Pot farm workers at a weed farm in Chelan County.
Pot farm workers at a weed farm in Chelan County. Lester Black

Washington’s weed industry is breathing a sigh of relief. It looks like a proposed law that would have placed a new set of onerous, union-friendly labor laws on the industry has died in the legislature.

Washington’s weed companies were panicking last month after lawmakers in Olympia proposed legislation that would force business owners to follow a new set of strict labor standards or risk losing their weed licenses. But the potential new law failed to reach a key committee cutoff during this year’s short legislative session.

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Employers in the cannabis industry called the law "a stab in the back" and claimed it singled out their industry to follow a strict set of laws that wouldn’t apply to other industries, like breweries or restaurants.

That message was clearly heard in Olympia. One of the prime sponsors of the bill, Rep. Strom Peterson, a Democrat from Edmonds, told The Stranger in an interview last month that he would not be pushing the legislation forward this year.

“The industry’s response was a little more vociferous than I anticipated,” Peterson said. “I couldn’t really blame them for their reaction.”

Peterson said there was “a lot of legitimacy” to the industry’s belief that they were being unfairly singled out.

The House version of the bill failed to get a vote in Peterson’s Commerce and Gaming Committee, but a Senate version proposed by Sen. Steve Conway, a Democrat from Tacoma, made it further. That bill got out of the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee but failed to get a vote on the floor of the Senate before the legislature’s deadline. Conway declined to be interviewed for this story.

That means the bill is very unlikely to make it any further this year, although it could go further in next year’s legislative session.

The proposed law, HB 2361, would force Washington’s pot companies improve their working conditions—by earning 100 points on a grading system based on 20 different criteria—or have their pot licenses canceled. The criteria included items like establishing a workplace health and safety plan (worth 20 points), paying employees 150 percent of the state minimum wage (worth 20 points), and providing retirement benefits (worth 15 points).

But by far the largest point values were for having a unionized workforce governed by a collective bargaining agreement (worth 70 points) and signing a labor peace agreement with a union, a type of agreement in which the company agrees not to attempt to block unionization (worth 50 points).

The law was heavily lobbied for by one union, UFCW 21, which represents workers at one pot shop chain and is openly courting workers across the industry.

Cannabis employers said the grading system’s point weighting amounted to a government requirement that they have unionized workforces, essentially.

Marc Cote, a partner at Frank Freed Subit & Thomas in Seattle, one of the largest employee-rights law firms in the Northwest, said he had “never seen anything like” the proposed law.

“I’ve never seen a bill that tries to incentive employment protections by acquiring a certain number of points to get a license,” Cote said. “It’s unusual, so I could see how cannabis employers might feel unfairly singled out.”

Cote, who regularly represents employees in labor cases like wage theft and working conditions, said he has been contacted by employees in the cannabis industry regarding allegations of wage theft but he has yet to take any of their cases.

“The types of issues that I’m hearing are issues that I do hear about in many industries, but in the last year or two I have gotten more calls than I might expect from people who work at cannabis shops,” Cote said.

Both employers and employees in the cannabis industry questioned why pot shops and farms should be forced into following strict labor laws that are not forced on other businesses widely known to have poor working standards.

Stanford couldn’t come up with a reason for singling out the pot industry.

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“That’s an absolute, 100 percent legitimate question that I don’t have an answer to,” Stanford said. “I think they’re right to have workplace standards across the board. We have some other legislation to help home healthcare workers, so there are other industries that have issues that we really try to focus some legislation around, but I think in that broad question I think they raise a good point.”

Peterson said the law may get further in the legislature next year.

“So we’ve certainly started the conversation and I will continue to talk to people in the industry to see… what labor standards can we bring on the industry and what relief can we give you on the regulatory side to make that a little easier,” Petersen said.