The cannabis industry is booming, but workers say they face low wages, rapacious bosses, and life-threatening conditions.
By Dusty Christensen MAY 1, 2023
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There’s a memory that haunts Laura Bruneau, like a video playing over and over. She remembers the unremarkable “Have a good one” she gave her only child, Lorna McMurrey, as she dropped her off at the cannabis-processing facility in Holyoke, Mass., where she worked.
It was January 4, 2022—the last day Bruneau saw her daughter conscious.
Later that day, Lorna texted her that she was “having a hard time walking and breathing at the same time.” Bruneau raced to the facility, but by the time she arrived, ambulances and fire trucks were already there. She watched as paramedics wheeled her daughter out on a gurney, one of them “straddling on top of her, just pounding on her chest.”
“I’ll never fucking forget that sight,” Bruneau said. “I lost it. I just started screaming, ‘Oh my God, save my baby!’”
Lorna was brain-dead by the time she got to the hospital. She died three days later of cardiac arrest due to an apparent asthma attack—a condition that Bruneau said she never had until she started working at the large-scale grow facility, which is owned by the multistate cannabis giant Trulieve. Lorna was 27.
“My whole world was just annihilated. She was my only child. I can never have another child. I’m not a mother anymore,” Bruneau told me.
Nearly six months later, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Trulieve $35,219 for safety violations related to Lorna’s death. Then, in December 2022, Trulieve reached a settlement with OSHA, which reduced the company’s fine to $14,502 and withdrew two of the three citations against it. (Trulieve, which posted revenues of $1.24 billion and gross profits of $682 million in 2022, presumably had no trouble paying.) In return, Trulieve agreed to study whether ground cannabis dust should be classified as a hazardous chemical in occupational settings, according to the company.
As marijuana moves from a banned substance to a legal business—21 states, along with Guam and Washington, D.C., have already legalized recreational cannabis use, and more will surely follow—job opportunities in the industry have exploded. (One study found that there were 428,059 people employed in the industry nationwide in January 2022—a 33 percent increase over the previous year.) So have profits; if cannabis is ever legalized on the federal level, the industry could become a $100 billion behemoth, according to some financial analysts and industry insiders.
Behind those profits are workers who—like most of the country’s laborers—have no union and no power at their jobs, and there is mounting evidence that Lorna McMurrey’s death could be part of a systemic problem with working conditions for many in the cannabis industry.
In many cases, workers, union organizers, and activists say that exploitation, abuse, and low pay are part of the job. That is concerning enough, but the trouble, it seems, extends to the very air that many cannabis workers breathe.
In December, a Los Angeles Times investigation identified at least 35 workers who died on cannabis farms between 2016 and 2021, mostly from carbon monoxide poisoning tied to substandard greenhouses and housing conditions. At least two cannabis companies have themselves discovered significant levels of mold and particulate matter after hiring environmental consultants to test their buildings, according to internal documents reviewed for this story.
The response by federal regulators, as OSHA’s handling of McMurrey’s death shows, has mostly been to levy relatively inconsequential fines. Some cannabis workers, though, have begun their own resistance, whether through organizing or simply through telling their stories.
Holyoke’s officials have worked hard to revive some of the city’s past manufacturing glory by attracting cannabis operations to its former factories and mills. Cannabis growers are drawn to Holyoke’s cheap electricity, which is the largest expense for indoor growers. Holyoke was one of the country’s first planned industrial cities, and it can provide power at low rates because of its municipal dam and canal system.
As of February, the state’s Cannabis Control Commission has granted 83 licenses for retail, cultivation, manufacturing, and testing facilities operating in Holyoke, according to CCC data. That’s more than any other city in Massachusetts by a wide margin—Boston, for instance, has just 51. Fifty-two of Holyoke’s licenses are for cannabis cultivators and manufacturers, though not all of those represent viable businesses.
Three cultivating operations have opened in the city. In addition to Trulieve, which is licensed to grow up to 80,000 square feet of canopy, the cannabis giant Green Thumb Industries, which made nearly $504 million in gross profits in 2022, has set up shop in Holyoke and is licensed to grow 100,000 square feet.
Cities find the cannabis industry alluring for a reason. Apart from the jobs, municipal governments have bolstered their beleaguered budgets with the tax revenues and “impact fees,” which are assessed to cover the effects on local infrastructure from the cannabis industry. The Holyoke city budget projects cannabis tax revenues of $566,803 for this fiscal year. The city also collected roughly $3.2 million in impact fees as of February, a large portion of which was recently allocated to road paving, street safety improvements, and public art installations.
But Holyoke is also dealing with some of the entrenched problems in the cannabis world. The CCC’s “social equity” program, which was designed to give a leg up to entrepreneurs from communities that were heavily criminalized when marijuana was illegal, was slow in providing any actual funding. It wasn’t until August 2022 that the state Legislature created a loan fund for the program. And in a business with significant barriers to entry, that meant that it was typically giant, white-owned firms that got a head start. Holyoke’s residents—more than half of whom are Latino, one of the highest concentrations in the country—have noticed.
“We have people that are not even from around here able to come and set up shop off the clientele that me and the people that came before me built up,” said Israel Rivera, who was elected to the Holyoke City Council in 2021. Police raided his home in 2006 because, Rivera said, he was selling dime bags; there, they found a gun and cocaine, and Rivera did a five-year prison stint. “A lot of us got penalized…but [white-owned companies] are able to capitalize and get rich on it.”
“This is not an easy-access industry at all,” said Aaron Vega, a former state representative from Holyoke who is now the city’s director of planning and economic development. Vega said that the state and local bureaucracy surrounding cannabis can be hard to negotiate, and that hiring consultants, lawyers, and architects was beyond the reach of smaller entrepreneurs. “That’s why you have the big companies being able to navigate that; they’ve done it in other states and had the resources to bring the right people on board.”
Vega said that Holyoke’s becoming a “mecca” for cannabis has created around 450 jobs, many of them entry-level—a significant number for a city of just under 38,000 people. In that respect, he likened cannabis to tobacco, another crop that once provided a lot of, as he put it, “low-entry jobs” on farms in western Massachusetts.
“Unfortunately, what we saw with the tobacco industry was that being on those fields—not just smoking tobacco—was bad for your health,” Vega continued. He added that more research needs to be done on the health effects of working around cannabis, but that the federal prohibition of marijuana has stymied those efforts.
Cannabis companies have also rehabilitated industrial properties in the city that have failed to attract other manufacturers, saving old buildings from destruction.
But workers don’t always benefit. A new report from Vangst, a hiring platform for the cannabis industry, found that in 2022, trimmers, “post-harvesters,” and packagers made between $16 and $20 an hour nationwide for that physically demanding work. Vega acknowledged that any job paying below $22 an hour is not paying a living wage in western Massachusetts.
“It’s part of our fabric now,” he said of the industry. “Is it the silver bullet? No. Has it helped? Absolutely. Without question.”
In addition to concerns about low wages, allegations of poor working conditions have surfaced in Holyoke. In an interview with The Nation, Danny Carson, who worked as a supply chain supervisor with McMurrey at Trulieve’s Holyoke facility until a few months before she died, described a verbally abusive workplace where higher-ups would yell at their subordinates.
At the time, there were basic Covid-19 masks but no respirators available for workers who toiled in the shop’s tiny weed-grinding room, he said.
“They pack multiple people inside of that room because they want things done, as in traditional manufacturing, as quick as possible with as limited loss as possible,” Carson said. “The dust that’s created from it is not being ventilated out…. You can imagine what it’s like to breathe that in.”
In response to these allegations, Trulieve said in a statement that, upon learning of “possible allergen concerns,” it “acted to conduct research” and implemented an “industry-leading Cannabis Allergen Awareness Program.” The company has said that personal protective equipment was available at the site when McMurrey died.
A Trulieve spokesperson said that OSHA tested the air quality throughout its facility and that “the samples were all well [within] acceptable ranges,” noting that the fines the company received were related to communications standards. An OSHA spokesperson did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.
In a press release announcing the company’s settlement with OSHA over McMurrey’s death, Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers said the company is “proud of the many protections” in place for its workers. She added that Trulieve is rolling out a “temporary training program” alerting workers to the potential allergic reactions they might have in the workplace.
“Increased-scale manufacturing in our industry is a relatively new endeavor,” Rivers said in her statement, “and we are determined to continually ask questions and seek answers to make our workplace the safest and healthiest it can possibly be.”
Rivers, who has, as of this writing, successfully stalled unionization attempts by workers at several Trulieve facilities in Massachusetts, made over $8 million in total compensation in 2021, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Vega said that Holyoke requires companies to ensure good air quality in their workplaces. But it’s the state that has the expertise and resources to enforce those safety standards, and the CCC could be doing a better job to support cities like Holyoke, he added.
“As a municipality, we’re not equipped with the experts who go in and inspect these companies to know where the air filtration system should be or what should be done correctly or not,” Vega said. “We’re sort of relying on the CCC for their guidelines.”
In a statement to The Nation, the CCC said that it had already begun to investigate Trulieve’s Holyoke facility after workers had complained to the state agency in the fall of 2021, months before McMurrey died. The CCC has not announced the results of that probe.
Although Holyoke has become home to one of Massachusetts’s biggest “cannabis clusters,” there wasn’t much local scrutiny of the industry before McMurrey’s death. The city’s newspaper shuttered in 1993, and fewer and fewer reporters have covered the city full-time in recent years.
McMurrey’s death at the Trulieve facility went unreported in the press for most of 2022, until Mike Crawford broke the story that September on his podcast The Young Jurks. It was hardly the first time that Crawford, a veteran cannabis activist whose podcast covers the politics of the industry, has reported on such workplace concerns. “Just talking to these workers, their safety is not the priority,” he said.
Crawford noted that weed workers have told him about health concerns ranging from rashes to respiratory problems. “When the new workers come into the shop, the first thing that they have to tell them is, ‘Be prepared. You can go get some antihistamine, go get some [over-the-counter] medication, or go to the doctor,’” Crawford said. “Some people are sticking paper towels up their noses.”
McMurrey’s death also set off alarm bells among researchers who study occupational hazards in the marijuana industry. “It has increased the urgency of doing additional research,” said Coralynn Sack, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences.
Sack and her colleagues received federal funding to study workplace exposures and health symptoms experienced in one indoor grow facility in Seattle. A report they released in 2020 found “a high prevalence of work-related allergic and particularly respiratory symptoms” in the facility’s employees. However, high levels of recreational cannabis use among the workers complicated the results. So the researchers designed a new study that included both cannabis users and those who don’t partake. Their paper has not yet been published, but Sack said it came to the same conclusions about occupational hazards in the cannabis industry.
“We found elevated risks of respiratory symptoms, of decreased lung function, and of increased sensitization to cannabis,” Sack said. “That increases our suspicion that this is occupationally related.”
Sack said that the researchers are now beginning a five-year study, in which they’ll visit an array of cannabis grow operations and talk to a much larger group of workers. “There’s a really pressing need, especially given how fast this industry is growing, for there to be funded research,” she said.
Cannabis is still illegal on the federal level, creating “significant barriers” for the federal funding of such research, she added. “I think that needs to change.”
Cannabis workers themselves are also taking action to change their workplaces.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers have begun organizing workers in the industry, leading them to speak out about poor pay and working conditions.
In Santa Rosa, Calif., cultivation and post-harvest workers at Floris Terra Cannabis voted to unionize with Teamsters Local 665 in October, becoming some of the few cannabis cultivation workers in the country to organize.
“We unionized because there were a lot of problems going on in the facility,” Anthony Benavides, a post-production trimmer, said in a phone interview. “Everything from the treatment from the higher-ups wasn’t respectful and it wasn’t appropriate for the workplace, to being exposed to mold, to working conditions always being changed. Not even being allowed to sit.”
Benavides said that he and his coworkers were paid poorly and also worried about their health on the job. He said that after work, he can feel the cannabis dust in his lungs—a sensation he knew well from having previously worked in construction. “It feels a lot like when you breathe in the dust or sand from sanding or painting…. It has that same gritty feeling,” Benavides said. He added that when he gets off work, he hops in the shower to loosen some of the congestion. “It’s black mucus and boogers,” he said.
Drew Weisse, an organizer at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459 in western Massachusetts, recently told me that cultivation workers often face workplace dangers. “You’re doing farm work in a factory, so you have the health hazards associated with both farm and factory settings,” he said.
Trulieve has been the company most under the spotlight following McMurrey’s death, but it is not the only cannabis company where concerns have emerged about potential lung hazards and other occupational dangers.
In the fall of 2019, just down the road from Holyoke in the western part of the state, the company INSA, which also has operations in Pennsylvania and Florida, commissioned the health-and-safety consulting firm Cashins & Associates to test the air quality in its grinding, flower-packaging, and trimming rooms in Easthampton. The firm found “notably high” levels of volatile organic compounds, dust, and mold in parts of the building, according to its report, which was viewed by The Nation. Those levels didn’t violate OSHA safety standards, but INSA’s final report stressed that those standards “are not specific to the materials we handle in the cannabis industry and worker discomfort should be taken seriously.”
“Additionally, the air quality in certain rooms, particularly relating to particulate matter and mold, failed other established standards that do not necessarily relate to the indoor air quality of the workplace,” the report says.
INSA did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article. In 2022, the company hired the union-busting consultant Katie Lev to dissuade workers from organizing, according to federal filings. In January, a National Labor Relations Board judge issued a decision that found that Lev’s firm, Lev Labor, broke the law during its union-busting work for Amazon at two of its warehouses on Staten Island.
The environmental report commissioned by INSA noted that the company later installed an air filter in the trimming room. It also said that the facility does have HVAC ventilation with a carbon filter for exhaust, but that the CCC does not allow any “odor” to leave the building and that the exhaust “runs on a timer to reduce costs of forcing air through odor-absorbing carbon filters.”
Another cannabis giant, Holistic Industries, also had air-quality issues in 2021, resulting from a mold infestation inside the company’s cultivation and manufacturing facility in the western Massachusetts town of Monson.
At the time, I was a reporter at a local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Somebody at the company anonymously mailed internal documents to me and other local reporters that summer showing that, over a five-day period, the consulting firm EnviroMed Services had found mold contamination “throughout the facility,” including “significant areas of concern” with heavy mold-spore estimates. The inspectors also found both common and toxigenic mold in the building.
The CCC conducted only a remote inspection of the facility. (The agency told The Nation that the investigation was still pending and declined to answer further questions.)
In a statement, Jeremy Manning, Holistic’s regional vice president of operations, said that based on the consultant’s report, the company did a “large-scale remediation project” and passed a follow-up test that EnviroMed also conducted. “Throughout the remediation process, we took an approach that had as little impact on employees as possible, made mold safety education available for all team members, and continued to provide PPE, including masks, for anyone with sensitivities or concerns,” Manning said. “We are pleased to report that the Monson facility is clean and operational, and we continue to focus on risk assessments, processes, and training to keep employees safe.”
Holistic has also brought in high-dollar anti-union consultants. Federal filings show that the company, like INSA, hired Lev in 2021 to “educate” workers at its retail location in Springfield, Mass.
OSHA reports from other states indicate that Trulieve’s safety problems are not limited to Massachusetts. In February, OSHA fined the company $16,073 for alleged violations related to walking-surface and PPE regulations at a grow facility in Tampa, Fla. In 2022, Trulieve settled at least two other OSHA cases: one in Monticello, Fla., where it was accused of failing to adequately protect workers from the hazards of moving machinery, and another in Reading, Penn., where it was cited after an employee in the “flower room” reportedly touched an exposed live wire and had to be hospitalized. And in 2020, OSHA cited the company for violating respiratory protection and hazard communication regulations at its grow facility in Quincy, Fla.
Other large cannabis companies have also been cited by OSHA. Last year, for example, the agency fined the mammoth Curaleaf because an exit was blocked at a New York grow facility. And Green Thumb Industries was fined after an ethanol explosion hospitalized a worker at a facility in Toledo, Ohio.
In 2021, Curaleaf paid an anti-union consultant $35,000, according to federal labor records. That same year, Green Thumb fought the ultimately successful effort of workers at its Holyoke cultivation facility to unionize. In Massachusetts, agricultural workers—who are frozen out of many labor protections at the federal and state levels—can unionize through card check, which means that an employer can’t force workers to hold an election if a majority of them have signed union cards.
Occupational dangers and workplace exploitation are also prevalent outside the world of legal weed. In Holyoke, across town from Trulieve’s grow facility, police and federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided a house in a quiet neighborhood a little more than a month after McMurrey’s death. There, they discovered a scene that by that point had become common in the region: a home turned into a marijuana grow operation. It was at least the eighth such raid by police in western Massachusetts; in most of those cases, they arrested Chinese immigrants living and working in appalling conditions.
Court records and interviews with prosecutors indicate that the people growing the marijuana are often “front-line” workers toiling in homes that straw purchasers had bought with backing from someone higher in a criminal enterprise; in several cases, the workers were declared indigent and appointed public defenders as well as Cantonese interpreters. One man, Haolin Yu, wept at his arraignment as his lawyer explained that he and his wife, who were poor, had a 2-year-old child and were about to have another, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
Joseph Webber, an assistant DA in the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, which covers two counties near Holyoke, prosecuted several of those cases. He said one of the houses was “covered with mold and mildew” and “the area of the house where the suspect was living or residing was not heated, insulated, or well taken care of.”
“The cases we saw were dangerous living situations for the people doing it,” Webber said, adding that fire hazards abounded in the homes, creating the potential for a major catastrophe.
Law enforcement officials have raided similar operations nationwide, including many that allegedly involved human trafficking.
Trulieve says that it is scheduled to complete work on its OSHA-mandated study of ground cannabis dust by May 29.
But Laura Bruneau wants far more accountability for the death of her daughter, whom she described as sweet and caring to everyone around her. Before she got the job at Trulieve, McMurrey had worked at Walmart, preparing grocery pick-up orders. But that wasn’t a good job, Bruneau said, and so McMurrey went online and found the job opening.
At first it was a better situation. “When she started, she really loved it—she liked it a lot,” Bruneau said. “Until she started realizing she couldn’t breathe.”
Many of those working in the cannabis industry get into the business because weed is their passion; they might be frequent marijuana users or longtime growers who find the work exciting, or they may have benefited from the plant’s medicinal properties in the past.
That’s the case with Christopher Smith, a former “budtender” at a cannabis dispensary in Romeoville, Ill., who, with his coworkers, unionized with the Teamsters in 2021.
A medical-card holder who now works as the business agent for Local 777, Smith said people are trying to find a career, not just a throwaway job, working in cannabis. But as at-will employees, he added, they’re not finding it.
“Before the corporate takeover, when it was more mom-and-pop, it was a more family-oriented feel and vibe,” he said. “With the unionization efforts, this is the way we are going to try to bring back that family vibe.”