacy, activism, and incarceration. Still, a shift in the culture of cannabis has occurred. Once demonized and often stereotyped as hippies, stoners and drug addicts or lazy grifters, whether by the government or throughout our media, now millions in the United States are seeing the truth for itself. 

Even now, we are learning more about the cannabis plant’s genetics and effects. It was once thought that the highest percentage of THC got you the best high. We’ve selectively bred generations of strains to yield the highest THC we can. Only now are we beginning to understand that there is a lot more going on in regards to the makeup of the plant itself. From the various cannabinoids that are known to exist (THC, CBD, etc.,) to the terpenes that exist, all are equally important, if not more, than THC alone.  

Yet, we are still witnessing a rapid in-education or misdirection regarding what is really behind the experiences related to cannabis, and many are getting rich off of it. There has been an influx of laboratory shutdowns due to the inconsistent or downright falsified results, whether intentional or not. Vice has reported on some such cannabis labs possibly falsifying potencies to increase potential results.  

The question must be asked, if/when cannabis’ federal drug scheduling is dropped, where do we go from here? The gates will open for cannabis facilities to have their products certified under any number of highly sought after labeling, such as USDA Organic. As of now, only a few independent organizations exist, like Clean Green Certified. More than likely, the federal government will wish to leave the states to decide how to proceed with cannabis regulation. I find it difficult to imagine the FDA won’t have some close involvement especially as cannabis facilities become freed to interstate business.  

States like Nevada have already begun to fall under the grasp of a corporate cannabis takeover. Even stranger still, some counties have decided to opt out of cannabis regulation, and the taxes that come with it. Douglas County, Nevada, for instance, enacted a moratorium on any cannabis business and have yet to reverse their stance. While nearby Carson City hasn’t gone so far, getting their share of business from Douglas County residents, they still recently became the first to ban cannabis consumption lounges, which passed just this year. 

Still, vertical integration models are proving much more sustainable than what has become your traditional cannabis operation. In Nevada, growing product in greenhouses with supplemental lighting for inclement weather has proved highly effective. Afterward all extraction, infusion, packaging, and direct sale can happen in one facility, with an attached dispensary (and even the possibility for a viewing window to watch your product through its stages like one facility in NV.) Inside the bud-tenders can refer you to a choice of flower based on a variety of terpene and cannabinoid profiles rather than THC percentage alone. Options are plenty for hosting events such as concerts and yoga classes. The state has even been preparing for public consumption lounges which recently passed into law. 

In California, Evidence bought a private prison to grow cannabis in and has partnered with the Last Prisoner Project to assist those incarcerated for cannabis. On the complete opposite spectrum, Falcanna in Washington is using their profits to help rehabilitate falcons and birds of prey at their sister sanctuary founded by the owners. In Canada, even mega-producer Hexo is committing to carbon neutrality. 

While the packaging crisis continues to exacerbate our need for single-use plastic, some companies are taking bold and creative actions, such as recycling programs. Even green waste itself is beginning to be recognized for its utilization towards a much more sustainable approach, and ideas abound

When thinking in terms of sustainability, there might never be a cost-effective solution, especially if we continue not investing in it. As sustainable energy is more affordable than ever before, we are severely lacking in renewable infrastructure. But, what is the cost for a livable future for generations to come? The question that should be asked before starting any business in the 21st century being: What impact will I have on my employees, my community, and the planet, should I succeed? 

It will be truly remarkable to see all that we are capable of doing with a plant that has been growing on the earth longer than humankind has existed. As this rich history reveals, humanity and cannabis have co-existed together for tens of thousands of years. Boundless opportunity awaits us, making this a relationship worth developing, hopefully, before it is too late. 

As the canopies continue to grow, I desperately hope it does not come at the expense of the working class and our planet. For now, perhaps removing myself from the cannabis industry is in my best interest. 

1 thought on “Plight of the Cannabis Worker”

  1. WoW!!! What a read!!!! That was kind of thrilling. Thank you for sharing your perspective. What an experience huh?! They fired me for getting a lil too Norma Rae about their ethics. I wear that firing like a badge of honor. I’m sharing this… I know a few people that will appreciate your words.

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