When Marcus got hired to work at the first legal weed dispensary in Toronto, he didn’t expect to come face to face with a puddle of human feces.
But Marcus, 22, quit his budtender position at the Hunny Pot Cannabis Co. after he alleged the company mishandled two floods, including one where his colleagues were asked to clean up sewage water without proper equipment.
“It smelled like shit,” Marcus said.
In a separate flood, Marcus alleged management offered water-damaged containers of cannabis to staff at a discount. He said he didn’t realize the water may have been contaminated with sewage.
Marcus and five other former Hunny Pot employees who spoke to VICE described a chaotic and at times unsanitary environment, with racial microaggressions and payroll issues. They described a culture of fear, where management played favourites among staff, and those who spoke up were punished or faced “jokes” about being fired. The workers (five out of six declined to use their real names due to privacy concerns, and are identified by first name pseudonyms) showed VICE documentation of their grievances, including a letter they gave to management in October.
“I had to leave for my own mental health,” Marcus said.
All six former employees quit their jobs.
In response to a detailed list of allegations, Cameron Brown, communications officer for the Hunny Pot, said the company is “committed to providing a healthy, safe and inclusive environment for all our employees and customers."
Brown didn’t respond to most of VICE’s questions, claiming that they pertain to confidential personnel matters. However, he said the store has never sold contaminated products.
The Hunny Pot became Toronto’s first legal weed dispensary when it opened on April 1, 2019. Customers lined up on Queen Street West by the dozens on a freezing opening day, and the store—a multilevel space with sleek black and gold branding—remains bustling now, according to former employees; one former worker said a manager told him the place raked in more than $100,000 on the final weekend of last year’s Caribana festival. A former cashier told VICE her till would have $3,000 just in cash (not including debit and credit) at the end of a shift.
"The safety of workers, the happiness of workers, anything to do with their people, it was completely second thought.”
The Hunny Pot opened following a chaotic process through which legal cannabis retailers in Ontario were selected via lottery and expected to be ready to operate within two and a half months. There was a lot riding on the launch, as Ontario was already months behind the rest of the country in opening legal cannabis stores. By that time, most of the illicit dispensaries in Toronto had shut their doors. Many had received negative press for operating outside the law, selling questionable products, poor working conditions, and robberies, and there was an expectation that legal dispensaries would be more professional.
When I spoke to the Hunny Pot’s owner Hunny Gawri, a real estate agent, on opening day, he admitted he had very limited knowledge about cannabis but said his retail experience would allow him to run a successful shop. The store is opening a second location in Burlington soon.
But the Hunny Pot made several gaffes from the get-go. It wasn’t wheelchair-accessible; it was accused of overcharging its customers; and, as VICE reported, the shop’s publicist pretended to be its first customer in a television interview, during which she raved about the service she received. A shirt worn by a white female employee bearing the slogan “I run on weed & gangsta rap,” was criticized by some as being tone deaf considering that Black people are disproportionately arrested for cannabis crimes and often left out of the legal industry.
The former budtenders who spoke to VICE said they wanted to work at the Hunny Pot for a variety of reasons, ranging from an interest in medical cannabis to a desire to be part of a burgeoning industry. But they said the working environment quickly became intolerable.
Sara, 27, was among the first cohort of Hunny Pot employees. She said from the first day of orientation, prior to the store launch, there was something off.
“This big old white dude comes in the room in front of all the people and announces, ‘I don't partake in this stuff, I’m just the money,’” she said.
Sara told VICE a fellow employee at the meeting talked about how she’d gone through chemotherapy and was concerned about the lack of a railing on the stairs.
According to Sara, the man, who she believes is an investor with the company, abruptly responded that the Hunny Pot wasn’t the place for people with trouble walking. Another former employee who was present during the orientation corroborated Sara’s claim.
“That kind of theme is kind of what carried on with every issue,” Sara said. “The safety of workers, the happiness of workers, anything to do with their people, it was completely second thought.”
On September 28, a sewage pipe in the Hunny Pot’s basement caused flooding. The area is where the former employees said they clocked in and out for their shifts and includes the vault, where cannabis products are stocked.
When Jake, another Hunny Pot budtender, showed up at work that morning, he said everyone was “in a panic and confused” over the flood. According to Jake, his manager Carlo Bernabe was cracking jokes and encouraging people to go downstairs where the flood was most active in order to clock in.
"The floor was brown."
The 24-year-old said he refused, but was surprised when the store opened on time and customers began trickling in.
He said several of his coworkers were wearing garbage bags on their feet, and sucking up the dirty water into a shop vacuum and taking it outside to dump its contents. He said the dirty water splashed on the staircase and into the tiny staff room, where employees eat. He said one coworker who’d been cleaning up cut his head on a rusty nail, and was given first aid in the staff room.
Marcus said he went downstairs to clock in on the day of the flood.
“You could actually see the floor was brown,” he said, noting there were parts of the floor that looked like slush.
According to Marcus and Jake, Bernabe told staff that if they talked about the sewage with any customers they would be sent home immediately.
Jake, who suffers from chronic pain, began to feel nauseous from the fumes and went home. He was forced to take a sick day, although managers gave him the day back after he complained.
When Jake and Marcus returned two days later, they told Bernabe they said they wouldn’t work until they were given proof that the store had been cleaned professionally.
They believe the company should have shut down the store, called in professional cleaners right away, and clearly communicated what was happening to staff. Instead, Jake, Marcus, and Sara, complained to Toronto Public Health and the Ministry of Labour themselves—but they noted that inspections took place days after the flood had already been cleaned by staff. In an email viewed by VICE, a Toronto Public Health Inspector told Bernabe “there was no health hazard present” when he visited and that the floor had been sanitized with bleach.
The Ministry of Labour did not find that Hunny Pot had acted inappropriately in responding to the flood, noting that a worker who was present at the time said “that the affected area was limited to the back corner of the room and was a small puddle.” The Hunny Pot told the Ministry of Labour inspector that workers equipped with N95 respirators, disposable gloves and safety glasses had promptly cleaned up the flood water and that plumbing and restoration companies had cleared the drain and sanitized the basement.
Jake, Marcus, and Sara told VICE they didn’t see anyone wearing goggles or respirators.
The Ministry of Labour issued the Hunny Pot four orders unrelated to the flood, telling the store to make sure its employees had proper health and safety training, and to complete a workplace violence risk assessment. Ministry spokeswoman Janet Deline told VICE as of late January, the Hunny Pot had complied with those orders. The investigation is now closed.
Brown said the flooding the Hunny Pot experienced was typical for a business in the city.
“Our management team acted promptly, engaged professional cleaners, and our remediation was reviewed and approved by the Toronto Public Health Department in a timely manner.”
After a previous flood, in July, water-damaged packages of cannabis were offered to staff with a 30 percent discount, according to Sara and Jake, who both purchased some.
In a recorded conversation between Marcus, Jake, and Bernabe obtained by VICE, Bernabe acknowledged that the rainwater line and sewage line meet, so floods are a mixture of both.
“You sold us discounted weed because it touched fecal matter,” Jake is heard saying in the recording. Bernabe replied that only the boxes touched the water.
“When the water came out, the boxes were moved right away,” he said.
Brown adamantly denied that the Hunny Pot has ever sold contaminated products.
“What we can tell you is that there has never been any contaminated product sold at any price to anyone, at any time, through the Hunny Pot. Any allegation otherwise is absurd, unequivocally false, and harmful.”
Sara said the shop was renovating a “celebrity suite” for VIP guests upstairs, while the staff had to deal with issues like the sewage backups. It’s a prime example of how management prioritizes, she said.
Jake, who is Black, said he was subjected to racist remarks by one of the store’s supervisors.
He alleged that during one shift that supervisor told him that he was the “perfect” person to guard the store because he’s a “big Black guy.” That same day, he alleged she remarked on his Ankh necklace and asked if he was going to “summon fertility from the gods.” Jake said soon after she made the comments, the supervisor stopped working for the Hunny Pot.
Marcus, who is Black, said that while he was applying lip balm, the same female supervisor commented on how his lips are “too dark.” Another former employee, who was there at the time, corroborated Marcus’ account of that incident.
Reached by VICE, the former Hunny Pot supervisor said the allegations are “completely untrue” and “absolutely ridiculous.”
On another occasion, during a morning meeting that included management, Jake said one of his colleagues referred to him having a “big dick,” which he took to be a joke based on a racist trope.
Jake said he brought up the comments in an October meeting with Brown, during which the workers discussed all their grievances. “He didn’t offer any solutions,” he said.
Andrea Simpson, 22, started at the Hunny Pot as a receptionist last April, making $14 an hour. A couple of months in, she switched to being a budtender and was told she would be paid $17, the standard salary for that job.
Three months after that, she checked her pay stub and noticed she was still getting paid $14 an hour. They had only paid her $17 on one cheque, before switching her back to the lower salary.
“I was really upset when I found out,” she said. “They honestly made it seem like they weren’t going to do anything.”
She said no one from Hunny Pot offered her an apology or explanation for messing up her pay.
Instead, Simpson said Bernabe and another manager implied she could quit if she wasn’t happy. She didn’t show up for work again.
Simpson reported the Hunny Pot to the Ministry of Labour after which she said the company voluntarily paid her the money she was owed.
In their letter to management, workers said breaks are not applied consistently, with some employees on their feet for five hours or longer without being given a 30-minute break.
One former worker said management accidentally sent out her personal information, including her social security number, to new hires, when sending out forms for them to fill out. Another said management mistakenly docked too much of her pay for tax purposes, leaving her with a $6 paycheque. She pointed it out, but said it was never reimbursed.
“Culture of fear”
According to Sara, the company removed its anonymous portal for filing complaints shortly after she filed a lengthy complaint alleging staff was being treated poorly.
She said employees were told they needed to speak directly to management and provide “specifics” if they had an issue.
Marcus said he reported Bernabe for making jokes about him being fired, but that afterwards, things were tense at work, and he felt ostracized by some of his colleagues. He got written up twice—once for not doing his chores, even though he alleges a colleague completed them, and another time for not providing a note when he called in sick. He said he did violate the sick note policy, but that it wasn’t applied to everyone.
In December he quit.
Marcus said the experience has been disappointing because it feels like a continuation of the inequity within the legal cannabis industry.
“All these cannabis LPs are [staffed with] white people who don’t even smoke weed,” he said. “Even the managers that [the Hunny Pot] hires, they know nothing about weed, they know nothing about the product they’re selling.” He said often times the product is subpar but the prices get jacked up nonetheless.
The Hunny Pot had an opportunity to break down barriers, he said, but “they’re just falling into the same traps.”