California lawmakers are calling for a sweeping investigation into corruption in the state’s cannabis industry, legislative hearings on the exploitation of farmworkers and new laws to thwart labor trafficking in response to revelations of rampant abuses and worker deaths in a multibillion-dollar market that has become increasingly unmanageable.
These are the proposals.series of Times investigations last year showing that California’s 2016 legalization of recreational cannabis spurred political corruption, explosive growth in illegal cultivation and widespread exploitation of workers. The Times reported that wage theft was widespread and that many workers were subject to harsh, sometimes even fatal conditions.
A spokesperson for the state’s Department of Industrial Relations told The Times last week that the agency is examining the deaths of 32 cannabis farmworkers — never reported to work safety regulators — uncovered by the newspaper.
“We should be a little bit ashamed that we’ve allowed this helter-skelter approach to commercializing and legalizing the cannabis industry,” said Sen. Dave Cortese, a San Jose Democrat who leads the Senate Labor Committee. Cortese called California’s cannabis market the “Wild, Wild West.”
Melissa Hurtado, Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee (D-Sanger), said that they are currently discussing an agenda for legislative hearings on this spring’s plight of workers at all types of California farm. But they said the abuse and exploitation chronicled in The Times’ investigation, “Legal Weed, Broken Promises,” highlights the hazards for those who labor in cannabis fields.
Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park), Assemblymember, said that she will resurrect legislation to combat labor trafficking that was vetoed earlier by Gov. Gavin Newsom to include a mechanism to ensure the state Department of Cannabis ControlActs on evidence of such criminal acts. The Times found that the agency failed respond to worker complaints, and even to abuses identified by its own staff.
The Times was informed by Ash Kalra, Chair of the Assembly Labor Committee (D-San Jose), that it is crucial to act quickly before abuses in the emerging legal cannabis industry are commonplace.
The Assembly’s Public Safety Committee chairman, Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), has declared himself the state’s “cannabis cop.” He has vowed to tackle failures highlighted by the newspaper’s reporting, including farmworker fatalities and exploitation and the corruption that plaguesThe city and county level can license cannabis businesses.
“People dying from harvesting or processing cannabis — it’s just outrageous,” Jones-Sawyer said.
He stated that he would pursue a state investigation into license corruption, especially in areas identified by The Times.
“It’s very important to me that we finally get a grip on this and start to crack down,” he said.
None of these inquires are certain to be answered. A corruption investigation would need approval from the Legislature’s audit committee, which next meets in March. The Senate leadership is yet to hear about legislative hearings concerning farmworker conditions.
A spokeswoman for California’s central Labor & Workforce Development Agency said its labor safety branch was “assessing” cannabis worker deaths reported by The Times “to determine whether they have jurisdiction in each of the incidents reported.”
The newspaper found that California’s dual state and local cannabis licensing system created fertile ground for corruption by giving thousands of often part-time, low-paid municipal officials the power
You can choose the winners and losers from multimillion-dollar deals.
Even though they were regulating the industry, local politicians had hidden financial ties with cannabis businesses. Consultants and elected officials told of backroom lobbying and solicitations for cash — while criminal investigations were isolated and scrutiny was sporadic.
In October, a lawmaker called for a state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta wanted to create a taskforce that would fight corruption in cannabis licenses, but he didn’t get a reply. Bonta’s office told The Times such action would be the responsibility of the state cannabis department.
Lawmakers who are taking these measures have stated that they are sensitive to farmworker treatment. Hurtado was the daughter of agricultural workers who immigrated to Brazil. Rubio’s parents first came to California as part of a federal migrant worker program, then returned without documentation because, as she said, “we still had to eat.”
Some lawmakers, including Hurtado And Rubio, said the state set up its cannabis market without addressing the labor-intensive crop’s reliance on easily exploited immigrant workers. For some industries — garment factories and car washes, for example — the state set up special enforcement programs and created funds to compensate exploited workers, but this has not been done for cannabis or agriculture in general.
“It’s the Wild, Wild West in terms of the lack of any uniform scheme [on] how we deal with this industry,” Cortese said.
Labor advocates and lawmakers claimed that farmworkers were not given much thought in behind-the scenes negotiations for legalization. The labor unions reached a deal that only contained two provisions that offered little protection. They required large farms to allow union access to their workers, and required all license holders with more than two employees to provide generic workplace safety training.
The Times reported that labor advocates tried to warn The Times about the potential for worker exploitation during the construction of the commercial cannabis market.
Labor advocates in 2017 were able to make cannabis legal under federal law. sent lettersThe state is responsible for workers’ safety and protection.
“Lawmakers aren’t really aware of the problem. It’s shameful that they’re not,” said Christopher Sanchez, policy advocate for the Western Center on Law & Poverty. He said The Times’ reporting “just highlights a lot of the fears that a lot of us had.”
UCLA labor researcher Robert Chlala said legalization attracted investors who borrowed business models from the agricultural industry — a sector notorious for wage theft and abuse.
“We are just transferring what we haven’t fixed yet in our agricultural system” to cannabis, 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 shared their stories with reporters about bosses who threatened them physically or with guns. They also described living in remote locations without access to housing or sanitary facilities and making false promises of pay. Workers claimed that bosses threatened to withhold wages or report them to immigration authorities in certain cases.
Coercion and fraud are two elements of labor trafficking in California, which is a felony crime. A series of 2020 reports by California’s independent government watch group, the Little Hoover Commission, faulted 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 keystone bills to curtail the crime.
In 2019, he vetoed a bill to gather data on labor trafficking because it wasn’t introduced as part of the budget. He vetoed a bill in September 2022 to combat labor trafficking. police foreign labor recruitersEchoing the same objections as the Chamber of Commerce lobbyists and the agriculture industry lobbyists,
Last fall, he rejected a unanimously passed, unopposed bill to create a labor trafficking crime unit within the state’s labor department, saying he would prefer to see trafficking complaints heard by the California Civil Rights Department, which seeks civil remedies, so that victims “are not further victimized by the prosecutorial process.”
Newsom’s press office did not respond directly to a request for comment on The Times’ findings of cannabis labor exploitation and deaths but released 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 get up the courage to bring our country’s immigration — and cannabis — policies into the 21st century.”
Newsom’s office issued much the same statement a day later in response to the killings of seven people Monday on produce farms in Half Moon Bay.
Fresno Democrat Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula said that he sponsored the ill-fated legislation creating a labor trafficking section. “I believe we need a single entity that can help us to prosecute and then prevent labor trafficking in the future,” Arambula said.
When confronted by cannabis workers in desperate conditions, with no food, money, or ability to leave, sheriffs said that they don’t have the resources to deal with the problem. They stated that the state has thousands of illegal cannabis cultivations spread over vast areas. Even licensed ones are not closely monitored.
“There used to be some state support,” Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon said, adding that the support focused on ripping out illegally grown plants, not on addressing exploitation of cannabis workers.
Saxon indicated that Saxon relies on funding from outside sources to investigate cases of humantrafficking.
According to the Times investigation, there was little information available to inform cannabis workers about their rights. Workers who reported wage theft to the California labor department waited up to two years before they received a decision. This was even after they had told the state that their lives were in danger. According to The Times, labor department officials claim that there are chronic staff shortages and that they have difficulty filling positions that are already funded.
The Times investigation found that workers sought out the assistance of the Department of Cannabis Control. This was despite the fact that law enforcement officers had sworn that they could handle labor abuses that were discovered by staff. Over the course of three weeks, Times asked questions about its policies regarding labor trafficking.
Rubio said she is negotiating with Newsom’s administration and Bonta’s office to create a state government position for the express purpose of ensuring that cannabis labor complaints get forwarded to the right agency. Rubio is also considering taking up labor trafficking bills that Newsom vetoed.
She said it is “stunning” that lawmakers have paid so little heed to the impact of cannabis legalization on farmworkers, a group she and others said lacks strong political representation, despite California’s legacy as the birthplace of the farmworkers’ rights movement half a century ago.
“For my colleagues not to even be looking at it is … shocking to me,” Rubio said. “So instead of pointing fingers, my commitment is to work with the governor’s office and work with the departments to make something that is doable.”
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