Here’s what you should know before launching a career on the cannabis frontier.
The cannabis industry is blossoming. Business opportunity first started in 1996, when California approved medical marijuana use. Over the next two decades, the legal landscape slowly changed until 2012, when Washington and Colorado legalized recreational cannabis use. To date, 29 states, plus the nation’s capital, have legalized medical marijuana use, while nine plus D.C. permit recreational use. Now, between 165,000 and 230,000 people work part time or full time in cannabis industry jobs, according to Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy organization.
Cannabis companies offer opportunities to work in accounting, advocacy, agriculture, compliance, customer service, sales, technology and more. For example, National Holistic Healing Center employs a general manager, a lawyer, a marketing specialist, an inventory manager and wellness consultants who help customers select products.
Of course, there are peculiarities that accompany the business of selling something that the U.S. federal government classifies as illegal. Despite state permissions, the Drug Enforcement Administration still treats marijuana as a banned drug with “a high potential for abuse.” This makes it difficult for cannabis companies to process their profits, exempts cannabis workers from some federal labor protections, and lends a certain precariousness to the whole enterprise.
“There are definitely risks involved in switching into this industry,” says Karson Humiston, founder and CEO of cannabis recruiting agency Vangst. “There could be a federal crackdown, in which people would lose their jobs.”
But she and other leaders are betting that’s “highly unlikely.” And despite its drawbacks, the cannabis industry offers workers an exciting employment ecosystem, says Suzannah Rubinstein, senior marketing manager at LeafLink, a digital wholesale marketplace for marijuana products.
“If you are a person who is looking to define an industry and create things for the first time,” she says, “cannabis is a great place to be right now.”
The cannabis industry is most established in the Western U.S., so that region boasts the most career opportunities, reports ZipRecruiter, an online employment marketplace that hosts job advertisements. Denver topped the list of the 10 cities that advertised the most cannabis industry positions in 2017, followed by Los Angeles; San Francisco; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Sacramento, California; Spokane, Washington; Miami; Chicago; and Boston.
Meanwhile, employment demand is growing quickly elsewhere, too, in places like Baltimore, Dallas, Philadelphia and New York City.
The industry has four main sectors, Humiston explains. In cultivation, people with botany expertise grow marijuana plants. In extraction, chemists and laboratory technicians process flowers and leaves to draw out the oils used to create pills, ointments and edibles. In retail, dispensary workers sell products to customers. And in ancillary commerce, web developers, recruiters and marketers help the other three sectors conduct business.
The skills and degrees needed to land these positions vary. Some workers are marijuana experts; others simply apply more ordinary trades like accounting and office management.
Andras Kirschner runs District Cannabis, a cultivation and extraction facility in Washington, D.C., that uses a computer-controlled hydroponics system to grow some of the marijuana sold at National Holistic Healing Center. Some, but not all, of its 16 employees have advanced degrees in plant science.
“In [the] horticultural [department] and in the lab, people are very passionate about cannabis,” Kirschner says. “In processing and packaging, we have people who have never touched cannabis before.”
When hiring wellness consultants to advise clients, National Holistic Healing Center owner Chanda Macias looks for people who have backgrounds in biomedical research or pharmacy training.
“I need them to understand how the body works,” says Macias, who has a doctoral degree in cell biology.
Despite marijuana’s illegal classification and the anti-drug attitude of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the federal government doesn’t currently have much appetite for cracking down on the cannabis industry. The federal budget doesn’t provide any resources to the Justice Department to investigate violations at medical marijuana dispensaries that comply with state policies, says Emily Burns, an attorney at Offit Kurman who specializes in cannabis law.
So there may not be much legal risk to working at a marijuana company that has its affairs in order. That said, before accepting a job, it’s important to check with state regulators that the business in question does in fact have a license.
The biggest downsides to working in the industry are more practical. Federal labor laws don’t apply to marijuana enterprises operating at the state level, Burns says, so some employers are able to operate without offering the benefits and protections most workers in other sectors take for granted, such as health care, liability insurance, anti-discrimination policies and workers compensation for on-the-job injuries. While some states, such as California, have strong labor laws of their own, others don’t.
“It’s important to know what you’re getting into,” Burns says. “There are a lot of snake-oil salesmen in this industry. Understand who is a legitimate business owner who cares about their law obligations versus someone who uses it as an excuse to circumvent federal law.”
Cannabis companies often have trouble finding outside services that will support their operations, which means workers may experience paycheck disruptions or receive their wages in cash. For example, the payroll provider to Terra Tech, a multi-state cultivation, extraction and dispensary company, once cut off its services right before the winter holidays.
“We can’t get a 401(k) for our employees. We finally found a payroll and benefit provider willing to work for us. It’s taken years to find these relationships,” says Derek Peterson, Terra Tech CEO. “Banking and financial services is still in a ridiculous headwind. Employees ultimately suffer.”
Workers who come into direct contact with marijuana plants and products are subject to regulations that vary by state. They may have to pass – and pay for – drug and background tests. These requirements can slow down the hiring process. To work at District Cannabis, for example, employees must pass a background check and get registered with the city, a process that takes two to four weeks, Kirschner says.
The cannabis industry has one more major catch: Many jobs are off-limits to people who have drug felonies on their criminal records. That individuals, especially people of color, who served prison time for drug offenses “can’t work in the industry they helped create” strikes Macias as unjust, she says.
Some cities, such as Oakland, California, have created programs to help minorities gain a foothold in the industry. For her part, Macias offers internships to women and minorities designed to give them a leg up into the business.
These downsides haven’t deterred people from jumping into cannabis jobs. In fact, many workers and entrepreneurs say the Wild West atmosphere is precisely what makes the sector appealing.
“The whole industry is really a startup,” Rubinstein says. “The best and most successful companies are running similarly: Move fast, innovate and stay ahead of the curve.”
The decent pay helps, too. After providing depressed wages in their early days, cannabis companies now tend to offer compensation on par with what other industries pay professionals, Humiston says.
At Kannavis, a dispensary in Maryland, patient consultants start out making $15 an hour and managers earn salaries of around $40,000, says manager Jordan Baker: “It’s essentially equivalent to retail jobs.”
At Terra Tech, which employs 315 people in California and Nevada, hourly employees earn an average of $17 an hour, while the average wage for its 69 salaried workers is $88,659.60, a rate Peterson calls “a pretty substantial premium.”
“Call it hazard pay,” he says.
For job seekers who decide the pros of cannabis outweigh the cons, there are plenty of opportunities, even for people who don’t have any background in the business. When Kannavis opened seven months ago, none of the 19 people Baker hired had any professional cannabis work experience.
“I had the opportunity to fully train them, make sure they understood cannabis science, customer service and compassionate care,” he says.