Special report: New labor groups organize pot workers | TheUnion.com

Special report: New labor groups organize pot workers

A pot raid, a trial, an overturned conviction and now an appeal have kept Eric Engstrom’s life in a constant state of turmoil since March 2009.

Along the way, Engstrom has become an activist for marijuana rights.

In the last nine months, Engstrom has been criss-crossing the state as president and co-founder of Union Local 13, whose motto, “Don’t Leaf Us Out,” describes the efforts to unionize marijuana cultivators, processors and distributors.

Union Local 13 is 10 months old, the brainchild of founder Kevin DeLang. It now boasts about 900 members, Engstrom said.

Marijuana workers need to unionize, Engstrom argued, pointing out that wages can vary widely: Some collectives pay $12 an hour, while others average $20. In addition, union leaders are working to set quality standards for collectives.

Unionization of marijuana workers already is under way elsewhere. Members of Teamsters Local 70 in Oakland added nearly 40 new members in September when they organized the nation’s first group of unionized marijuana growers – vowing to raise their wages from $18 per hour to $25.75 an hour within 15 months, according to BusinessWeek.

“We don’t back the big business, the industrialization that would force out the mom and pops,” Engstrom said. “It’s a billions-of-dollars industry … We want to keep it grass-roots …

“If we don’t organize, big industry will come in and smash us out,” Engstrom said. “We want to be the voice for the small guy.”

His legal woes “absolutely drove me to advocate for patients and for the medical cannabis industry,” said Engstrom, owner of the now-defunct Dos Banditos restaurant.

In March 2009, Nevada County Sheriff’s deputies raided Engstrom’s Cascade Shores home. Inside, deputies allegedly found 81 marijuana plants growing in two areas, grow lights, processed and bagged marijuana, $17,000 in cash, scales and packaging material.

They also allegedly found a loaded .357-caliber Magnum revolver and a .22-caliber rifle. At the time, Engstrom allegedly had three expired recommendations for medical marijuana, but no valid recommendations.

Engstrom was acquitted of possessing marijuana for sale, but convicted of unlawful cultivation in March 2010. The amount of marijuana found and the potential yields of Engstrom’s hydroponic garden were big factors in the jury’s decision.

But their verdict was set aside by Nevada County Superior Court Judge Candace Heidelberger after she learned jury members improperly had used their own calculations to estimate the yield.

The Nevada County District Attorney’s Office has filed a notice of appeal with the state of California, asking the Court of Appeals to find Heidelberger abused her discretion in granting a new trial. That would reinstate Engstrom’s conviction, but a decision is not anticipated for another year.

As Engstrom awaits the next step in his case, he spends much of his time in advocacy, speaking out in defense of collectives. His girlfriend, Mona Castellanos, is the union’s treasurer.

“We like to see people complying with the state law,” Engstrom said. “We want to advocate for them and see the judicial system comply (with the law) as well. Right now, there are a bunch of Lone Rangers popping off and doing their own thing.”

Contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar at lkellar@theunion.com or (530) 477-4229.

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