Cannabis Employees Don’t Always Know Their Workplace is Illegal — Until It’s Too Late

They may look legitimate, but 1 in 5 Los Angeles cannabis dispensaries is operating without a license. Employees or security guards assigned to these locations don’t always know it and that puts these innocent bystanders in a legal bind. With the country looking poised to embrace legal cannabis on a national scale, it’s a problem that could eventually get much, much bigger.

In 2018, Los Angeles finally began issuing marijuana business licenses to a select few, in a complex process with high barriers to entry. Most shops were unable to make the transition, but they stayed open anyway. And by now, the public was tuned out. Even the largest local newspaper had lost the thread; in February 2018, the LA Times directed readers looking for legal weed to a website that listed licensed and unlicensed dispensaries together, undifferentiated. California Governor Gavin Newsom’s senior cannabis adviser Nicole Elliott told me a year ago, “I’ve secret-shopped in LA myself, and I can understand how it can be exceptionally challenging for consumers to know if a dispensary is legal or illegal.” — POLITICO

POLITICO spoke to Kelvin, a former security guard at one of the unlicensed shops in Los Angeles. He was caught up in a raid one day and arrested at the scene. He had no idea the place he was working for — where he was assigned through a security firm — had been operating illegally. The arrest upended Kelvin’s life.

Criminal defense attorney Nicole Costen noted that the marijuana industry is treated differently in this regard.

“Let’s say code enforcement goes into a restaurant doing a random repeat inspection, and they find all kinds of code violations,” she said. “They might shut the restaurant down and fine the owner, but they don’t go and charge the bartender and the waitress.”

The arrests at illicit cannabis dispensaries disproportionately impact Black and Latino workers, exacerbating the social and racial inequalities that legalization aims to address. At the dispensary where Kelvin worked, for instance, all of the existing dispensaries are unlicensed. The neighborhood is around 40% Black and 56% Latino, POLITICO says.

The dichotomy is something to think about as Congress works on cannabis legislation. This is a blind spot in Los Angeles. Experts warn, don’t take it nationwide.



Sunday, May 2, 2021 - 07:00

The momentum for cannabis liberalization drums along, but it doesn’t come cheap. In addition to grassroots efforts, millions in lobbying dollars have been spent to affect policy change.