WHEAT RIDGE — Colorado medical marijuana dispensaries are looking to a boost in political clout after joining the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
The U.S. Justice Department has warned that marijuana dispensaries and licensed growers in states with medical marijuana laws could face prosecution for violating federal drug and money-laundering laws, which union members are vowing to fight.
Daniel J. Rush, a national marijuana dispensary organizer for the union, said dispensary owners are at war with the U.S. Justice Department in California over the issue, and he believes the unions can help them.
“They declared war on us, we didn’t declare war on them,” Rush said.
Dispensaries in Michigan, California, and Washington state also are seeking union backing.
Dispensary representatives said Monday that they believe medical marijuana is part of the retail health care, agriculture and food processing industry.
“Our union has over 100 years’ experience representing these very types of workers. We intend for our collective bargaining agreements to serve as a first line of regulation in the communities our members work in, and we are proud to do it,” said Kim Cordova, president of the UFCW Local 7.
The union chapter has about 25,000 members in Colorado and Wyoming representing grocery, pharmacy, agriculture workers, food processors, meat cutters, textile workers, and health care workers. It said that "a comprehensive cross section of hundreds of Colorado’s medical cannabis industry workers" have voted to join the union.
As of July, 16 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of marijuana, with programs in various phases of development.
Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, a medical marijuana patients’ group, said union backing sends a message that professional organizations are keeping the medical marijuana industry in place.
He said union support, including campaign and financial backing, could help get a constitutional amendment on the Colorado ballot next year that would regulate and tax recreational marijuana to raise money for schools.
Tanya Garduno, president of the Colorado Springs Medical Cannabis Council, said the unionization wouldn't have any immediate impact in Colorado Springs.
"At this point, in Colorado Springs and the surrounding areas outside of Denver, to our mom and pop shops it's not going to be a huge bonus to combine with a union," she said.
However, Garduno thought it was a partnership that could pay longer-term dividends for the industry.
"They have a lot of folks in Denver who are able to push things at a legislative level," she said. "Hopefuly, we'll be able to push some things through that mechansim and there'll be some benefit for the entire state. It's hard to get a lot of folks organized in one direction in this industry."
Steve Ackerman of the Organic Alternatives dispensary in Fort Collins said about 200 people working for 20 licenses marijuana businesses are counting on union support to fight a measure on the Nov. 1 ballot that would ban medical marijuana businesses in the city. If approved, the 20 licensed marijuana businesses in the city would have 90 days to shut down.
So far, opponents of the ban, including dispensary owners, have raised nearly eight times more money than ban supporters.
Marijuana dispensary advocates said the medical marijuana industry employs more than 8,000 workers and contributes millions of tax dollars to the Colorado economy.
Ray Martinez, who got the initiative on the ballot prohibiting marijuana dispensaries and grow operations, said Fort Collins has become a sanctuary city for medical marijuana and making them unionized won’t make them any more legitimate.
“Unions are about making money, and that’s what marijuana stores are about. They don’t care about the patients,” Martinez said.
Andrew Wineke of The Gazette contributed to this story.