Robert Chlala

Robert Chlala

Department of Sociology, University of Southern California

To many, the initial unfolding of cannabis legalization in the United States appeared to be a typical case of relentless commodification privileging mostly-white elites. But then came California. Among other progressive cannabis-related policies, state regulations for the industry have enshrined stringent labor and environmental protections. Los Angeles, the U.S.’s largest cannabis market, is pioneering a social equity program guaranteeing cannabis licenses and jobs for those from neighborhoods hard-hit by the “war on drugs.”

These transformations raise critical questions that animate my dissertation: how do social movements shape the socio-spatial organization of markets? How are these processes entwined with socially-constructed, place-based relations of difference?

To answer to these questions and explore the progressive potentialities they can inform, I engaged in more than four years of participant observation with Angeleno labor and racial/economic justice groups in cannabis and conducted 75 semi-structured interviews with workers, owners, and organizers.  Bridging feminist political-economic geography and economic sociology, my data suggests movements are more than external forces to markets. They operate within and affect daily practices in markets — remaking transactional forms, industrial knowledge and labor relations. Crucial to the influence of movements is the ways organizations confront power relations, anchored in place and constructions of difference (i.e. race, gender, sexuality), that underpin markets. As part of my commitments as a scholar from affected communities, I have published this data in reports and media/films with movement organizations and worked to help shape social equity policies in ways that foreground the experiences of low-income, communities of color at the front lines of cannabis-work - and a changing carceral landscape.

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