What is it Like to Work in the Legal Cannabis Industry?

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Ever wanted to work in the cannabis industry? Now that medical cannabis is legal in 33 states and recreational cannabis is legal in 10 states and D.C., you might wonder just how easy it is. Is it like working for your cousin’s bar, but cooler? Is it illegal? Do you have to partake?

Working in cannabis can be tricky, as well as lots of fun — but marijuana jobs are still jobs. If you want to work in this industry, you have to take it seriously.

So, Where Do You Start?

Cannabis is a growing field (yes, literally). A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 62 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana (double the number who were in favor back in 2000). Cannabis site Leafly.com tallied the number of full-time jobs created by the legal marijuana industry in the U.S. They found that as of the start of 2019, there were 211,000 full-time legal cannabis jobs in the country, with 64,000 added in 2018 alone.

So there are lots of jobs to be had, but also lots of different ways to go about landing one that works for you. Just like in any other industry, you have to think about how you want to work (full-time or seasonal), who you want to work for (some guy or an established business) and what you want to do (office, manual labor or something more creative).

Is Cannabis Really Even Legal?

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In this country, that’s a real gray area. According to U.S. federal law, cannabis is still a Schedule 1 controlled substance. The National Conference of State Legislatures notes:

“At the federal level, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, where Schedule I substances are considered to have a high potential for dependency and no accepted medical use, making distribution of marijuana a federal offense. In October of 2009, the Obama Administration sent a memo to federal prosecutors encouraging them not to prosecute people who distribute marijuana for medical purposes in accordance with state law.”

So the short answer to whether legal weed is really legal is…kinda? Or, it depends?

The NCSL also charts each state’s various marijuana/cannabis program laws, which can give you a quick idea as to what’s going on in your state. State laws governing cannabis are, to say it simply, complex.

Leafly breaks down current state laws and regulations across the country. Some states allow consumption of cannabidiol (CBD) oil only. Others allow use of marijuana for medical purposes, while still others have given the OK for both recreational and medical use. Leafly points out that only four states in the U.S. have completely zero tolerance for any type of cannabis: Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota and Nebraska. If you want to work in the legal cannabis industry, you won’t be doing it there (at least not at this time).

Working in Cannabis: The Rules

To say that the legal cannabis industry is heavily regulated is an understatement. Each state that has legalized cannabis in any form has its own set of (frequently changing) laws and regulations to follow. These rules don’t stop at the growers’ or sellers’ door, however. They also apply to employees, as well.

As this careers page description for a Boulder-based legal recreational cannabis company, The Farm, points out:

“The cannabis industry is highly regulated and there are specific qualifications in the state of Colorado for obtaining a badge granted by the Marijuana Enforcement Division. A few of the most basic requirements are applicants must be 21 or over, never been convicted of a felony at any time regarding the possession, distribution or use of a controlled substance and must be a Colorado resident.”

Starting at the Bottom: Trimming

One of the oldest jobs in pre-legal cannabis was seasonal work for growers, and the legal industry still needs these entry-level workers. “Trimmers” as they’re known, are typically hired on for a few months near harvest time to do the grunt work of meticulously (you guessed it) trimming cannabis flowers off of dried plants. Every cannabis grower needs to perform this task and it’s not glamorous work.

One former trimmer who spoke to PayScale noted that the trimmer work she did was hard, and wouldn’t be good for everyone.

“It was constant work, often 12-13 hours a day,” said Kristy Walden,* who now lives in Spain. “Your hands get stiff from using scissors all day. Sometimes the buds were very small, which would make the job harder and you would get paid less because you couldn’t make your daily weight goals with small buds. It seemed that sometimes the bigger (head buds), were reserved for ‘favorite’ trimmers.”

Walden spent four seasons as a trimmer in northern California from 2006-2011 (when the state had legalized medical marijuana). She traveled alone, which sometimes she admits put her at risk.

“When I worked alone at an indoor operation I felt very safe and was well looked after. It was by far the best,” she said. “Some situations the farm owners were drinking and partying — even out shooting guns in the woods — this made me nervous of course. I had to leave a few situations.”

Recreational Sales: Budtenders

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You’ve always wanted a cool job in retail, right? Being a cannabis “budtender” is kind of that, but with more nuanced product knowledge than you’d need to sell jeans or ice cream. Any state with dispensaries will have budtenders who help retail buyers choose items for purchase.

While these are considered entry-level retail jobs, and frequently don’t pay much better than minimum wage, budtenders can be seen as a more “legitimate” entry point to the industry. You won’t be in it for the wages, but you might learn a LOT about different strains of marijuana, equipment and how THC or CBD can affect different people.

Budtenders typically consult with one customer at a time. These workers need to explain the product to all types of customers, experienced or novice.

One Colorado budtender, Mikhaila Smith, talked with Summit Daily about her good experiences working behind the counter.

“The best days for me are when you have someone very timid, but trying to figure it out,” she said. “Like, I had this one guy who brought his mom in who had colon cancer….He (her son) came back about two weeks later, and he looked like he was going to cry. He came and just gave me the biggest hug and said, ‘She said she hasn’t had good days like she’s had in a really long time. It changed her daily routine.'”

So You Want to Open Your Own Business

There’s almost limitless entrepreneurship in cannabis, especially as more states (as well as countries like Canada) legalize recreational marijuana.

Opening a dispensary in a legal state can cost you anywhere from $250,000 to $750,000, says entrepreneur Gary Cohen in a post at the National Cannabis Industry Association blog. And that’s just to start.

“You can’t run a dispensary without product, customers and staff,” Cohen writes. “In a state that allows for vertical integration, it can cost more than $500 per pound to grow your own cannabis; plus the inventory costs for edibles, topicals and other products. To attract customers, you’ll need to invest $10,000 to $25,000 on marketing. The payroll costs for a staff of budtenders, store manager and a master grower can total more than $250,000 annually. Finally, consider costly insurance policies, license renewal fees, taxes, legal retainers and trademark protections.”

It’s those kinds of startup costs that can keep would-be small business owners with no outside investors from opening their own cannabis shop around the corner.

Oh, and when it comes to money, you can’t just use any old bank for a loan. Even the legal cannabis industry is hampered by a big problem: federal laws governing banks. Since cannabis is still illegal federally, you can’t give someone a loan for doing illegal things. Some small credit unions are stepping in to offer a solution. And some federal banking laws may be changing, but not fast enough for all small businesses who need more capital. And in the meantime, everything from sales to payroll to rent is likely all done in cash.

Vanessa Boles* spoke to PayScale about her Colorado-based edibles business experience that has led to hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses, a ruined friendship and big lawsuits — mostly because of cash flow.

She worked for a friend who started an edibles business. But, after loaning the friend a large amount of money, she found that the cash wasn’t applied to the businesses’ costs as it should have been. And to make it worse, those costs were significant.

“Because it was a ‘mom and pop’ sized businesses, it was so hard to make a profit,” Boles said. “When there are three or four changes a year on regulations for packaging, for example, you then have to pay more for graphic design, new label plates and new labels. That’s $30,000 to 50,000 every time. That’s a lot of money for someone who’s only generating only $600,000 in gross sales.”

Are Those Cannabis “Dream Jobs” Up in Smoke?

Dream jobs are tricky, whether you’re a home beer maker fantasizing about opening your own microbrewery or a cannabis enthusiast imagining your own edibles shop.

The reality is often much more mundane. You can land marijuana jobs in every role from advertising to graphic design. Check out cannabis-centric job sites like Vangst (a leading cannabis industry jobs and recruitment company) or even traditional sites like Indeed.

Word-of-mouth is certainly an option, but if you’re not sure of the reliability of the employer, it could go south fast.

Tips for Getting a Good Cannabis Job

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At this point, working in legal cannabis at any level is a lot like working for a startup company. Some businesses will succeed, and many will likely fail. You might have to be flexible, perform a lot of different duties as a part of a small staff and be willing to put in extra effort — all while hoping that there’s another paycheck next month. To survive in the industry, you’ll also have to be smart about who you’re working for and about the realities of the business.

You shouldn’t just express your fondness for someone’s product and expect to get hired (though being familiar with the industry is a good idea with any job). There are real consequences to flaking out on responsibilities, so expect to take the job seriously. One misstep can cost tens of thousands in lost crops, ruined shipments or even legal consequences.

“Interest and passion for the cannabis industry itself is wonderful, but companies need people who bring more to the table than just passion,” writes Vangst CEO, Karson Humiston. “Be clear about the skills and experience you bring to the company and the position for which you’re applying.”


Do you work in the cannabis industry? What’s it like? We want to hear from you! Comment below or join the discussion on Twitter.

*Note: Some names have been changed to protect the speaker’s privacy, at their request.

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