Two years ago Rob Pena began work as a community organizer for a marijuana justice campaign within Reclaim Rhode Island. He was campaigning to help craft the future of Rhode Island’s cannabis industry, doing the work to ensure the Rhode Island Cannabis Act included social equity provisions and record expungement.
In 2022, when the bill was signed into law, it meant the passage of one of the most progressive cannabis legalization laws in the country as it put racial and economic justice at the forefront, and made space for worker-owned co-op licenses.
Initially, Reclaim intended to open their own dispensary; however, plans evolved and a coalition was formed instead: the Rhode Island Cannabis Justice Coalition. Part of that coalition is the PVD Flowers Co-Op.
“The team came together. Some of us had sold, some of us have previous records, and we came together to build a worker-owned dispensary with a union,” said Pena.
A 2021 study by the Democracy at Work Institute reported 612 worker cooperatives in the United States. A relatively low number considering the benefits. In a co-op, workers own their jobs. They have agency over their working conditions, they decide how they want to operate, they decide how they will be treated. Worker-owned co-ops can be effective tools for creating dignified employment and generating wealth.
“It’s not something that’s usual in America or pretty much anywhere,” said Pena. “It’s the idea that the workers have a workplace democracy where they have a share in the company. If you work there, you have a vote. What happens with the revenue stream? You get to vote on that. What happens with your benefit package? You get to vote on that.”
In addition to being a cooperative, PVD Flowers has its own union.
“You have the people who work in the dispensary who own a piece of the dispensary, and then you have the union specifically for the protection of the workers. We need a union so the workers have their own representation if they ever feel the co-op is going awry. It’s all around making sure there’s accountability and power distributed as equitably as possible.”
During the process of organizing and forming the coalition, Pena met many new people looking for work, some of whom were formerly incarcerated and struggling to find employment given their criminal record.
“Going to a job interview it feels kind of demeaning and embarrassing talking about a record that you’re trying to get over. You serve your time, they tell you that you serve your time, but then when you get out, it feels like you’re still doing time. You’re still being punished for things that you already paid for.”
Pena hopes the co-op model provides people with another chance, a real chance, to have power over their lives and power in the space they work in.
“We’re looking to build a business model around empowering people, not only to work for us, but how to be an active participant of a worker co-op and build skills beyond just selling weed. I always feel like when you want to help people, you start from within and then you spread outwards. We’re not trying to come off as your neighborhood drug dealers, we’re trying to educate.”
Through conversation and connection, and eventually through educational seminars and neighborhood meetings, Pena hopes PVD Flowers provides small businesses with an opportunity to strengthen community and build neighborhood wealth.
“I think it’s pretty easy to talk to a random person, no matter their politics, and say, ‘Hey, doesn’t being poor kind of suck?’ Everyone agrees with that. Everyone understands that. I think it’s pretty easy. But where do you go from there?”
PVD Flowers seeks to operate as a community base for people to come together, to meet, talk, and learn. They are currently a team of six who are actively preparing for the moment they can apply for a co-op retail license by doing the dry-yet-necessary work of defining their bylaws and finessing their business model.
Exactly when retail licenses will be issued remains a mystery; however, when the moment comes, PVD Flowers Co-Op will be ready. And down the line, when the first worker-owned cannabis dispensary co-op opens its doors, patrons will get more than a store.
“The group of people that we have are very community-oriented; that’s where their mind is. They want to meet the people that go there. We’re trying to make it so that the experience is as quick and easy as possible without it feeling hasty. We’re trying to fill in the space with what’s going on around us. We’re trying to support artists by having their artwork on display. Maybe open up a little shop for third-party vendors.
I remember I went to a cannabis convention and there was a lady that sold pastries. They had no weed in them whatsoever. She just liked weed and worked, at times, with dispensaries to sell her carrot cakes. I think that’s dope. I think that’s amazing. I would love to support small businesses and connect with folks. I’m hoping we can have a very open dialogue with the neighborhood. Like when they recognize us, we’re those dudes from the shop, not the drug dealers down the street.”
To learn more, connect with PVD Flowers Co-Op on IG @pvdflowersri.