Supervisor Proposes Labor Overhaul for Cannabis Industry

District 11’s Ahsha Safai believes organized labor is a missing ingredient for local weed merchants.

Ever since California’s recreational-cannabis industry launched this year, there’s been plenty to talk about. From profiles on budding entrepreneurs to scientific primers extolling the virtues of terpenes, the breadth of potential narratives has, at times, felt staggering. Whether your interest lies in economics, the environment, social justice, or health, the cannabis industry has something to entice you.

However, San Francisco District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai feels there’s one group that has yet to receive their due focus: workers.

“We’re talking about the entrepreneurs and the business owners,” Safai says, “but there’s this whole contingent of people that will actually be doing the work: the cultivation, selling, delivering, and moving. They’re going to be cogs in the engine that make the cannabis industry work.”

Anyone familiar with Safai’s background won’t be surprised to learn he’s adopted the cause of bringing a new, trained workforce into the marijuana trade. Before his current tenure, he served in leadership capacities for both the janitors’ local and the Service Employees International Union. Now Safai sees a similar opportunity to help improve what he’s characterized as a lack of “well-trained, local, certified people” available to join the rapidly expanding cannabis industry.

His solution is CityGrow, a program that would provide job training to disadvantaged residents in areas like cultivation, retail, delivery, and warehouse work. The concept is inspired by CityBuild — a program run by the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development that offers similar training for jobs in the construction field.

At present, San Francisco regulations require any cannabis businesses with 10 or more employees to have a collective bargaining or Labor Peace Agreement in place. But under Safai’s plan, cannabis businesses would be required to hire 35 percent of their work force from a pool of apprenticeship graduates.

Noting that part of his legislation also calls for the creation of local pre-apprenticeship programs, Safai sees the work being done at the state level to create certified apprenticeship programs in the cannabis field as an opportunity for CityGrow to serve as a local complement.

“We want to create a parallel infrastructure,” he says. “It would be a pipeline for people to benefit from what’s happening at the state level.”

In essence, qualified individuals would complete a pre-apprenticeship program overseen by San Francisco before entering into a full apprenticeship managed by California’s Department of Industrial Relations. Upon graduating, they would then be eligible to work for local cannabis businesses, as part of the mandated 35-percent quota.

As equity programs in San Francisco and Oakland weather scrutiny over whether they can, in fact, help those most disenfranchised by cannabis prohibition, Safai’s plan offers another — and perhaps more viable — option.

“We want to have the state-certified apprenticeship program working in partnership with our local pre-apprenticeship program,” he says. “We would then work together to create a well-trained and qualified workforce. That means people staying on the job longer, being better trained — and in less time — and getting into positions that aren’t entry-level, minimum-wage jobs. It’s something that would provide security and growth for everybody — no pun intended.”

While at the moment, there are currently no state-sponsored cannabis apprenticeship programs in place, Safai believes that a few will be starting “very soon.”

In all likelihood, the biggest roadblock Safai faces is earning the support of the local industry, which has become vocal in demanding a chance to get up to speed with current regulations before becoming saddled with more. During the public commentary portion of a June committee meeting for Sup. Sandra Fewer’s proposed cannabis commission, numerous speakers emphasized this point. However, Safai says he’s spoken with people who have expressed enthusiasm for a CityGrow program.

“From early conversations I’ve had with folks in the industry, they welcome this opportunity to have a well-trained work force,” he says.

While it remains to be seen if any in the industry will ultimately voice opposition, Safai emphasizes that he intends to ensure all voices are heard in the ensuing process to finalize the legislation over the coming months.

“We’re going to craft this,” he explains. “This is not going to be rushed. We’re sitting down with the industry and we’re talking to other folks in organized labor, whether it’s the United Food & Commercial Workers, the laborers in agriculture and cultivation, Teamsters who work with delivery, or the longshoremen who do warehouse work. There are many different opportunities here. We want to do this in partnership with the industry, for sure.”

Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly. |  @zackruskin

Related Stories