potlede.jpgThough we’ve never been in one ourselves, we gather that joining a union isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: you have to pay dues, hold signs outside of drug stores, and often run afoul of politicians and mainstream media when the going gets tough. But union membership can also be a strategic masterstroke, and a magic pill to salve bad news. This appears to be the case for “cannabis college” Oaksterdam University, where organized labor and the burgeoning marijuana industry are converging for – we believe – the very first time.

Last week it was revealed that Tax Cannabis 2010 – the ballot measure and brainchild of Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee – was polling at a dangerously marginal 50 percent. But that was without the pledged support of organized labor, which is now on Oaksterdam’s side after 100 employees at the cannabis-centered business – which includes a cannabis dispensary and a plant nursery as well cultivation classes – turned in their union cards and joined Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, school and union officials confirmed Wednesday.

What’s this mean for labor, and for the medical cannabis movement? It means at least in the eyes of union organizers, medical marijuana is legitimate and it’s not going away any time soon (and any cannabis business would, of course, grow exponentially should adult recreational use be approved). UFCW won a major coup by securing the first-of-its-kind arrangement with Oaksterdam, which now can boast of connections and political clout it couldn’t just last week.

“It’s a very big deal,” said Mike Henneberry, communications director for Local 5’s Hayward office, the local shop for Oaksterdam, who said Oaksterdam’s newly-minted union members turned in their cards about three weeks ago, at a ceremony oversaw by Oakland City Council member Rebecca Kaplan.

“It’s the first organized medical cannabis operation – I believe – in the US or Canada, so it’s groundbreaking in that sense,” he said. Cannabis is also a growth industry, unlike automobile production or shipping, which means the union stands only to grow. “People [and other dispensaries] who wouldn’t even have thought about unionizing are now thinking about it.”

“And,” noted Henneberry, “we have a lot of political connections.”

That’s the real benefit, in particular for Tax Cannabis 2010, but also for would-be dispensary operators. Those operators can now organize prior to begging city councils or planning commissions for permits, bringing to the table a real stamp of legitimacy. And if Tax Cannabis 2010’s supporters – chief among whom is Lee, who has pumped close to $1.3 million of his own personal fortune into the ballot measure – can call in some favors in a close campaign?

“People who didn’t want to listen [to Tax Cannabis 2010] will now be forced to listen,” said Dale Sky Clare, Oaksterdam University’s executive chancellor. “People have confidence in unions.”

Whether this means that labor giants like SEIU will likewise support Tax Cannabis 2010 and campaign for its passage is as yet unclear. But it can’t hurt, and is surely a sign of things to come.

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