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When Massachusetts lawmakers rewrote the state’s marijuana laws in 2022, they focused largely on changing the legal cannabis industry. Now, it appears the emphasis will shift to consumers and workers.
In advance of a late-Friday deadline for filing bills, state legislators last week submitted dozens of marijuana-related measures, including proposals to ban employers from firing workers over flunked THC tests, make it easier to wipe away old marijuana-related criminal charges, and require licensed cannabis facilities to allow workers to vote on unionizing.
The labor legislation comes amid a reinvigorated effort by local chapters of the United Food and Commercial Workers union to organize workers in New England’s cannabis sector. It would essentially require marijuana facilities regulated by the state Cannabis Control Commission — such as cultivation and processing plants, as well as retail shops — to sign “labor peace” contracts. Under the contracts, employers would agree not to interfere with unionizing efforts in exchange for a promise that employees won’t strike.
Proponents say the bill — which echoes similar requirements in states such as New Jersey — would help create new middle-class jobs and ensure that a fair share of profits from the newly legal marijuana sector end up in the pockets of people from the low-income communities heavily targeted by police for drug arrests.
Ademola Oyefeso, the vice president in charge of UFCW’s legislative and political action department, said at a union event in Roxbury Friday that many cannabis employers are essentially offering “McDonald’s jobs” that pay only a little more than the minimum wage.
“When there’s over a billion dollars made [annually], everyone that works in the industry should have a full-time job, Oyefeso said. “They should be making enough that they can support their family, raise kids, go to good schools, get a vacation — that’s what the union’s about.”
Some marijuana companies, eager to be seen as responsible employers and local community members, have embraced unions. Others have fought strenuously against organizing efforts, though it remains unclear whether they will lobby against the new legislation.
The bill’s sponsor, state Senator Lydia Edwards, said in an interview that it would build on earlier state efforts to award recreational pot licenses on an equitable basis. She also said it would increase safety for workers in the industry, which is a growing concern after a worker at a Holyoke marijuana processing facility died last January from an asthma attack triggered by cannabis dust.
“Employees are going to be safer if they have a collective voice and are informed about their rights,” Edwards said in an interview. “They’re more likely to come forward if they see a safety issue and say, ‘This doesn’t seem right.’ That’s what unions do.”
Two other significant proposals, both co-sponsored by state Representative Chynah Tyler of Boston, could help workers regardless of whether they work in the marijuana business.
One would bar most employers from firing or declining to hire workers based on failed blood or urine tests for THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Critics have long complained that such tests, which show recent use but don’t indicate active impairment, can lead to workers getting fired on Monday morning for smoking a legal joint Friday night at home. The legislation, however, would grant employers an exception for workers who drive or operate other dangerous machinery, a concession to objections raised by industry groups.
The other bill co-sponsored by Tyler, who did not respond to a request for comment, would fast-track the process of expunging old marijuana arrests from criminal records, making it easier for former defendants to find employment and housing. A 2018 bill allowed some people previously convicted of cannabis possession to have those offenses wiped away, but a burdensome application process has prevented all but a small fraction of such charges from being cleared.
Tyler’s bill would direct probation department officials to immediately grant eligible requests, but Edwards and other progressives want to see the state do more, and automatically expunge old pot charges.
“There’s still this sense that someone needs to make a case for themselves,” Edwards said. “I find that deeply offensive. No one should be begging a court to have their record expunged for what’s happening legally right down the street at a dispensary.”
Separately, Governor Maura Healey told the Globe she is “evaluating the best course of action with her team” to implement a campaign promise to unilaterally pardon those with prior pot offenses in line with a request from President Joe Biden.
Other marijuana-related bills filed in advance of the legislature’s Friday deadline include measures that would ban billboard ads for recreational marijuana, exempt existing agreements between municipalities and cannabis operators from new limits on local fees, and steer 1 percent of state excise taxes on cannabis sales toward preventing youth substance abuse.
Lawmakers in 2023 will also revisit the question of whether Massachusetts should follow Oregon and some local municipalities in loosening restrictions on natural psychedelic compounds like psilocybin and mescaline, which are found in various species of mushrooms and cacti, respectively. Proponents say those psychedelics show promise in treating addiction and a wide variety of psychological ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder, while posing little risk to society. State Senator Patricia Jehlen and Representative Lindsay Sabadosa co-sponsored a bill that would decriminalize their use and possession but ban any commercial sales.