SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Once a symbol of American counterculture, cannabis is now a path to the American dream.
“We want anybody to be comfortable coming in here. We wanted to sort of break the stigma of the trap shop and really move more towards, anybody can come and be comfortable here and not feel like they're in a weed shop," says Breton Peace, co-owner and general counsel for March and Ash.
The San Diego-based cannabis dispensary opened its doors three years ago, the shelves lined with carefully curated products in sleek packaging.
“It’s wild. The company itself is a start-up. You have the normal ups and downs and challenges of being a new company," said Peace. “And then being in a new industry, the industry itself is a start-up."
Dispensaries like March and Ash show how far the industry’s come.
"We have banking now, but when we first opened, we had to line up 100 envelopes on the table twice a month."
They've since opened four locations and employ more than 350 workers. Four additional locations are also in the works.
"There's a lot of cannabis workers who believe in the product. They believe in the industry. A lot of well-educated workers that could be doing a lot of different things," said Peace.
He says more than a job, they're looking to grow careers in the industry.
"You’ve got to look behind the walls. In March and Ash, if you were to walk in the store, you have reception, security, concierge, fulfillment, delivery. But behind that, you have marketing, you have accounting, you have legal," said Peace. “It’s everything. It’s its own industry that has to run as a business."
Dispensary workers at March and Ash recently formed a union with UFCW Local 135, seeking job security, benefits, and legitimacy for their industry.
“Some people have family members who don't want them in the industry, but now it's saying, not only do I work for a company that people respect, March and Ash, but I work for a union," said Peace.
Local 135 represents workers in various industries, including grocery, retail, health care, casinos, and cannabis.
But the years-long process came with unique challenges, says Peace.
“It was square peg, round hole. They [union representatives] were taking models from like the grocery industry and just assuming cannabis workers would fit into that model. We have great respect for both industries, but cannabis is different," said Peace.
While Peace says he and his co-owners remained neutral throughout the process, they took time to build a relationship with the union in hopes of reaching an agreement.
“We talked openly about the industry, the problems, the upside, and what do the workers want. And we were able to sort of negotiate in that kind of dynamic," said Peace.
Maribel McKinze, union organizer and political director, negotiated on behalf of March and Ash workers.
“We were able to put committees together, groups from each location, asking them, 'what are some things that you would want to see on your contract?'" said McKinze.
She says child care was at the top of the list.
“Some of the things workers brought to our attention during COVID-19: there’s a lot of single parents," said McKinze.
Peace says this was a problem that management wanted to help solve.
"We have a lot of single-parent and co-parent arrangements in our workforce. We know that because early on, in custody disputes, one side would often use the fact that the other was in the cannabis industry to try and gain leverage in court. We would have to go as ownership and sort of destigmatize who we are in court and tell the judge this is a great employee with a great career, and we’re going to stand behind them," said Peace.
They've created a reimbursement fund for both child care and education.
“Child care was important. We think we found a nice way to not only solve it but route that economic benefit locally," said Peace. “As an employer, it’s a great investment. The issues and scheduling starts to even out."
The agreement also establishes an equity growth account to reinvest in workers, from cash bonuses to retirement programs.
"Traditional 401(K)s, like the unions, aren’t open to our workers because of cannabis," said Peace.
The contract also includes wage increases and paid time off for vacations, holidays, jury duty, and bereavement leave.
Union leaders say the contract sets the gold standard in the unionized cannabis industry and will serve as a model for future negotiations.
“We hope other employers will sit down and not be afraid of this. You don’t have to agree. You can ultimately disagree and not get to an agreement, but for us, it takes a big unknown off the table," said Peace.
He encourages owners to be transparent throughout the process and think outside the box.
"Don't take a model that somebody’s used for 50 years and say I’m going to use that," said Peace. "Be willing to tell the union we’re going to break that apart, and then do the hard work of creating something new.”