California lawmakers are calling for a sweeping investigation into corruption in the state’s cannabis industry, legislative hearings on farmworker exploitation and new laws to crack down on human trafficking in response to revelations of widespread abuse and worker deaths in an increasingly unmanageable multibillion-dollar market.
Proposals follow a a Times investigative series last year showed that California’s 2016 legalization of recreational cannabis fueled political corruption, booming illegal cultivation and widespread worker exploitation. The Times found that wage theft was rampant and that many workers lived in squalid, sometimes deadly, conditions.
Press secretary of the state Department of Labor Relations told The Times last week that the agency was investigating the deaths of 32 cannabis workers – which were never reported to occupational safety regulators – revealed the newspaper.
“We should be a little ashamed that we allowed this mindless approach to the commercialization and legalization of the cannabis industry,” said Sen. Dave Cortes, D-San Jose, who chairs the Senate Labor Committee. Cortes called the California cannabis market the “Wild, Wild West.”
Cortez and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) said they are discussing the agenda for legislative hearings this spring on the status of workers on all types of California farms. But they said the abuse and exploitation described in The Times’ investigation, “Legal weed, broken promises,» highlights the dangers for those who work in the hemp fields.
Assemblywoman Blanco Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) said she intends to restore anti-trafficking legislation vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and include a mechanism to ensure that the state Department of Cannabis Control acts on evidence of such crimes. The Times found that the agency was unresponsive to worker complaints and even to abuses brought to light by its own employees.
Assembly Labor Committee Chairman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) told The Times it’s important to act now before labor abuses become standard practice in the emerging legal cannabis industry.
Assembly Public Safety Committee Chairman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-LA) has declared himself the “cannabis cop.” He vowed to address the failures highlighted in the paper’s reports, including the fatality and exploitation of farm workers. corruption that plagues licensing of cannabis businesses at the city and county level.
“People dying from harvesting or processing cannabis is just outrageous,” Jones-Sawyer said.
He said he would push for a state investigation into licensing corruption, particularly in the areas highlighted by The Times.
“It’s very important to me that we finally deal with this and start dealing with it,” he said.
None of the requests are guaranteed. The corruption investigation requires approval by the Legislature’s audit committee, which meets in March. Likewise, legislative hearings on farm worker working conditions have yet to be submitted to Senate leadership for discussion.
A spokeswoman for the Central California Labor and Workforce Development Agency said its division of occupational health and safety is “evaluating” the deaths of cannabis workers reported by The Times “to determine whether they have jurisdiction in each of the reported incidents.”
The paper found that California’s bi-state and local cannabis licensing system created a breeding ground for corruption, giving thousands of low-paid, often part-time municipal officials the power to pick winners and losers in multimillion-dollar deals.
Local politicians maintained hidden financial ties to cannabis businesses even as they regulated the industry. Consultants and elected officials spoke of behind-the-scenes lobbying and begging for cash — while criminal investigations were kept separate and scrutiny sporadic.
Then-state Assemblywoman Christina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) called the state attorney general in October. General Rob Bonto formed a task force to fight corruption in the licensing of cannabis, but received no response. Bonta’s office told The Times that such actions would be the responsibility of the state Department of Cannabis.
Lawmakers behind the measures said they were particularly sensitive about the treatment of farm workers. Hurtada is the daughter of immigrant farm workers. Rubio’s parents first came to California as part of a federal migrant worker program, then returned undocumented because, she said, “we still needed to eat.”
Some lawmakers, including Hurtado and Rubio, said the state created its cannabis market by ignoring the labor-intensive culture’s dependence on easily exploited immigrant workers. For some industries – sewing factories and car washesfor example, the state has created special enforcement programs and created funds to compensate exploited workers, but this has not been done for hemp and agriculture in general.
“It’s the Wild Wild West in terms of not having any kind of unified scheme [on] how we deal with this industry,” Cortez said.
Lawmakers and labor advocates said farmers were given little thought during backroom legalization negotiations. In agreement with the unions, the law contained only two provisions that actually offered little protection: a requirement that large farms provide unions with access to workers, and a requirement that all licensees with two or more employees have at least two shared workplaces training safety equipment.
Labor officials told The Times that they tried to warn the state about the possibility of worker exploitation when the commercial cannabis market was structured.
As cannabis remains illegal under federal law, labor advocates in 2017 sent letters to the rulemakers, noting that workers are unlikely to benefit from federal job protections by placing responsibility for their safety on the state.
“Legislators are not aware of the problem. It’s a shame they’re not,” said Christopher Sanchez, policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. He said The Times’ reports “simply highlight many of the fears that many of us have had”.
UCLA labor researcher Robert Hlala said legalization attracted investors who borrowed business models from the agricultural industry, a sector notorious for wage theft and abuse.
“We’re just transferring what we haven’t fixed in our agricultural system” to cannabis, he said. “What haven’t we done yet to protect the people who make food for this country.”
A Times investigation documented allegations of exploitation at more than 200 cannabis operations — more than half of those licensed by the state.
Workers told reporters of bosses who threatened them with weapons or physical violence, of living in remote workplaces without housing or sanitation or access to food, and of false promises of wages. In some cases, they said, bosses threatened to report them to immigration authorities or withhold wages if they tried to leave.
Fraud and coercion are elements of labor trafficking, a crime in California. A series of 2020 reports by California’s independent government watchdog, the Little Hoover Commission, accused the state of lacking clear laws on labor trafficking and not having a single agency responsible for prosecution.
Newsom rejected the Legislature’s major crime-reduction bills.
In 2019, he vetoed a bill to collect data on human trafficking because it was not included in the budget. In September 2022, he vetoed the bill on police recruiters of foreign laborechoing the same objections voiced by the Chamber of Commerce and agricultural industry lobbyists.
Last fall, he vetoed a bill that passed unanimously without opposition to create an anti-trafficking unit within the state Department of Labor, saying he wanted to have human trafficking complaints handled by the California Department of Civil Rights, which seeks civil remedies. so that the victims “were no longer victims of the prosecutor’s process.”
Newsom’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on The Times’ findings on labor exploitation and hemp deaths, but released a statement criticizing federal immigration policy.
“Strengthening our efforts to enforce standards in the workplace will remain a priority, but it is not enough, especially for this vulnerable population,” the statement said. “Congress must muster the courage to bring our nation’s immigration and cannabis policies into the 21st century.”
Newsom’s office issued a similar statement a day later in response to Monday’s killing of seven people at production farms in Half Moon Bay.
Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, a Fresno Democrat who supported the ill-fated legislation to create a human trafficking division, told The Times he intends to push again this year to create a criminal investigation division at the Labor Department. “I believe we need a single organization that can help us prosecute and prevent human trafficking in the future,” Arambula said.
Sheriffs faced with cannabis workers living in squalor, without food, pay or the ability to leave, said they lack local resources to deal with the problem. They said the number of workers at risk is huge: The state has tens of thousands of illegal cannabis farms scattered across vast, remote regions, and even licensed farms are not monitored.
“There used to be some government support,” Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon said, adding that support focused on rooting out illegal plants rather than combating the exploitation of cannabis workers.
Saxon said the investigation of human trafficking cases depends on the private outside.
A Times investigation found that cannabis workers are not being informed of their rights. Those workers who knew to file a wage theft complaint with a California labor agency waited two years for a decision, even after notifying the state that their lives were in danger. Lawmakers told The Times that the Labor Department is chronically understaffed, failing to fill already funded positions.
A Times investigation also found that some workers sought help from the Department of Cannabis Control, unaware that the agency, despite having sworn law enforcement officers, had no process for handling labor violations. , identified by employees. The department did not respond to The Times’ questions for three weeks about its policy on handling allegations of human trafficking.
Rubio said she is in talks with the Newsom administration and Bonta’s office about creating a state government position with the express goal of ensuring that cannabis-related complaints go to the right agency. She is also considering passing the human trafficking bills that Newsom vetoed.
She said it’s “shocking” that lawmakers have paid so little attention to the impact of legalizing cannabis on farmworkers, a group she and others say lacks strong political representation despite California being the birthplace of the farm rights movement. workers half a century ago. .
“It shocks me that my colleagues aren’t even looking at this,” Rubio said. “So instead of pointing fingers, I’m committed to working with the governor’s office and working with the departments to get something done.”