Inside the Cannabis Industry: What It's Like to Work in Weed

Last week, I was messaging with someone on Instagram about some flower and hash (a usual Tuesday afternoon for me) and they asked me how I got into the cannabis industry. I told them the short version of my story: I started an internet community for DC enthusiasts and I-71 vendors on Discord that got popular enough for me to build a following and platform. If I’m being real, the project was like finding love — heavily dependent on chemistry and timing, and a one-in-a-million match.

If you’d like to work in the cannabis industry, you have two distinct paths to choose from: the legal industry route, and the entrepreneurial route, a.k.a. starting your own business. I took the entrepreneurial route, which requires a lot of risk tolerance, capital, good fortune and personal connections. Working your way up through the legal industry can be simpler to some degree, but that path is only available to people living in places where legal or medical cannabis stores are plentiful. There’s also the issue of upward mobility for workers in the legal industry, which is hampered by general capitalist pushback against worker solidarity — the age-old story of corporate overlords.

It Takes a Village to Grow an Industry

Though it looks like some of the best cannabis in the world is produced on the traditional market by one person, a deeper look reveals a vast network of support workers and adjacent commerce. Goyaad Pak, one of the DC community’s most prestigious cultivators who is often viewed as a one-man operation, works with two partners in the garden, one person handling distribution, a designer and two other ancillary businesses for packaging and merchandise.

For small residential cultivation operations, which we’re categorizing as indoor grows based out of sub-commercial spaces with 5-30 lights, there are always a handful of jobs that must be done to make everything happen. Often, operators must hire trimmers, packagers, equipment cleaners, electricians, HVAC personnel, plumbers and construction contractors to build custom equipment. When scaled up for legal retailers with in-house cultivation, we have an industry worth $25 billion in 2021 revenues alone, according to Flowhub’s legal industry findings for North America in 2021.

Working in the Legal Cannabis Space

While many people consider working in cannabis to be the dream, the reality is that it’s labor just like any other career. It’s not nearly as glamorous as it looks, even for those in the legal industry — in many cases, working for a legal weed business isn’t very different from other working-class jobs. Laboring on a grow requires farming skills used in conventional agriculture, and working in a dispensary can be much like a regular customer service job. There are even positions in retail facilities for folks who don’t have any experience at all.

inside the cannabis industryTrimming is a common entry-level position.

If you live in one of the 18 states with legal recreational cannabis, finding an entry-level job can be as simple as finding a listing on a site like Indeed. A search for jobs on that site within 25 miles in DC currently gets more than 50 results, and moving the radius out 50 miles triples that number. About 30 of those extended results are account representative positions, middle management and retail management positions that can net salaries between $45,000-90,000 a year. A handful of positions in legal and corporate management and some executive level jobs have starting salaries above $100,000. Particularly savvy salespeople could take home $200,000 a year before bonuses. 

Virginia is an exception — since the Virginia medical cannabis program is operated by the state’s Board of Pharmacy, you can’t get a job in legal cannabis in the state unless you have pharmacological credentials or certifications. It’s unclear whether the industry will open up to more workers as recreational cannabis sales go online in Virginia. 

The Inequities of Getting In on the Ground Floor

Though there are decent jobs with established legal cannabis corporations, many available opportunities for entry-level positions come with some major compromises. The first is that roughly a third of the listed jobs within 50 miles of DC fall below the national living wage of $34,00 per year for one adult with no children and over half of jobs listed fall below the livable wage of $43,000 per year in DC. Paying workers unlivable wages is a problem in any industry; a high cost of living dramatically increases the risk of inequity-related violence such as robberies, assaults, shootings and puts workers in a position where they’re risking their lives for an unlivable wage.

According to the inaugural wage report from United Weed Workers, a Canadian workers’ action center for cannabis workers, 58% of respondents either have a medical condition or a dependent with a medical condition that they treat with cannabis. The report shows that cannabis workers come more from marginalized backgrounds than many other industries. BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) workers are among the most affected by inequity violence and racial prejudice due to the history of racial injustice — and in Canada, people who have been convicted of cannabis possession are not legally allowed to work in cannabis stores, which disproportionately affects BIPOC workers.

Occasionally, we hear stories of successful unionization efforts such as the 13 Cannabliss employees joining the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UCFW) in 2020 with encouragement from management, a legitimate win for cannabis workers everywhere. But the reality is that “North America’s biggest cannabis union” only represents a self-reported “more than 10,000 members,” spread throughout the US and Canada. Additionally, employers tend to retaliate against represented workers. A whistleblower at a Botanist location in New Jersey revealed that management emailed the store’s staff saying that workers in the cultivation facility who did not elect to be represented by UFCW would get a “merit raise” reflected on their paycheck, while unionized members would not get the same raise. 

Protections for Cannabis Workers

According to Leafly’s latest Jobs Report there are roughly 428,000 jobs in legal cannabis across the US alone, which includes work in cannabis facilities and other ancillary, non “plant touching” work. Even if these numbers are to be taken with a grain of salt, it’s estimated that only about 2-3% of all cannabis workers are unionized. This is a massive shortfall of the already low rate of unionized workers at a 10.3% national average as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics — a rate which has dropped by half since 1983. On UFCW’s website, there’s no clarification whether the “ancillary workers” by Leafly’s definition would qualify for union membership, which underlines the need for a dedicated union focused on the unique cannabis industry needs and demands.

inside the cannabis industryThe legal cannabis industry raked in $25 billion in 2021.

One of the co-founders of Canada’s United Weed Workers, Anya, says that UWW, and their US counterpart the Cannabis Workers Coalition, illustrate the need for worker solidarity through action centers and networks. She explains that they’re more agile organizations than corporate unions like UFCW. “UWW is able to engage differently with the industry and be more radical in the media than UCFW, which has regulations and corporate structures as well as bylaws that state many actions that require voting,” says Anya, “UWW is able to react to situations more quickly.”

Anya explains that this agility comes with a major trade-off in resources compared to UFCW. UWW doesn’t have a formal legal defense fund or an amnesty fund, but they have solid relationships with organizations with similar missions. Anya said that UWW and CWC have forged relationships with public services and public aid organizations, and they work with UFCW at “arm’s length” to take advantage of the financial and legal defense resources available for cannabis workers. UWW has over 58,000 members across North America, but they are not required to pay dues or give money to the organization beyond any grassroots support.

While a dedicated corporate union for cannabis workers might be helpful in the future, Anya believes that the grassroots methods of UWW are more effective for organizing around the diverse needs of workers in the cannabis industry, which include many migrant and international workers who may not be protected by a corporate union. And, Anya says, “UFCW is still an important [organization to work with] because of all the resources they have and training they do. They provide benefits that people need, and focus on the individual’s political journey, which is important for building the next generation of industry stewards.”

Combatting Corruption with Accountability

Across the board, cannabis industry standards are dictated by capital, just like any other profitable industry. Instagram accounts like @phospholoadd, @boxbrown and @corporatecannabiscomic report industry corruption from people who are only in it for the money and have little to no respect for the plant. They also highlight a lack of representation of the cannabis industry by workers who have been in the trenches, which can lead to a systemic issue: the impossibility of being able to move up and get promoted from within. 

inside the cannabis industry

“[I’ve noticed] a significant amount of employee turnover, but I don’t think it’s industry specific,” says Hannah Asofsky, a “guide” at a licensed dispensary with in-house cultivation in Holyoke, MA that she chooses not to name. “A lot of our turnover has to do with communication issues between management and employees. Hours get shifted because of holes in the schedule due to turnover, and often management has expectations of employees that employees are unable to communicate that they can’t or don’t want to meet.” This lack of communication and feeling of expectations not being met can result in favoritism and retaliation from management. Asofsky’s store also has a grace period where employees work shifts in the store but are unable to touch the products because they’re not approved for product handling by Massachusetts’ Cannabis Control Commission. This can disappoint new employees, who often quit during this period.

The lack of health and safety protocols, as well as HR infrastructure, can also lead to serious issues. “The store I worked in had terrible sanitary standards — we had no bathroom for a while, so we had to run across the highway to go to a fast food place and use their bathroom,” Anya says. “Business owners see the money, but they have no idea how to keep their employees happy and healthy.” Anya was able to enforce health and safety standards in the store she worked in by contacting a local representative of the Ministry of Labor, which brought in proper human resources guidelines and safety standards, and the store got an on-site bathroom and desperately needed fire extinguishers. This helped workers in other stores in the area enforce accountability from their employers as well.

Rules and Regulations for Cannabis Workers

In an ideal world, all cannabis stores have proper HR structures to enforce worker-established conduct guidelines. Asofsky’s Holyoke-area store includes weeks-long new-hire training, extensive regulatory compliance training, rigorous customer identification and intake procedures, protocol for what to do when a retail associate is harassed by a customer and emphatic encouragement to report incidents to management. Massachusetts is one of the most regulated recreational markets in the US, which has extensive rules for how incidents must be reported and how retail associates must conduct transactions. The HR structure at Asofsky’s store is above-average, due in part to the fact that the owners of her store got into the cannabis industry in California and Colorado first before expanding to Massachusetts.

Despite this structure in place, working conditions still have issues that employees don’t have much recourse over. Asofsky works as both a retail associate and in the back of the store handling product, due to the store being short staffed, which no other employee in either of the dispensary’s two locations has been hired to accomplish. “A lot of [stocking personnel] feel that the real job training happens when you mess up and are reprimanded,” Asofsky says. “We are in the most heavily surveilled industry. There are cameras all over the store which management and the CCC have access to. All the mistakes are traceable. We’re not told whether the cameras record video only or audio too, but we always know we’re being watched.”

These mistakes that happen at retail locations are human, and the consequences can vary depending on management. “The staff knows we’re not supposed to do certain things,” Asofsky says, “but [consider] a situation where you have an 85-year old man bringing in his vape pen to show a guide so he can get the same thing again. The regulations state that customers are not allowed to bring products into the store, and our protocol is to tell him to leave the store, put the vape pen back in his car and come back in again. But you can see he has trouble walking and he’s buying the vape pen to help alleviate that pain. A guide in a human moment might just tell the man to put the pen back in his pocket, but depending on if a manager sees that footage and which manager it is, that [break in protocol] is either brushed off with a warning or could be a fire-able offense.” 

If you’re seeking an entry-level position in the legal cannabis industry, be forewarned — the rules and regulations are strict! Many legalization advocates believe that it would be even worse if cannabis retail were federally regulated and run by the FDA, which has a long history of shutting down legitimate non-cannabis related businesses for offenses that don’t pose much, if any, health risks to consumers. We’ll be keeping an eye on regulators in the hopes that they don’t make things any more complicated if and when cannabis becomes legal under federal law.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series Inside the Cannabis Industry, in which we’ll look at the pros and cons of starting your own business.