Cannabis businesses not immune from vaccine-mandate controversy

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Image depicting a COVID-19 vaccination

Most U.S. employers already require their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or have plans to require them to do so soon.

That’s according to a recent survey conducted by London-headquartered insurance broker and advisory firm Willis Towers Watson.

But vaccine mandates aren’t so popular among cannabis employers, most of whom are too small to face government directives.

Cannabis employers that are following vaccine-or-test rules often say they are simply following vaccine decrees required by state and local regulators.

The reluctance to impose a vaccine-or-test regimen likely reflects a libertarian streak that’s unsurprising in an industry that often flouts federal law and attracts consumers skeptical of traditional pharmaceuticals and the companies that make them.

“I left it up to my employees,” said Luis Vega, owner of Wepa Farms, a hemp company in North Haven, Connecticut, with about 25 employees.

“Most of our staff and everybody that works with us is pretty open-minded to understand that we all make individual choices and individual ideas on what we want to do.”

According to an informal online poll of more than 300 retail store owners conducted by MJBizDaily, 60% said they would not implement employee vaccine mandates.

Only 31% said they were requiring them, while the rest had not yet settled on a plan.

Business dilemma

The controversy over employer vaccine mandates is far from limited to the cannabis industry.

Even as most private employers now require or are planning to require their employees to get vaccinated, employers also worry that mandates will scare off employees in an already tight labor market made even more constricted by the pandemic.

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Roughly 5% of unvaccinated adults in the United States say they left a job because an employer required them to get vaccinated, with half of all employees reporting opposition to employer mandates, according to Kaiser Family Foundation surveys.

Making matters more complicated for private employers, a federal vaccine mandate for companies with more than 100 employees is tied up in legal challenges while a handful of states controlled by Republican legislators have passed emergency rules forbidding employer vaccine mandates.

Left to sort it all out are employers such as Vince Sanders, owner of Kansas City, Missouri-based CBD American Shaman, a retail chain with more than 300 locations in 38 states.

“We’ve honestly been so up in the air on that,” Sanders told MJBizDaily about requiring employee vaccines.

His company has yet to require COVID-19 vaccines.

“The vast majority of people are vaccinated,” Sanders said. “I certainly am.

“But there are a few people that are not, and interestingly enough, as far as I know, they’ve already had COVID. So that’s not an easy call.”

Following requirement rules

Some cannabis employers are embracing vaccine requirements, even where they’re not required.

At GenCanna, a CBD manufacturer in Kentucky, executives pointed to safety concerns for requiring their 54 employees to show they’ve been vaccinated.

“Safety is always our highest priority, and that includes the people we employ as well as the products we make,” CEO Andrew Barnett said via email.

“To ensure that our colleagues work in the safest possible environment, GenCanna instituted a mandatory vaccination requirement in August.

“Every one of our staff members have adhered to this policy and are fully vaccinated.”

Other cannabis employers are embracing vaccine mandates as a means to ending the pandemic.

“Whatever it takes to get us kind of back to status quo is a good thing,” said Steven Phan, co-founder of Come Back Daily, a store that sells CBD products in New York City.

New York City officials have ordered proof of vaccination for most public indoor activities while New York state officials this week mandated that anyone older than 2 wear a mask in indoor public spaces without vaccine mandates.

Across town in Brooklyn, medical marijuana dispensary manager Adam DeLapp said the 10 employees at his store had no problem complying.

“All of our employees took it upon themselves and got vaccinated,” said DeLapp, assistant general manager at Be, a dispensary owned by iAnthus Capital.

“I know some people are like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to have the vaccine,’ and other people say it’s each person’s choice,” DeLapp added.

“But I want things to get back to normal as soon as possible, without more variants, especially with so many tourists here.

“We want to make sure we follow the guidelines and people feel safe coming in here, because this is a medical facility.”

Employers’ rights

The debate over required vaccinations has underscored the need for cannabis employers to know their rights and responsibilities, said Fabiola Jimenez, an attorney at Cultiva Law in Seattle.

Jimenez said her cannabis clients are asking what to do to get ready for additional vaccine mandates.

“Clients are wondering, ‘Is this going to be something that’s coming down the pipeline?’” she said.

“It’s an interesting question, because the cannabis industry for many can be considered a very liberal industry, when you compare it to other types of industries. And so you have folks that (say), getting vaccinated, it’s fine.”

But many cannabis business owners tend to be white, conservative men, she points out.

“So now you have almost this battling perspective where you have employees that we would consider very liberal … and then you have business owners that are very conservative and would not want to have a vaccine mandate implemented.”

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, business owners are legally allowed to require vaccines (subject to legally required exemptions) and to ask about vaccine status.

Still to be settled in court is whether the federal government can require private employers to mandate vaccinations and whether business owners who resist vaccine mandates could be held liable for unsafe working conditions if unvaccinated workers infect colleagues.

But it makes good business sense to be thoughtful about how to communicate vaccine policy to employees, Jimenez said.

“It’s important to have a genuine conversation, not just a simple email,” she said. “Create a much more personalized interaction. … If you go in right off the bat and say, ‘We’re doing the mandate,’ you’re going to polarize folks.”

Jimenez noted that “the vaccine is already a touchy subject.

“For some folks,” she said, “it’s a no-brainer, they want to get vaccinated. For other folks, that’s a no-brainer, they don’t want it.

“So find some way where you can personalize that message. That will resonate with the folks a little bit more and open up channels that will allow for a more productive conversation.”

Kristen Nichols can be reached at