Marijuana Legalization: Why the Pot Business Needs Unions to Survive


Quick, name the one interest group that would love the most to partner with marijuana distributors! Did you say snack food companies? The Comedy Central network? Well, you would be wrong, fictional straw man who obviously doesn’t read article headlines before reading them. It’s labor unions! And it has been a great match, so far.

Since the beginning of legal marijuana shops, the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) has been recruiting the workers of the cannabis industry. The UFCW already has 3,000 of those workers in their ranks, and expects that number to expand rapidly. This union, the largest retail union in the country, has quietly been behind every big push for state marijuana legalization.

Though the image of straight-laced hard-working blue-collar labor collaborating with hippy stoners doesn’t quite seem to match up, it is actually a match made in heaven. Labor union memberships have been flagging for some time, and they are in desperate need of a growth industry to latch on to. Meanwhile, marijuana dispensaries have both a branding problem (lacking legitimacy) and a lobbying problem (inability to organize), both of which unions can be of great help.

Another seemingly contradictory aspect of this situation is that labor is courting business owners, as opposed to fighting them. The simple explanation is that unions need new blood, and marijuana dispensaries are a fairly easy industry to work with. True to their hippy stereotype, trust-busting is not really something most dispensary owners are all that interested in. Plus, hundreds of thousands of new (labor) jobs, and billions of dollars, could be added to this industry in the next decade if legalization continues to reach new states and the federal government gives in on the issue. That’s a lot of new union dues to collect.

It is worth noting that not every marijuana dispensary is behind this collaboration. Colorado’s shops tend to match the entrepreneurial and individual spirit of the state. Their pot distributors tend to be more libertarian in nature, and often reject the UFCW out of concerns about their fragile financial situation.

Of course, this whole situation hinges on marijuana distributors thirsting for the legitimacy that unions have to offer. What happens in the future, if or when these distributors earn that legitimacy on their own, and more legitimate bottom-line businessmen join the industry? This relationship could sour (or, can I say, go up in smoke?) very quickly.

But, for now, pot seems to have found a very valuable ally. Am I wrong? Tell me in the comments.