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Pot shops should pay workers $20 an hour, offer profit sharing, proposed benefits agreement says

The Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition says 75% of dispensary employees should meet social equity criteria, including having lived in an area adversely affected by the drug war or a pot-related criminal record.

An employee at The Herbal Care Center dispensary, 1301 S. Western Ave., helps a medicinal client Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 31, 2019.
Worker at The Herbal Care Center dispensary at 1301 South Western Avenue help a medicinal client Thursday afternoon, December 31, 2019. | Brian Ernst/Sun-Times
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

As a horde of companies race to open recreational pot shops around the city, advocates are pushing a community benefits agreement that would require dispensaries hire employees that have been adversely impacted by past drug policies, pay them at least $20 an hour and create a system for profit sharing.

The Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition began pushing the CBA after firms earned the rights to open 31 new dispensaries during the city’s pot lottery in November, kicking off the city’s current “green rush.”

The group, comprised of activists and community organizations that came together two years ago, has been vocal at recent community meetings held by companies seeking special use zoning approval for the new shops. During one recent meeting, hosted in River North by Illinois’ leading pot firm Cresco Labs, coalition vice president Peter Contos said the CBA would ensure that retailers are “paying their fair share when it comes to repairing the harms done by the war on drugs.”

While the state’s recreational pot law is already investing a quarter of cannabis tax revenues into blighted areas and giving so-called social equity applicants a leg up in the application process for licenses, coalition attorney Akele Parnell said the CBA would enable employees to “share in the success” of dispensaries.

As part of the proposal, 75% of dispensary employees would have to meet the state’s social equity requirements by either living in an adversely affected area, having a pot-related record or having a family member that meets the criteria. Those employees would be paid a “living wage” of at least $20 an hour and earn bonuses based on a store’s earnings, Parnell said, adding that first-month sales of recreational weed nearly reached $40 million.

“If they’re the ones on the ground doing all the hard work, they should be able to reap some of the benefits or the upside and not just get their base wage regardless of how the dispensary performs and regardless of how hard they work,” added Parnell, who previously worked for the River North-based weed company GTI.

Members of the Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition
Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition website

The CBA would also require training that would help employees move up the ladder of companies that own stores, many of which are corporatized and have operations in multiple states. On top of that, shops would need to reinvest another 10% of their profits into affected communities and ensure that African American- or Latino-owned companies are given 10% of contracts for providing various services, including maintenance, security and construction work.

Parnell said the coalition met with representatives from the mayor’s office last week, who “were supportive and want to help facilitate and make sure that the cannabis industry in Chicago is more equitable.” The group has also been in contact with members of the City Council’s Latino and Black caucuses — which have been critical of the lack of diversity among the current owners of pot shops.

He also said the group has “handshake deals” with some firms that have tentatively agreed to sign on.

Pot companies Cresco, PharmaCann and Acreage Holdings signaled that they were open to some of the provisions in the CBA but weren’t ready to fully commit.

“We’re in general alignment and support everything they are advocating for and have engaged in conversations with them to learn much more,” said Howard Schacter, spokesman for Acreage Holdings, a Canadian firm that owns the Nature’s Care dispensary in Rolling Meadows and hopes to open another in West Town. “It’s certainly premature for us to sign an agreement before we learn more about the organization and their full agenda.”