The parking lot of the River City Phoenix medical cannabis dispensary was jammed last Thursday. As marijuana workers directed traffic, a line of patients stretched out the door of the North Sacramento outlet in a funky industrial neighborhood.
Unlike people who show up at cannabis festivals such as the Emerald Cup — young and looking for a good high — these marijuana seekers were indistinguishable from the folks you see in line every day at the grocery store.
Some were youngish, but many were middle-aged and elderly. Some looked pretty sick as they waited to get into the dispensary, which grosses $16 million a year in sales despite being crammed into only 1,700 square feet.
Everyone still had to show a medical marijuana card to get in; even though California voters legalized recreational cannabis last November, the new rules don’t kick in until 2018. Until then, unless you grow your own, you must have a doctor’s recommendation to buy.
Like many around the state, River City Phoenix celebrated the occasion by offering treats to its patients: vouchers for pizza and tacos from food trucks outside and a goodie bag with a prerolled joint, a gram of bud and an edible sample or two. (Next to cosmetics, cannabis is the most sample crazy industry I’ve ever seen. Some pot lovers even treat 4/20 like Halloween, roaming around from dispensary to dispensary, collecting freebies.)
“Have a great 4/20!” as marijuana workers cheerfully told a young woman who was buying a rainbow-colored Rice Krispies square.
Just as the high-end coffee culture gave us the “barista,” so has the booming marijuana trade given us a the “budtender,” the dispensary equivalent of the pharmacy technician.
“If a new patient came in, I would definitely ask what kind of effect you were looking for. Do you want something to relax at the end of the day? Are you suffering from joint pain, back pain, headaches?” said Shayna Schonauer, 27, who began working as a budtender at River City Phoenix almost five years ago.
Last month, Schonauer became California’s first official cannabis pharmacy technician. She completed 2,000 hours of training — on safety, packaging, patient verification and best business practices — and was awarded her journeyman certificate by the California Apprenticeship Council of the state department of Industrial Relations. Another 35 enrollees in the Sacramento-area pilot program are still working toward their certificates. The program was spearheaded by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 1.3 million members and began reaching out to marijuana workers about four years ago.
“This is an exciting time,” said Jeff Ferro, director of the UFCW’s’ Cannabis Workers Rising campaign.
He envisions apprenticeship programs covering every part of the cannabis industry “from seed to sale.” He is working with educational institutions like City College of San Francisco to create a cannabis apprenticeship curriculum that could be a model for other parts of the industry.
(Dispensaries do not have to be unionized to participate.)
In addition to creating a more standardized workforce, Ferro said, apprenticeships will help level the playing field for the folks who have been penalized the most by the failed war on drugs. “This will be an opportunity for people of color to really thrive, because it’s the skills that will get you there, not your gender or color,” he said.
The apprenticeship program is yet another measure of how cannabis is professionalizing at a breakneck pace.
Another sign: the unionization of the cannabis workforce. The UFCW, which represents workers at River City Phoenix, has organized thousands of them in eight states.
Unlike many employers who want to run screaming when they hear a union is sniffing around their workers, River City Phoenix actually invited the union in.
“I had a real fear I was going to get hauled off to jail,” said David Spradling, an engaging 36-year-old who owns the River City Phoenix dispensary with Mark Pelter, 68, a serene former Buddhist monk who got his start in cannabis years ago as a seasonal worker, or “trimmigrant,” in Mendocino County.
“I reached out to the union because I wanted to solidify my staff wages and benefits, so if I was arrested or had to sell, the people I employed would be secure,” Spradling said.