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Medical Marijuana Workers Have The Same Labor Rights As Everyone Else, Feds Say (UPDATE)

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A jar full of the cannabis strain GT Dragon. | The Washington Post via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The next time a pot shop gets a visit from the feds, it won't necessarily be from drug enforcement agents looking to shut the operation down. It might just come from workplace regulators making sure that labor laws are being followed. Such is the federal government's deeply conflicted approach to marijuana these days.

The National Labor Relations Board has already waded into a union organizing campaign at a medical marijuana dispensary in Maine, even though the industry itself remains at odds with federal law.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) has accused the company, Wellness Connection of Maine, of committing various unfair labor practices, including unlawfully disciplining and questioning pro-union employees. The labor board has notified the company that it found merit in some of the claims and will pursue a complaint if the company can't hash out a settlement with the union. (See update about the settlement below.)

Organized labor has a significant presence in the medical marijuana industry, with the UFCW representing thousands of workers in six states and the District of Columbia. But union officials believe the Maine case is the first instance of the labor board directly intervening to protect workers' rights under federal law. Unlike at least 20 states and D.C., the federal government still doesn't sanction the sale or distribution of medical marijuana, even if it usually turns a blind eye toward the industry in states where it's legal.

Evan Yeats, a UFCW spokesman, said he believes the case underscores both the "normalization" of the medical marijuana industry and the need for more worker representation in it.

"A lot of people treat the medical marijuana industry as something special, but these are normal workers with normal jobs trying to care for their families and their patients and make their businesses successful," Yeats said. "There needs to be some way for workers' voices to ensure that the best operators are representing this industry."

Matthew J. LaMourie, a lawyer for Wellness Connection of Maine, said the company was working with labor board officials to come to a resolution of the union's claims.

"I'm optimistic we can settle the remaining charges that are pending before the labor board," LaMourie said. "There hasn't been a settlement yet, but we are confident we'll reach one."

An independent federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board serves as a referee between employers and unions. When a party files claims of unfair labor practices, the board investigates and either finds merit in them or dismisses them (most are withdrawn or thrown out). In cases where the board substantiates the claims, it will encourage the parties to reach a settlement. In the relatively rare cases where the parties can't come to an agreement, the board's counsel will begin what amounts to a civil prosecution, as it recently did against Walmart.

The remedies reached in a settlement can run the gamut from significant, like reinstating fired workers, to relatively minor, like posting a notice in the workplace acknowledging that labor law violations occurred. It isn't clear yet which of the union's claims the board would pursue against Wellness Connection of Maine if settlement talks failed.

Among the charges filed, the UFCW claimed that the company issued "disciplinary warnings" to several employees after they engaged in legally protected organizing. The union also charged that the company "unlawfully interrogated" employees and "created the impression amongst its employees that their union activities were under surveillance."

Wellness Connection of Maine operates four dispensaries and a marijuana-growing facility, making it the largest medical marijuana operation in the state. The group's executive director, Rebecca DeKeuster, came out of the same industry in California, where she helped lead the Berkeley Patients Group and sat on the Berkeley Medical Cannabis Commission, according to Berkeleyside.com. DeKeuster has been embroiled in a lawsuit with former California business associates who accused her of breaching a contract through her work in Maine, the site reported. (DeKeuster referred questions from HuffPost to LaMourie.)

Last year, an investigation by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services found that Wellness Connection had used pesticides on marijuana plants in violation of state regulations. It also found that the company "lacked proper security and sold an illegal marijuana derivative," the Portland Press-Herald reported. Wellness Connection was fined $18,000 by the state's pesticide control board last summer. Since then, the state has passed a law allowing the use of some low-level pesticides on marijuana.

Ian Brodie, a former employee of Wellness Connection, said he took part in a walkout with other employees last year at the company's cultivation site in Auburn, Maine. According to Brodie, their grievances stemmed from the lack of sterility at the facility, which he said was often under construction, and the presence of pesticides and mold. Despite a series of meetings with management, Brodie said, many of the workers' complaints went unaddressed, convincing him of the need for a union.

"It was about the money and not the all-around better health," said Brodie, adding that he's a committed believer in the medicinal value of marijuana. "They wanted the dollar, and we wanted the best product, giving patients the best we could. The cause got lost in the wash, which is really unfortunate."

Brodie said he was hired in November 2012 and quit in March 2013 out of frustration with management. He testified to the labor board in support of the UFCW's unfair labor practice claims against the company.

Medical marijuana employees are a logical organizing target for the 1.3 million-member UFCW, which represents workers in grocery and retail stores and food-processing and meat-packing facilities around the country. The union views medical marijuana work as little different from the retail and pharmacy industries on the ground level, while the progressive disposition of many pot workers and businesses makes them more amenable to the idea of unionizing.

Workers at Wellness Connection haven't yet had a union election. If the UFCW were to win, the medical marijuana company would be its first unionized facility in Maine.

UPDATE: Feb. 27 -- According to LaMourie, Wellness Connection of Maine has settled the charges with the labor board, and no complaint will be issued by the agency. The company said in a statement:

Wellness Connection of Maine (WCM) is pleased to announce that the framework for a settlement has been mutually agreed to between WCM and the National Labor Relations Board, concerning a remaining set of unfair labor practice charges raised by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). This follows the union's withdrawal of several other charges originally filed with the Board in 2013.

Wellness Connection of Maine looks forward to working together with its employees to continue providing the best patient care possible.

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