It has been just over two years since the #metoo movement began, and conversations continue as more stories of workplace sexual harassment abound. Individuals and corporations are being held accountable in a new way. Like any other industry, there are many instances of misconduct and bad behavior in cannabis history.
From trimmers being asked to work topless to customers feeling sexualized in dispensaries, this nascent industry already has a long history of harassment, but it also could change the landscape with how these incidents are handled. In the meantime, movements like #metoo and #timesup help people like Liv Vasquez find resources when they face this abuse in the workplace. The latter connected Vasquez to an attorney who would work tirelessly to win her lawsuit against a former employer.
In 2015, Vasquez began employment with MindRite Dispensary, completing her job so well that she was promoted twice in an 18-month period, the last one making her Training Manager/Specialist. Within minutes of clocking in as manager, Vasquez was told by her manager that he purposely sexualized a customer. Subsequently, Vasquez went on the shared work computer after that admission (made in front of another employee) and saw that someone at the dispensary was looking at naked or mostly nude pictures of women.
This experience culminated in Vasquez speaking to one of the owners of MindRite, Jaime Conley, in an in-person meeting in which Vasquez spoke of ongoing harassment and abuse. She also spoke of an incident that occurred six months prior, when she believes a MR employee sexually assaulted her. Conley told Vasquez to put all the incidents in one official email. There was no protocol in place for dealing with such issues, and because it was such a small company, they could get away with it.
“The majority of cannabis businesses have less than 15 employees, which is the amount of employees you need to have certain protocols like an HR department,” Vasquez points out, “This is an industry that deals with a lot of money, intoxication and mental health – there should be a little more safety for the people who are working in this industry for what is usually a low wage.”
As Vasquez points out, the cannabis industry must recognize that even the smallest companies are dealing with large amounts of money and products that can create possible inebriation, so there should be protocols in place. For as little as $15 a month, businesses can hire companies to handle HR issues online – a fact that Vasquez made clear to her boss at MindRite when she wrote the email that would serve as an official complaint. Because she has extensive experience managing staff, she felt her expectations weren’t unusual.
“They refused to hire this service and after that email they demoted me and tried to make a new schedule where all the women worked on one shift and all the men worked on another shift. It was nonsensical from a business management standpoint. Unfortunately, I think I was one of the only people there who had previous experience managing staff in a business from the owner’s standpoint, and I just wasn’t listened to.”
Vasquez filed her official email with Conley in September of 2017, and in the following October, the employee accused of sexual assault began documenting concerns about her performance at work. She then received a written warning for unsatisfactory and inappropriate behavior, attaching a screenshot of a social media post where Vasquez said that she felt unsafe at work. Some of her duties were removed, and she was made to continue working with the people she accused of harassment.
Over the course of litigation, discovery revealed that there were 6 instances of documented sexual harassment at MR during 2016-2017, with a 7th instance being filed after Vasquez sent her complaint. During the trial, Vasquez felt isolated, because some of the women colleagues she felt she was fighting for testified against her. She does point out that she continues to receive messages from women who say that sexual harassment in the workplace has pushed them out of the industry.
Prohibition Leaves People Vulnerable
Because this industry is still dealing with prohibition, there are unique restraints a person dealing with sexual harassment faces. For Vasquez, being a WOC who is selling weed, albeit legally, came with a host of insecurities about how authorities would perceive a complaint if filed. Being in an industry that isn’t fully legitimized makes the burden of proof even more intense for the survivor of sexual harassment or assault.
“I have already started sending my case verdict to other women in the midst of cannabis industry harassment lawsuits, in hopes that it will help support their case,” says Vasquez.
She says that there was a much higher percentage of women working in cannabis when she began, and that was a big reason for her to get into this industry. The fact that women are being pushed out of an industry because they feel unsafe is unacceptable, Vasquez says; she hopes that her case serves as a cornerstone to build policy around cannabis industry employee safety.
“Now when I see posts and merchandise that says ‘Buy weed from women’ I want to add the asterisks for it to be ‘ethical women’,” says Vasquez, “We aren’t in the place with feminism where all survivors are believed and protected by other women unfortunately.”
Vasquez has learned a lot about what this nascent industry needs to change, not the least of which is the need for safe places for cannabis consumption. Because employees and customers can’t consume in the dispensary, sampling must be done in private residences or industry events (if allowed by state). This extends the definition of workplace harassment and shines light on a different side of #timesup and #metoo – which we will explore in the second installment of this story.