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Guest Post: Cannabis working conditions vary, need better controls

By Edmonde Franco
Guest Editorial

I remember sitting on my living room floor smoking a joint with friends while watching Saturday Night Live. Laraine Newman was doing an ad for the American Dope Growers Union. We laughed so hard tears were running down our cheeks.

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It was April 1977. Looking back on it now maybe it isn’t so funny after all. Maybe it is an idea whose time has come.

One evening I was talking with friends about the possibilities of investing in the new cannabis industry. We wondered if it would be a good bet for the future, since the clone to customer chain seemed to be where the real money was to be made.

So I took a job at a Washington State producer/processor. No better way to see and learn an
industry than from the bottom up.

I lasted less than a month. Not because the job was hard but because I was asked to work in a closed room with an non-ventilated propane heater. Carbon monoxide poisoning is not on my list of ways I want to die.

When my concerns were brushed aside I quit. I wasn’t there because I needed a job. I could easily walk away.

Sadly that is not the case for the many people still out there working in conditions
just like that.

“Just go outside if you start to feel dizzy” is not the proper way to handle the
situation.

Recent articles on pesticides found on retail samples of cannabis raise a larger question for me.

Do you think the worker who was told to spray that pesticide was wearing anything more than a paper mask? Was he wearing even that?

I began to wonder if what I was seeing was typical of the industry so I talked to other workers from producer/processors around the state. I was not surprised to find conditions ran the full gamut from serious laboratory conditions to down right sweat shops.

Most seem to fall somewhere in between.

I did hear a fair number of people who complained about problems with getting paid. Some had to wait past scheduled paydays for their checks and a number complained of checks bouncing but eventually getting paid.

I did notice a large number of people were hired as contract agricultural workers, not as employees. This leaves the worker open to paying their own taxes and payments. It also gives them none of the protections given to employees.

I heard all the standard complaints of bad management and mean bosses. It seemed the better the conditions the fewer complaints.

People who had witnessed or suffered injuries told me stories of little mishaps (If you want to consider losing a finger tip in a power trimmer as a little mishap).

One told me there were no deaths or missing limbs, but there were also few safety precautions. Rarely were safety glasses provided while using machinery, like a power trimmers. Bad lighting to work by and even worse air to breath also seems common place.

I witnessed packaging rooms with extension cords everywhere and only one way in and one way out. All little things, like finger tips.

The drying of cannabis with the use of propane and it was reported in some cases, diesel heaters is concerning. The effect on workers exposed in non-ventilated drying rooms is
cumulative. It builds up in your blood stream with repeated exposure.

On a personal note, I don’t want to smoke a product that has been dried like that. One more
new request at the local retail shop.

It’s starting to sound like a damn coffee order. I’ll have a 3G, pesticide free, air cured, hand trimmed purple kush please.

After witnessing what was going on I decide to see who’s job, governmentally speaking, is it to watch over these sort of workers issues.

The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board controls the cannabis itself and the sales of
the cannabis. They will fine a producer for a banned pesticide showing up on the retail product but the safety of the worker who handled the banned pesticide is not within their jurisdiction.

They will however fine the producer if the worker does not have a proper name tag on.

Normally work safety place issues would fall to Washington State Licensing and Industries. Unless it is an agricultural concern. It then falls to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture may or may not be the body in charge. A producers license is Ag but a processors license might be covered by L&I.

When a dual license is held at the same location a determination would have to be made. I had fallen into a government loop. I was trying to find what general standards apply and have any standards specific to cannabis had been enacted but no one really wanted to talk.

I was asked if I wanted to file a formal complaint. I didn’t, so the conversation stopped there. I was basically told that the rules that apply are on-line, depending of course on which department has jurisdiction. Federal labor laws do not apply because …..well because it is still a federal crime.

In the long term I see this as an issue that will work itself out as the industry grows and matures. I don’t believe anyone is purposely harming workers. They simply don’t know better.

The question is will the industry step up and encourage State governments to take up the issue of safety to the advantage of both the workers and the investors. They last thing a growing industry needs is unnecessary government interference.

Producer/processors would be wise to work with the state now before someone gets seriously hurt and the state has some knee-jerk reaction that could hinder growth for everyone involved.

Or the other side of that same coin …. a nearly forty year old SNL skit becomes a
reality.

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