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Big labor sees growth potential in California pot workers

GOSHEN, Calif. (AP) — Unions have caught a whiff of a rare opportunity to organize a whole new set of workers as recreational marijuana becomes legal in California.

The United Farm Workers, Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers are looking to unionize the tens of thousands of potential workers involved in the legal weed game, from planters to rollers to sellers. The move could provide a boost to organized labor's lagging membership — if infighting doesn't get in the way.

The United Farm Workers, co-founded by iconic labor leader Cesar Chavez, says organizing an industry rooted in agriculture is a natural fit, and growers could label their products with the union's logo as a marketing strategy.

"If you're a cannabis worker, the UFW wants to talk with you," national vice president Armando Elenes said.

But United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents grocery store employees, meat packers and retail workers, registered its intent to organize cannabis workers across the country.

"We would hope they respect our jurisdiction," UFCW spokesman Jeff Ferro said.

Teamsters organizer Kristin Heidelbach said there's no need for unions to battle each other. There will be plenty of workers needing representation as small cannabis businesses run by "happy stoner" types give way to large pharmaceutical corporations, she said.

The green rush that begins in 2018 is an opportunity for unions to regain influence that began declining in the late 1950s, said David Zonderman, a professor of labor history at North Carolina State University. But discord between unions could upend it. As could resistance from cannabis business leaders.

"Are they going to be new-age and cool with it," Zonderman said, "or like other businesspeople, say, 'Heck, no. We're going to fight them tooth and nail?'"

Last year, California voters approved sales of recreational marijuana to those 21 and older at licensed shops beginning Jan. 1.

Cannabis in California already is a $22 billion industry, including medical marijuana and a black market that accounts for most of that total, according to University of California, Davis, agriculture economist Philip Martin. Medical marijuana has been legal since 1996, when California was the first state to approve such a law.

Labor leaders estimate recreational pot in California could employ at least 100,000 workers from the north coast to the Sierra Nevada foothills and the San Joaquin Valley, harvesting and trimming the plants, extracting ingredients to put in liquids and edibles, and driving it to stores and front doors.

Other pot workers have organized in other states, but California should be especially friendly territory for unions, said Jamie Schau, a senior analyst with Brightfield Group, which does marketing analysis on the marijuana industry.

The state has one of the nation's highest minimum wages and the largest number of unionized workers across industries. Its laws also tend to favor employees.

At least some workers say they're open to unions.

"I'm always down to listen to what could be a good deal for me and my family," said Thomas Grier, 44, standing behind the counter at Canna Can Help Inc., a dispensary in the Central Valley community of Goshen.

The dispensary — with $7 million in yearly sales — sells medical marijuana.

Called a "bud tender," Grier recently waited on a steady flow of regular customers walking through the door to pick out their favorite strain.

He said so far, no unions have contacted him. Grier gets along with his boss and said he doesn't want to pay union dues for help ironing out workplace disputes. But he hasn't discounted the possibility of joining.

After recently entering the marijuana industry, Los Angeles resident Richard Rodriguez said one sticky traffic stop three months ago converted him into a "hard core" Teamster. He'd never been in a union until this year.

Rodriguez said an officer pulled him over delivering a legal shipment of pot and detained him for 12 hours as he was accused of following too closely behind a semi-truck.

A union lawyer stepped in, and Rodriguez said he was released without being arrested or given a ticket.

"Most companies can't or are unwilling to do that," he said, "because employees are easily replaced."


Local
Tachi Palace community breakfast helps Valley Animal Haven

LEMOORE — Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino recently hosted its December community breakfast and presented a check for $3,700 to Valley Animal Haven, a nonprofit, no-kill animal shelter in Lemoore that helps save the lives of helpless and homeless animals.

More than 350 people attended the breakfast, raising a total of $1,850 at the door. Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino and the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tribe matched the amount for a total donation of $3,700.

Tachi Palace general manager Willie Barrios was on hand to present the check to Pam Brasil, executive director of Valley Animal Haven.

Brasil said receiving the donation was “tremendous”, especially because Valley Animal Haven runs on donations and fundraisers only and every dollar matters.

“It was my dream to open a shelter to assist animals, and it is generous donations such as this that have helped make that dream a reality” Brasil said. “We will use this money to purchase food, pet supplies and cleaning products, and help the countless animals that are in need.”

Catherine Montoya, advertising manager at Tachi Palace, said the community breakfasts have been going on for over two decades.

Montoya said the purpose of the breakfasts is for the community to get together, network and share what is going on with their businesses, all while helping a local nonprofit organization. Attendees are encouraged to make a minimum donation of $5 to attend the breakfast.

The breakfast features a buffet and all contributions benefit a featured organization. Montoya said Tachi collects requests all year long and at the end of the year a donation committee reviews the requests and selects which organizations are helped.

The breakfasts usually have 400 attendees and Montoya said anyone can attend them.

Valley Animal Haven was the recipient of a donation from a community breakfast last December, and Brasil said both events have been the shelter’s largest fundraisers the last two years.

She said she is glad the shelter has community partners all around and is appreciative of the help. In fact, Valley Animal Haven also received blankets from a blanket drive at Meadow Lane Elementary School in Lemoore this year.

“It’s wonderful, especially for the winter,” Brasil said. “We use every single piece.”

Brasil said the dog kennels are now triple-insulated and there were even some leftover to put on the cold concrete outside and inside with the cats.

The next community breakfast will be held Jan. 26, and will benefit United Health Centers. For more information, visit tachipalace.com.


National
AP
Trump celebrates Christmas like most of America, with family

PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Donald Trump is celebrating Christmas the way millions of Americans do: surrounded by family, the White House said.

But unlike most Americans, he released a brief video in which his wife, Melania, joined him to "wish America and the entire world a very Merry Christmas."

The first lady says that at this time of year "we see the best of America and the soul of the American people" in children packing boxes to help brighten Christmas for service members and communities coming together to help one another.

"In this season of joy, we spend time with our families, we renew our bonds of love and goodwill between our citizens and, most importantly, we celebrate the miracle of Christmas," Trump said, noting the story of Jesus' birth.

"This good news is the greatest Christmas gift of all, the reason for our joy and the true source of our hope," the president said.

Trump is spending his first Christmas in office at his estate and private club in Palm Beach, Florida. The White House did not say which family members are with him at Mar-a-Lago, but the first lady and their son, Barron, arrived days before he joined them last Friday.

Trump's daughter, Tiffany Trump, was seen getting off of Air Force One in Florida on Friday, and Donald Trump Jr. shared on social media photos of some of his five children at Christmas Eve dinner with their grandfather.

For Christmas Day dinner, the family had five desserts to choose from: piña colada crème brulée, cheesecake, black forest trifle martini, bread pudding and, of course, Trump chocolate cake.

The holiday menu began with another signature dish, Mr. Trump's wedge salad, the first of four salad or soup options. For an entree, there was turkey, char crusted filet mignon and seared foie gras, braised short ribs, pan seared seabass or diver scallops.

But the day was not without work. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president had been briefed on Monday's suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed at least six people.

Heading into the holiday, Trump took note of those he considers naughty (a top FBI official, the news media) and nice (U.S. troops stationed overseas and their families, kids eagerly awaiting Santa's arrival). He also squeezed in time for golf, time with family and time for church.

"Merry Christmas," Trump said Sunday night as he and the first lady arrived for a Christmas Eve service at the Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, where congregants welcomed them with a standing ovation. The Trumps wed at the church in 2005.

Trump also sought to cheer U.S. troops who are spending the holiday away from their own families.

"Every American heart is thankful to you and we're asking God to watch over you and to watch over your families," he told Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard members via video hook-up from his estate.

Trump opened Christmas Eve by tweeting against those he feels don't support him, including FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and the news media.

After playing golf at his private club in neighboring West Palm Beach, the president joined his wife to field calls from children eager to know when Santa Claus would come to town. The calls came by way of a Santa tracking program run for more than 60 years by NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

Trump ate Christmas Eve dinner with family before heading to church.


Legal pot in California brings host of environmental rules

SACRAMENTO (AP) — At a state briefing on environmental rules that await growers entering California's soon-to-be-legal marijuana trade, organic farmers Ulysses Anthony, Tracy Sullivan and Adam Mernit listened intently, eager to make their humble cannabis plot a model of sustainable agriculture in a notoriously destructive industry dominated by the black market.

In line with a 2017 study that found marijuana grows are more damaging, plot for plot, than commercial logging in Northern California forests, Anthony said he has seen too many destructive grows. Trash-strewn clearings. Growers heaping fertilizer at the foot of a centuries-old sequoia tree, needlessly endangering it. Wild streams diverted for irrigation.

"It really bothers me when I see some of the other operations, the treatment of the land," he said.

He came from Northern California's remote Lake County with his two business partners for the state-run seminar on just some of the water regulations pot growers must follow when California — the United States' biggest economy, and biggest producer by far in the underground U.S. cannabis market — legalizes recreational marijuana for licensed and permitted growers and sellers in the New Year.

Complying with water laws alone would mean daily record-keeping, permit applications, inspections and more, state officials said. The three growers took in the volume of new environmental rules but were confident they could comply and be ready to go legal with their 1-acre farm, said Sullivan, sitting between her two male business partners.

"Oh, yeah, it'll be possible," she said. "It'll just be a longer road" than they expected.

Hopes are that legalization will help rein in environmental damage from black-market grows, much of it in Northern California old-growth forests. But early signs are that only a fraction of growers are applying for permits immediately as recreational marijuana becomes legal here.

At the briefing earlier this month, state regulators and consultants hoping to do business with pot farmers notably outnumbered the growers. Rachel Begonia of West Sacramento, one of those consultants, wondered aloud: Where were all the other cannabis growers scrambling to comply with environmental requirements?

As legalization and all of its environmental oversight for farmers who go legal approach in just a few weeks, "either they've got it in the bag, or they're going to try to fly under the radar," Begonia figured.

It's impossible to know exactly how many growers statewide are planning to go legal, two years after Californians voted to legalize recreational marijuana starting in 2018.

California's agriculture department just started accepting applications from growers this week, agency spokesman Steve Lyle said. By midweek, it had received fewer than 200 such applications and approved four, Lyle said.

In Northern California's remote and forested Humboldt County, where an estimated 15,000 pot farmers grow illicitly now on private lands or in so-called trespass grows on tribal lands and publicly held forests, only 2,300 have applied for the required local growing permits, officials say. Humboldt County anchors a swath of California forests known as the Emerald Triangle, estimated to produce almost two-thirds of U.S. cannabis.

Mourad Gabriel, a wildlife biologist in Humboldt County, has spent years documenting and sounding alarms over the damage that black-market marijuana grows wreak in California's sloping old-growth forests and virgin streams.

A container of pesticide exploded in his face at one grow site, Gabriel said. All of the so-called trespass grows Gabriel has inspected have featured illegal diversions of water and some kind of toxic substances, he said.

That's often in the form of old soda or water bottles refilled with widely banned poisons, such as carbofuran, and used to keep bugs or rodents from gnawing on drip irrigation lines or plants.

He and colleagues conducted some of the first surveys of lethal poisoning of significant numbers of California's few hundred remaining fishers, a threatened carnivore. Overall, chemicals at grow sites threaten wildlife ranging from owls to bears to elk, Gabriel said.

He's skeptical California is bringing strong enough enforcement to bear on environmental infractions.

Even if half its growers decide to go legal, California will still have numerous pot farms that flout the rules, Gabriel said. "If even a fraction have pesticide and water use ... that's a concern. A definite concern."

California's Department of Pesticide Regulation is adding about 10 toxicologists and other scientists to its staff of 400 to deal with the pot industry, said Jesse Cuevas, assistant director of programs. "It's not too often we get a multibillion-dollar industry regulated overnight," Cuevas said.

Since marijuana remains illegal under federal law and California's list of allowed bug, mold and rat killers is tied to federal law, no conventional poisons are specifically approved for California cannabis growers. Pot farmers will be allowed only a limited number of conventional pesticides and those associated with organic farming such as cinnamon oil, citronella or traps.

Cannabis sold legally in the state must be tested first for pesticides and other dangers.

California's wildlife department has added about 100 law enforcement officers, scientists and others to deal with the marijuana industry, said Nathaniel Arnold, a deputy chief of law enforcement for the agency.

State and local water boards are adding just under 100 staffers to deal with the industry's water problems, which include contaminating and destroying waterways, said Clint Snyder, assistant executive officer of one regional water board.

Snyder expects many in the black market to wait and see how things go for the first legal growers, like the Lake County business partners.

Ideally, as in the years after Prohibition, trust and market forces will bring growers out of their hideouts in vulnerable hills and forests, and onto the valley floors with the rest of California's farmers.

"The current status quo is unacceptable, and it's very damaging to the environment," Cuevas said. "Any step to regulate the industry is a step in the right direction."