The parking lot of the River City Phoenix medical cannabis dispensary was jammed last Thursday. As a security guard directed traffic, a line of patients stretched out the door of the North Sacramento outlet in a funky industrial neighborhood.

Unlike people who show up at cannabis festivals such as the Emerald Cup — young and looking for a good high — these marijuana seekers were indistinguishable from the folks you see in line every day at the grocery store.

Some were youngish, but many were middle-aged and elderly. Some looked pretty sick as they waited to get into the dispensary, which grosses $16 million a year in sales despite being crammed into only 1,700 square feet.

Everyone still had to show a medical marijuana card to get in; even though California voters legalized recreational cannabis last November, the new rules don’t kick in until 2018. Until then, unless you grow your own, you must have a doctor’s recommendation to buy.

Shayna Schonauer, 27, is California’s first-ever state-certified cannabis pharmacy technician. (Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

Since this was April 20, a national marijuana holiday for reasons you should know by now, the dispensary was especially busy.

Like many around the state, River City Phoenix celebrated the occasion by offering treats to its patients: vouchers for pizza and tacos from food trucks outside and a goodie bag with a prerolled joint, a gram of bud and an edible sample or two. (Next to cosmetics, cannabis is the most sample crazy industry I’ve ever seen. Some pot lovers even treat 4/20 like Halloween, roaming around from dispensary to dispensary, collecting freebies.)

“Have a great 4/20!” a budtender cheerfully told a young woman who was buying a rainbow-colored Rice Krispies square.

“If a new patient came in, I would definitely ask what kind of effect you were looking for. Do you want something to relax at the end of the day? Are you suffering from joint pain, back pain, headaches?” said Shayna Schonauer, 27, who began working as a budtender at River City Phoenix almost five years ago.

Last month, Schonauer became California’s first official cannabis pharmacy technician. She completed 2,000 hours of training — on safety, packaging, patient verification and best business practices — and was awarded her journeyman certificate by the California Apprenticeship Council of the state department of Industrial Relations. Another 35 enrollees in the Sacramento-area pilot program are still working toward their certificates. The program was spearheaded by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 1.3 million members and began reaching out to dispensary workers about four years ago.

He envisions apprenticeship programs covering every part of the cannabis industry “from seed to sale.” He is working with educational institutions like City College of San Francisco to create a cannabis apprenticeship curriculum that could be a model for other parts of the industry. (Dispensaries do not have to be unionized to participate.)

In addition to creating a more standardized workforce, Ferro said, apprenticeships will help level the playing field for the folks who have been penalized the most by the failed war on drugs. “This will be an opportunity for people of color to really thrive, because it’s the skills that will get you there, not your gender or color,” he said.

Related: Should potentially lucrative pot permits be reserved for minority communities?

The apprenticeship program is yet another measure of how cannabis is professionalizing at a breakneck pace.

Another sign: the unionization of the cannabis workforce. The UFCW, which represents workers at River City Phoenix, has organized thousands of them in eight states.

Unlike many employers who want to run screaming when they hear a union is sniffing around their workers, River City Phoenix actually invited the union in.

“I had a real fear I was going to get hauled off to jail,” said David Spradling, an engaging 36-year-old who owns the River City Phoenix dispensary with Mark Pelter, 68, a serene former Buddhist monk who got his start in cannabis years ago as a seasonal worker, or “trimmigrant,” in Mendocino County.

Related: California cannabis industry: An employment guide

“I reached out to the union because I wanted to solidify my staff wages and benefits, so if I was arrested or had to sell, the people I employed would be secure,” Spradling said.

With 100 workers on the payroll, he and Pelter operate the largest unionized dispensary in the state. Their employees start at $13 an hour and get bumped to $15 after 90 days. They receive health benefits, and will eventually participate in the UFCW’s pension plan as well. (Spradling said many of his entry level employees are not as excited about the health benefits as they could be, since they’re under 26, and not desperate for insurance because they are still on their parents’ plans.)

Spradling and Pelter have recently purchased a second dispensary nearby, and have plans to expand to Marysville and Portland, Ore. Their goal is to open three dispensaries a year for the next five years, including, they hope, in Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles is the biggest market in the world,” Spradling said. “You can’t be an industry leader without having a presence in Los Angeles. It dwarfs everything.”


When Schonauer, who did not attend college, first went to work for River City Phoenix as a budtender, she earned $9 an hour. Now a manager who oversees two stores, she is earning nearly quadruple that.

“I’m hoping this program will put some sort of standard into our industry, which we don’t have yet,” Schonauer said.

We were chatting in a small, airy space next door to the dispensary called Honey’s Hideaway Gallery, recently opened by Spradling. The gallery is devoted to high-end blown-glass pipes, bongs and “rigs,” which are used to smoke concentrated forms of cannabis. Some of the pieces, which cost up to $5,000, looked like no smoking implements I’d ever seen. Personally, I couldn’t imagine befouling any of the delicate glass with gooey cannabis extracts.

Then again, I could hardly have imagined that cannabis workers would be unionized now, or that the state of California would put its golden seal of approval on a new class of cannabis industry journeymen.

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