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Virginia Marijuana Bill Adds Protections for Workers and Unions

Workers scrub bins at marijuana processing facility
Workers clean equipment at gLeaf, a medical cannabis processor in Richmond. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

Workers in Virginia’s nascent marijuana industry will have an easier time unionizing under the latest iteration of legislation legalizing the adult use of cannabis. 

Gov. Ralph Northam has restored language that would strip businesses of their marijuana-related licenses if they fail to remain neutral in a unionization drive. It would also require those businesses pay employees a prevailing wage, as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor, and bar them from classifying more than 10% of their workforce as contractors.

The legislation removes penalties for people aged 21 and over possessing an ounce or less of marijuana beginning July 1. State officials estimate it will take at least 18-24 months to create a regulatory framework for retail sales outside of existing operators. The bill still needs to be approved by lawmakers when they meet again on April 7. Much of the regulatory language, including the portions related to labor, will need need to be approved by the legislature again next year. 

One state report estimated the industry will eventually create 11,000 to 18,000 new jobs. The bulk of them would pay below median wages. 

Labor advocates said the protections could help boost wages. They connected the protections to a part of a broader push for racial equity in the marijuana industry. The legislation sets aside a pool of so-called social equity licenses for entrepreneurs impacted by the War on Drugs, like people with marijuana offenses on their record. 

Mike Wilson, an executive assistant to the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 who lobbied for the protections, said workers from impacted communities should also be set up for financial success.

“We feel like the best way to do that is to give them a voice in the collective bargaining process and allow them to be able to make a family-sustaining wage and benefits,” Wilson said.

Nicole Riley, state director of the The National Federation of Independent Business, said the group had not taken a formal stance on the bill. But she argued the pro-labor pieces put smaller entrepreneurs at a disadvantage with larger, national operators.

“It’s a shame the governor is using this issue to push union backed proposals that limit the flexibility of small, minority and women businesses to compete for these limited number of licenses,” Riley said.

The protections were not in Northam’s initial legalization proposal carried by Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria). House lawmakers added the language in, but it did not make the final bill passed by both chambers. Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), sponsor of the Senate’s bill, supports re-introducing that language, according to his chief of staff, Henry Watkins. 

Members of the House Democrats Labor Caucus wrote a letter to Northam on March 24 asking him to restore the language. Del. Paul Krizek (D-Fairfax), who chairs the caucus, said they saw a chance to leave a mark on a new industry.

“This is a big change really in Virginia for the commonwealth to legalize marijuana,” Krizek said. “And if we're going to do it right, we've got to make sure that the workers are also included in this.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the labor portions of the bill require another vote in the General Assembly next year. A previous version incorrectly stated that was not the case based on information from the governor’s office.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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