Union hoping issue moves forward, creating middle-class jobs

Rick Karlin, Times Union

If there's any doubt that legalized marijuana has a future in New York and elsewhere, consider this: The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents thousands who work in grocery stores and food processing plants nationwide, has a Medical Cannabis and Hemp Division.

Its role is to "ensure that workers in this growing industry can exercise their right to unite and legitimize their profession."

"The goal here in New York is that we create an industry that creates middle-class jobs," said Ed Draves, a lobbyist with the firm of Bolton-St. John's who represents the union's affiliate in New York.

Eventually, the union wants to ensure that "grow houses" in which medicinal marijuana is cultivated are unionized.

News that Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday will include in his State of the State speech a proposal to allow the limited use of medical marijuana was a surprise to longtime advocates who didn't see it coming so soon.

"We certainly didn't expect it," said Gabriel Sayegh, state director for New York of the Drug Policy Alliance, which has pushed for legalized marijuana.

To be sure, Cuomo's plan, which should become clearer with Wednesday's address and in subsequent weeks, appears to be highly restricted and limited toward allowing medical marijuana under tight state supervision.

And talking to reporters Monday, the governor stressed that he's not in favor of following Colorado and legalizing recreational use of the plant — he continues to call it "a non-starter."

Nonetheless, a select group of organizations, in addition to reform groups like the Drug Policy Alliance, is looking toward the day when there could be a fledgling industry surrounding medical marijuana.

The food union, for instance, has worked with a Colorado firm, Gaia Plant Based Medicine, tracking the issue as it evolves in New York.

"We've talked to members of the administration," said Patrick McCarthy, a lobbyist at Mercury Public Affairs, which represents Gaia. "We've talked to legislators and their staffs for over a year, and we continue to try to move the issue forward."

According to new reports, Cuomo's initial plan reactivates a 1980 law that never got off the ground. The measure allows a select group of hospitals to dispense limited amounts of marijuana that came from police evidence lockers or a government-run farm in Mississippi.

That could be problematic, Sayegh said: Maryland, which also has a medical marijuana law, has experienced difficulties in dispensing the substance through hospitals for fear it could violate federal regulations. "It can't be dispensed out of a hospital without significant waivers," he said.

Either way, savvy business operators, unions and others will likely be taking a closer look at New York, if it indeed joins the 20 other states that allow medicinal use of marijuana.

"There certainly is a growing industry around medical marijuana," said Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, which also has pushed for medicinal use of the plant.