Just before the end of May, lawmakers were poised to finally send Gov. Phil Murphy a measure expanding the state’s medical marijuana program. But the measure, Assembly Bill 10, hit yet another stumbling block: an amendment added in last minute, which legislative leaders attributed to a “drafting error.”
The amendment – which gives workers at medical marijuana alternative treatment centers more of an ability to unionize – was passed through an “emergency vote” at the May 30 Senate session, it’s path to the governor’s desk was delayed for nearly another two weeks until the June 10 Assembly voting session.
Lawmakers and cannabis industry insiders both said that the proposal was not new and had been months in the making. Nonetheless, it was not officially added into the legislation until late in the game.
The amendment requires ATCs to submit proof that they have signed and continue to honor labor peace agreements with labor organizations. The six existing ATCs would have 100 days from the bill’s enactment to produce such an agreement. Businesses that cannot furnish the necessary documentation could have their ATC permits suspended or revoked.
That determination would fall to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which A10 tasks with regulating the state’s expanded medical marijuana program and potentially the recreational cannabis industry if adult-use marijuana becomes legal in New Jersey.
Of the six ATCs, the Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge is the only one whose workers are unionized.
The United Food and Commercial Workers pushed for the inclusion of the labor union provision for months, explained representative Hugh Giordano.
A bona fide labor peace agreement does not require an entity to hire union labor. Rather, it sets standards for workers to efficiently join a union if they so choose.
“Say if we were organizing MedMen,“ Giordano said. “We’d be able to come in with the workers and sign them up for the union, and then we would be able to come in and collectively bargain for wages, benefits and safety requirements. And they would have a grievance procedure which is the biggest difference [from not being in a union]. If they have an issue on the job, instead of hoping that human resources will just take care of it, they’ll have a union rep to back them up.”
A history of representation
The UFCW has been involved in representing workers in the cannabis industry since California legalized medical cannabis in the 1990s. The union started a campaign called Cannabis Workers Rising in 2010, and now represents tens of thousands of cannabis workers in multiple states, according to its website.
Sen. Joe Vitale, D-19th District, one of the main sponsors of the medical marijuana legislation, said the A10 provision simply requires dispensaries to “consider opening their membership or their employees to organized labor.”
The Murphy administration’s application for six new ATCs – which would be in addition to the six existing centers – awarded points on its application scoring system to applicants providing a signed labor peace agreement “to ensure the cultivation, manufacturing and dispensing of medical cannabis will not be disrupted by labor-related disputes.”
“It’s a new industry and you want to have people” protected, said Tara Sargente, executive director at the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association and owner of the edibles company Blazin’ Bakery. “As long as it’s a level playing field and it’s a requirement, then no one could really say it’s a disadvantage.”
A labor peace agreement and potential unionization would mean better working conditions and pay for workers at any of the state’s ATCs, Sargente added.
“We believe that cannabis workers are truly tradesmen and tradeswomen. They should be treated just like electrical workers, not making minimum wage or without the protection of a grievance procedure,” Giordano said.
But the labor peace agreement provision, despite being part of the debate for months, still struck some industry insiders as odd.
“It’s certainly encouraging union labor, which is unusual. Now what is also unusual about this is that we’re creating an industry from scratch,” said one person close to the discussions, who requested anonymity to speak freely on the matter.
“In New Jersey, we don’t have some people in a union and some people out of a union. It’s probably going to be once the workplace is organized, you’re much like a teacher, you may not be part of a union, but you’re paying union dues,” this person added.
Still, with New Jersey essentially a “union state,” the provision did not come as a surprise, according to another person close to the discussions, who also requested anonymity to speak freely.
“It didn’t seem that curious that there’s a pro-labor position,” this second person added.
“The Republicans gave an emergency [vote] to get this bill done. No talk of taking the [medicinal cannabis] tax out, what did happen is the expungement bills got held,” this person explained, describing the process by which the bill cleared the Senate. “They got Republicans to vote for a bill that still has a tax in it. You heard all the railing on the floor about the tax before. They amended in this labor piece, it just sort of came out of nowhere, a drafting error or whatever it was.”
In fact, while the legislation initially called for phasing out the sales tax on medical marijuana sales over the next five years, the latest version calls for keeping the tax for cannabis purchases until it is eliminated in January 2025.
Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-13th District, who ultimately voted in favor of A10 and its amendments on May 30, said he was still uneasy about the amendments, but did not want to hold up the legislation.
“The peace agreement is a requirement, hiring union labor is not, why would any union sign something” otherwise, O’Scanlon asked. “What if you decide non-union labor and no labor entity will sign an agreement? Does that mean you can’t open?”
Statehouse back and forth
After the May 30 vote in the Senate, the Murphy administration pushed ahead with its own expansion plans.
On June 3, the Department of Health unveiled plans to accept applications for 108 additional medical marijuana businesses, broken down into 24 licenses for cultivation, 30 for manufacturing and 54 for dispensaries. They would be split among 38 licenses each in Northern and Central New Jersey, with 32 licenses in Southern New Jersey.
The existing six ATCs serve approximately 47,500 patients, up from 17,000 when Murphy took office due to the addition of eligible medical conditions.
Murphy, at a press conference on June 3, offered assurances that his expansion would not be “at odds” with the program expansion outlined in A10.
That stance faces opposition from legislative leaders, and runs counter to a provision in A10 that would cap the total number of medicinal cannabis alternative treatment centers at 23 for the first 18 months, including the existing six ATCs and the six more the Murphy administration is adding.
“These aren’t necessarily either-or propositions … it’s not at odds necessarily,” Murphy said.
But Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, shot back, saying in a statement that the governor’s “immediate and uncontrolled expansion” could “be destructive to what is a newly-expanding marketplace.”
“The legislation calls for the oversight board to use its expertise in deciding how to increase the number of facilities to best serve consumers and their medical needs,” Sweeney said in a statement. “The governor shouldn’t be ignoring what is a good plan and he shouldn’t be ignoring the agreement he has with the Legislature. That’s a bad practice and is becoming a bad habit of his.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, reiterated that he was “disappointed” by the governor’s June 3 expansion announcement.
“For over a year, the Legislature has worked tirelessly with this administration in an effort to create a responsible and accessible medicinal cannabis market,” Coughlin said in a statement that evening.
Sweeney argued that “everything we put in the bill was agreed upon, we moved components of the adult-use into the medical use, like the commission, but all the things that were moved into the medical bill are things the administration agreed to.”
The governor’s office responded that there was no agreement in place on the current legislation.
“Patients cannot continue to wait for access to life-changing medical treatment, and [the June 3] announcement is an important step toward ensuring sustainable and affordable access,” said Alyana Alfaro, a spokesperson for the governor. “The Department of Health is overseeing the expansion of the Medicinal Marijuana Program to ensure that it is done responsibly and in a way that puts the needs of patients first.”