The cannabis industry, like any other, is no stranger to the #metoo and #timesup movement. Now that it’s been more than two years after the movements began, society is calling out abuses of power with more ease. One of those instances was highlighted in a trial recently won by Liv Vasquez; a case in which the harassment and assault she experienced highlight how the cannabis space brings a different angle to the movement.
In 2017, Vasquez filed an official complaint to previous employer MindRite (a dispensary in Oregon) about ongoing sexual harassment from fellow employees and supervisors. The owner of the dispensary mishandled Vasquez’s complaint and disregarded her physical and mental health needs, making it impossible for her to continue doing her work. Her experience led to a lawsuit against MindRite, one which Vasquez believes can work as a template for the cannabis industry.
Unlike most industries, a lot of what happens in cannabis happens “off the clock”, because public consumption isn’t legal. With the current Federal legal status being what it is, employees of dispensaries aren’t allowed to test out samples onsite. If you can’t sample the product, it makes it difficult to recommend to clients.
In states where recreational is legal, such as Oregon (the state where the case took place), dispensary employees may share samples from brands. Vasquez says that despite there being more dispensaries than McDonald’s or Starbuck’s combined in Oregon, there was often a limited number of samples, making sharing necessary. Depending on the state laws, this could lead to sampling in private residences or cars.
“There are a lot of things that I didn’t report right away, and heard stories from other women that they didn’t report right away because of the issue of things happening ‘off of the clock’ with employees we were imbibing with, because we were having to share samples,” says Vasquez, emphasizing that this trial taught her to report anything that makes her uncomfortable, on or off the clock.
One of the biggest takeaways from the case, as far as Vasquez is concerned, is the need for safe consumption space or lounges. This is important for both the customer and industry employee, because Vasquez says that during the legal battle, she would hear from customers who didn’t feel safe in a dispensary. Furthermore, she witnessed employees at MR making sexual comments about customers.
“Access to a space with security and all of the same protocols that the OLCC puts on bars in Oregon would have kept me from having to consume in my coworker’s cars and homes – the places that I experienced assault from male coworkers”, says Vasquez.
In addition to the legal ramifications of consuming in a public space, cannabis companies face extreme restrictions with advertising, which makes networking events an essential element of professional success. These events are an extension of the workspace – even if the atmosphere is lax and alcohol is available – but the behavior of attendees isn’t always professional. According to court documents, MindRite (MR) would encourage employees to imbibe at events, even buying drinks for them.
Additionally, court documents state that one male employee would make unwanted passes at female employees after work, or whenever industry events would involve alcohol. As is the case with many cannabis dispensaries, MR is a small operation – under 15 employees at the time Vasquez filed her complaint – so they weren’t required to have a Human Resources department. When she went to file an official complaint about harassment and abuse, she was told to put it all in an email.
In that email, Vasquez made it clear how MR could improve their offerings for employees by enlisting an online Human Resource company. Instead of listening to her advice and considering her management background, the owner of MR demoted Vasquez and made her work with the employees she accused of harassment.
“One of the hardest parts of my trial was sitting across from women whom I [first] believed were standing up for [other women who were assaulted by male coworkers], as they testified against me,” says Vasquez, “These women had been groomed to think that this behavior was fine and I was making a ‘big deal’ out of nothing.”
How to Make a Change
While this industry is still nascent, cannabis can differentiate from other professional spaces by making a few things priority. The ever-changing rules regarding sampling and consumption complicate the conversation, but the work must be done to give this space a true chance for change. Here are a few ways companies can do this:
Have a strong ant-retaliation policy in place – Make sure that all employees are aware of there being a strong policy that will protect them. Investigate every complaint at once and thoroughly.
Supply more than one outlet – Offer third-party services and hotlines in addition to an open-door HR policy. Encourage employees to complete surveys like this cannabis #metoo survey, and actively look for other ways to communicate discomfort in the workplace. Look for talk therapy outlets or retreats that may build trust among employees.
Create call-out culture– Make it clear that witnesses should report anything inappropriate, regardless of the nature of their employment. Train supervisors and other leadership roles to handle complaints to avoid any one person in management shouldering all the responsibility.
The biggest thing to consider as a company is that every claim must be taken seriously, and each account should be heard. Vasquez didn’t have the experience of support from the people she considered mentors and colleagues, but she hopes that her experiences act as a call to action for others. While the trial was isolating, she hopes her situation inspires safety measures as other states legalize.
“I also hope that business owners who hear about what happened with me, implement safety measures and sexual harassment training for their current and future employees,” says Vasquez.