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Lawmakers want an investigation and hearings into the “Wild West” case of California’s cannabis and farm business

Trying to cool off during a heat wave, Sabrina sits outside her trailer next to a cannabis field in Mendocino County. She and other migrant workers struggle to collect unpaid wages from a licensed farm. (Brian Van der Brugh / Los Angeles Times)
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California lawmakers are calling for a thorough investigation into corruption in the state’s cannabis industry, legislative hearings on the exploitation of farm workers, and new laws to thwart labor trafficking in response to revelations of rampant abuse and worker deaths in a growing multibillion-dollar market. Uncontrollable.

Proposals follow aTimes Investigative Series Last year showed that California’s legalization of recreational cannabis in 2016 spurred political corruption, exponential growth in illegal cultivation, and widespread labor exploitation. The Times found that wage theft was widespread and that many workers were subjected to appalling, sometimes fatal, conditions.

The official spokesperson for the state Industrial Relations Department She told The Times last week that the agency is examining the deaths of 32 cannabis farm workers — which were never reported to work safety regulators — revealed by the newspaper.

“We should be a little ashamed that we allowed this approach of skill to commercialize and legalize the cannabis industry,” said Sen. Dave Cortez, a San Jose Democrat who leads the Senate Labor Committee. Cortez called the California cannabis market the “Wild, Wild West”.

Senate Committee on Agriculture Chair Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) and Cortes said they are discussing an agenda for legislative hearings this spring on the plight of workers on all types of California farms. But abuse and exploitation were registered in the Times investigation, they said.legal cannabis, broken promises,It highlights the risks for those who work in the cannabis fields.

Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) said she intends to revive anti-trafficking legislation that was vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom and include a mechanism to ensure that the state Cannabis department Acts upon evidence of such crimes. The Times found that the agency failed to respond to worker complaints and even abuses exposed by its employees.

It’s important to act now, before labor violations become standard practice in the nascent legal cannabis industry, the chairman of the association’s labor committee, Ash Kalra (de San Jose), told the Times.

The chairman of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, Reggie Jones Sawyer (D-LA), declared himself the state’s “cannabis cop.” He vowed to address the failures highlighted in the newspaper’s reporting, including farm worker deaths, exploitation, and Corruption that plagues you Cannabis business licensing at the city and county level.

“People are dying from harvesting or processing cannabis – it’s outrageous,” said Jones Sawyer.

He said he would seek a government investigation into license corruption, particularly in areas highlighted by the Times.

“It’s very important to me that we finally get a grip on this and start taking drastic measures,” he said.

It does not guarantee that any inquiries will occur. The corruption investigation will need approval by the legislature’s audit committee, which will meet next March. Likewise, legislative hearings on conditions for farm workers were not brought to the Senate leadership for discussion.

A spokeswoman for California’s Central Workforce and Labor Development Agency said its work safety branch was “evaluating” cannabis worker deaths reported by the Times to “determine whether they have jurisdiction over each of the reported incidents.”

The newspaper found that California’s dual state and local cannabis licensing system created a fertile ground for corruption by giving power to thousands of part-time, low-paid municipal officials.

To pick winners and losers in multi-million dollar deals.

Local politicians had hidden financial ties to the cannabis companies even while regulating the industry. Consultants and elected officials talked about background lobbying and requests for money — while criminal investigations were isolated and scrutiny was spotty.

A lawmaker in October called for Atie’s mandate. Gen. Rob Ponta would set up a task force targeting corruption in cannabis licensing but received no response. Ponta’s office told the Times that such action would be the responsibility of the state’s cannabis department.

Lawmakers who have taken these measures said they are particularly sensitive to the treatment of farm workers. Hurtado is the daughter of migrant farm workers. Rubio’s parents She first came to California as part of a federal immigrant worker program, then returned undocumented because, as she said, “we still had to eat.”

Some lawmakers, including Hurtado and Rubio, said the state created its own cannabis market without addressing the crop’s labor-intensive dependence on easily exploited migrant workers. for some industries – clothing factories And washing the carfor example – the state has created special enforcement programs and created funds to compensate exploited workers, but this has not been done for cannabis or farming in general.

“It’s the Wild Wild West in that there is no unifying scheme [on] How do we deal with this industry,” Cortez said.

Lawmakers and labor advocates said farm workers were given little attention during the behind-the-scenes negotiations to legalize it. In a bargain with labor unions, the law contained only two provisions that offered little protection in reality: requiring large farms to give union access to workers and requiring all license holders with two or more employees to have at least two people obtain a public workplace. Safety training.

Labor advocates told The Times they had tried to warn the state that workers might be exploited because the commercial cannabis market was being regulated.

Because cannabis is still illegal under federal law, the action advocates in 2017 sent messages To those crafting regulations that suggest workers are unlikely to benefit from federal labor protections, placing the burden of their safety on the state.

Lawmakers aren’t really aware of the problem. “It’s a shame they’re not,” said Christopher Sanchez, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. He said the Times’ reporting “just highlights a lot of the fears that a lot of us had”.

Legalization attracted investors who borrowed business models from the agricultural industry — a sector notorious for wage theft and abuse, said UCLA labor researcher Robert Shalala.

“We’re just transferring what we haven’t fixed in our farming system” to hemp, he said. “What we haven’t done yet to protect the people who make the food for this country.”

The Times investigation documented accusations of exploitation against more than 200 cannabis operations – more than half of those licensed by the state.

Workers told reporters about employers who threatened them with guns or physical violence, about living in remote work sites without housing, sanitation, or access to food, and fraudulent promises of wages. In some cases, they said, their employers threatened to report them to immigration authorities or withhold their salaries if they tried to leave.

Fraud and coercion are elements of labor trafficking, which is a criminal offense in the state of California. A series of 2020 reports by California’s independent government watchdog group, the Little Hoover Commission, criticized the state for failing to have clear labor trafficking laws and for lacking a single agency responsible for prosecution.

Newsom has rejected the legislature’s primary crime-reduction bills.

In 2019, he vetoed a bill to collect data on labor trafficking because it was not introduced as part of the budget. In September 2022, he vetoed a bill Recruitment of foreign workers from the policeechoing the same objections raised by the lobbyists of the Chamber of Commerce and Agricultural Industry.

Last fall, he rejected a bill that passed unanimously without opposition to create a labor trafficking crimes unit within the state Department of Labor, saying he would prefer that human trafficking complaints be considered by the California Department of Civil Rights, which is seeking civil damages, so that victims “do not More victims through the prosecution process.

Newsom’s press office did not directly respond to a request for comment on The Times’ findings on cannabis labor exploitation and deaths, but issued a statement criticizing federal immigration policy.

“Strengthening our efforts to enforce workplace standards will continue to be a priority, but it is not sufficient, especially for this vulnerable population,” the statement said. “Congress needs to have the courage to bring our country’s immigration policies – and cannabis – into the 21st century.”

Newsom’s office issued the same statement a day later in response to the killings of seven people Monday at produce farms in Half Moon Bay.

Assemblyman Joaquín Arambola, a Fresno Democrat who sponsored the ill-fated legislation to create a labor smuggling unit, told The Times he plans to push again this year for the creation of a criminal investigation unit within the Labor Department. “I think we need one entity that can help us prosecute and then prevent labor trafficking in the future,” Arambola said.

Confronted with cannabis workers living in squalor, without food, pay or the ability to leave, Deans said they lacked the local resources to tackle the problem. The number of workers at risk is huge, they said: The state has tens of thousands of illegal cannabis farms scattered over vast remote areas, and even licensed farms are not closely monitored.

“There was some government support,” said Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon, adding that support focused on uprooting illegally grown plants, not on addressing the exploitation of cannabis workers.

Saxon said he relies on private outside funding to investigate human trafficking cases.

The Times investigation found little outreach to inform cannabis workers of their rights. Those workers who learned of the complaint of wage theft to the California Labor Agency waited up to two years for a decision, even after telling the state their lives had been threatened. Lawmakers told The Times the Labor Department is chronically understaffed, failing to fill already funded positions.

The Times investigation also found that some workers sought help from the Anti-Cannabis Department, unaware that the agency, despite sworn law enforcement officers, had no procedures for dealing with labor violations discovered by employees. The department did not respond to questions from the Times over three weeks about its policies for dealing with allegations of labor trafficking.

Rubio said she is negotiating with Newsom management and the Ponta office to create a state government position for the express purpose of ensuring that cannabis labor complaints are sent to the appropriate agency. She is also considering accepting labor trafficking bills that Newsom vetoed.

She said it was “amazing” that lawmakers had paid so little attention to the impact of cannabis legalization on farm workers, a group she and others said lacked strong political representation, despite California’s legacy as the cradle of the farm workers’ rights movement a half century ago. .

“For my colleagues not to look into it… Shocking to me,” said Rubio. “So rather than pointing fingers, my commitment is to work with the governor’s office and work with departments to make something workable.”

This story originally appeared Los Angeles Times.


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