The increase in legalized medical and recreational pot means more ways to earn a living in the cannabis industry. Here’s how.
When the Brookings Institution, the elite think tank with an address on Embassy Row in Washington, DC, advises college grads to get into the cannabis industry, the paradigm shift has officially occurred.
John Hudak, a fellow at Brookings who studied Colorado’s legalization of the plant, noted the job opportunities that the industry presents to younger workers. “That can be a real economic positive in a state trying to find jobs for young people,” he told Bloomberg Business, “and for an industry that doesn’t require a college degree to do a job or extensive training except for higher agriculture.” Indeed, starting wages in Colorado’s cannabis industry average $10 per hour—25 percent higher than the state minimum wage of $8.
In its short but heady history, the legal cannabis industry has been booming. According to WeedHire, a leading site for cannabis job-seekers, the industry has developed a more solid footing—as seen in the number of high-paying jobs available. “There is a process that happens,” says WeedHire CEO David Bernstein. “First, legislation is passed. Then, licenses are issued, businesses are formed—which is followed by growth in manufacturing, retail and marketing.” This cycle typically takes 18 to 24 months, he adds, so he would like to see states like Illinois tracking this arc. Since medical marijuana licenses were first issued there in January, Bernstein estimates that “next summer, there will be thousands of jobs generated” in the state.
While there’s been an especially notable surge in jobs directly involved in the cannabis industry, many other industries will benefit from increased marijuana legalization, says Robert Calkin, the CEO and founder of the career site Cannajobs and the Cannabis Career Institute, and the owner since 1988 of Green Dot Guy, a medical marijuana delivery service in Los Angeles. “Cannabis is creating jobs in every sector of the US economy,” he adds. “Advertising, publishing, accounting—you name it, it has been affected by cannabis.”
Take, for example, real estate. The services of traditional commercial brokers and attorneys, as well as builders, contractors and ancillary construction, are all required to build growhouses, dispensaries, manufacturing facilities, and retail spaces that are both efficient and legally compliant—and all of these services require highly specialized skill sets that few people have, Bernstein points out.
Another leading indicator: Suddenly, the marketplace is seeing cannabis professionals openly marketing their expertise—which they may have developed over the course of decades but kept on the down-low until recently. “In the past, no one was listing that they were a medical marijuana lawyer in the phone book,” Calkin says. “But today, for the first time, people will openly tell you they’ve been working in the industry all their lives.”
The experts interviewed for this article say that jobseekers looking to start a career in the legal cannabis industry benefit from having firsthand experience and a passion for the product—even if that experience comes from black-market activity. At the same time, the surge in education for all aspects of weed production—from growing to sales and marketing—means that formal degrees and certificates tend to move a résumé higher on the stack.
A handful of private startups are offering a variety of courses—both in-person and virtual—on the ins and outs of starting and running a cannabis business, including regulation, marketing, horticulture and manufacturing. Leaders in this area include Oaksterdam University, 420 College, Medical Marijuana Tampa, the Cannabis Career Institute and Clover Leaf University, which made headlines a few years back when it received state approval from the Colorado Department of Higher Education. Courses at these places start at a few hundred dollars and go into the thousands. On the academic side, law schools like Vanderbilt University, Santa Clara University and the University of Denver all offer courses related to marijuana and the law.
Because of these formal educational opportunities, the requirements for landing a job in the legal cannabis industry are increasingly stiff, Bernstein warns: “The pay scale is way above average, but the expectations are much higher too.” For example, the operations-supervisor positions listed on WeedHire range from $59,028 to $85,023, while the national average for that job is just $53,677, according to Glassdoor.com. More than half of WeedHire’s postings pay between $30,000 and $50,000, while the median net wages for a US worker was just over $28,000, according to the Social Security Administration.
That’s because many employers in the industry are seeking high-quality workers. “Business owners are willing to pay more for people who will stay with them longer, who they can trust,” Bernstein says. These workers will be “dealing with product every day,” so employers “can’t afford to be reckless and hire someone who is going to sell the product out the back door.”
Cannabusiness Success Stories
These four people have created successful careers in the legal marijuana industry. Here are their personal stories—and some insider advice for those looking to follow in their footsteps:
Robert Wood, 40
Master grower, Greenleaf Compassion Center, Portsmouth, Rhode Island
Duties: Oversees a staff of 14 and provides 30 types of medical products to the center. Responsibilities include maintaining the physical facility, planting and cultivation, and hiring and managing. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” he says. “If you ruin a $250,00 grow, you eat it.”
Favorite part of job: “I love the plants, bringing to life something that wasn’t there before. And helping people.”
Least favorite part of job: Regulation. “The laws are constantly changing, and that can make it hard to operate.”
Career path: Wood, who grew up in Virginia, earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Old Dominion University before joining his family’s neon-sign business. He also worked as a licensed HVAC technician. “That’s a big part of my résumé,” he says of his expertise in environmental controls. “It’s a very hard skill to do well, but it’s critical to any build-out” for cannabis cultivation.
He got his foot in the door at Greenleaf doing HVAC work; combined with his long history of cannabis growing for personal recreational use, this earned him a staff position and, later, the coveted title of “master grower.” For the past year and a half, he and his wife have also run a cannabis co-op that contracts with Greenleaf.
Career advice to others: Wood says that college degrees in botany and related subjects do help put résumés at the top of the list, but nothing beats having firsthand knowledge of how to grow buds: “No college degree is going to teach you what we do, so you have to be willing to say you grew underground.” For those interested in a career as a master grower, Wood recommends getting a position at a compassion center—including entry-level jobs like sales—and then working your way up.
“We need people who are enthusiastic about the plant,” he says. “But don’t be a total pothead and show up in a Bob Marley T-shirt with a vape pen in your pocket. You have to show up on time and be professional. It’s a fine line: be a professional pothead.”
Tim Anderson, 39
Purchasing manager, Harborside Health Center, with locations in Oakland and San Jose, California
Duties: Anderson oversees a staff of four and is responsible for the center’s purchase and distribution of hundreds of products, including flowers, concentrates and edibles.
Favorite part of job: The variety of tasks. “I see every product and technology that comes to this market—and I meet every type of person,” from the youthful startup entrepreneur to “some old guy who came out of the wilderness to sell us some strain he’s been messing around with for 40 years,” Anderson says.
Least favorite part of job: The pace can be grueling—“like working the line in a busy restaurant.”
Career path: Raised in Minnesota, Anderson spent time with his farmer grandparents and became fascinated with marijuana at an early age. “Cannabis is very well suited for my personal psychology,” he says. Starting in college, where he majored in English, Anderson grew pot for his own personal use and, after a stint as a journalist, moved to Southern California, where a childhood friend who owned a growhouse offered him a job selling the finished product to dispensaries. That started a lifelong obsession with geeking out on the plant: His nonworking hours were spent reading old issues of High Times, seed catalogs, and books on marijuana and its history, as well as trying every strain he could find. “I put myself through the proverbial School of Cannabis,” Anderson says.
After seven years working in the underground, he decided to go legit and landed a front-desk job at Harborside, one of the places he’d sold to in his previous gig. “Even though I was overqualified, interacting with the public—and patience—was a critical starting point for me to acquire consciousness of the holistic approach to wellness,” he says of his entry-level job. He was quickly promoted to purchasing manager.
Career advice to others: “Take your time and truly educate yourself about the history and science of cannabis,” Anderson says. “A vast reservoir of knowledge will give you the confidence to succeed in this industry.”
Kori Knoesel, 34
Director of marketing for Patients Choice of Colorado and Livegreen Cannabis
Duties: In her new role, Knoesel is responsible for all aspects of her company’s marketing efforts in promoting and growing its two brands—one focused on recreational cannabis use, and the other, older brand engaged with patient consumption. Her daily duties include maintenance of business listings, networking with professional associations, designing and implementing a social media strategy and helping her company position itself among competing cannabis brands. “I touch all sides of the business in some way, even if the focus is always on marketing,” says Knoesel.
Favorite part of job: “The creative aspect of thinking through new ways to bring the brand to people who may be stuck on stigmas associated with cannabis,” she says.
Least favorite part of job: “Sometimes it’s frustrating when people still think marijuana is bad for society and creates chaos and crime,” Knoesel says. “It’s hard not to take that personally.”
Career path: Knoesel, an Ohio native, has worked in marketing for 12 years – first for a nurse staffing agency, then for a regional bank in Oklahoma, and later to Phoenix, Ariz., where for the past three years she was a project manager at a marketing agency, working with high tech, non-profit and education clients.
Knoesel is a childhood friend of Brooke Gehring, CEO of Patients Choice of Colorado and prominent voice in the legalization movement. “I’ve known Brooke since we were 7 years old, and over the years I was right there following her work and watching her advance,” says Knoesel. “The industry is so interesting and exciting. I’ve always been passionate about marketing, and wanted to apply that to the cannabis industry.” In June, 2015 she was hired by Patients Choice and moved to Denver.
Career advice to others: For a career in marketing in the cannabis industry, there are several paths. For those starting a marketing career anew, consider getting an entry-level position with a business in the industry. “If you can articulate the products and strains, and show it, you can rise to be a brand ambassador for your company,” Knoesel says. Retail sales jobs are especially primed for this career path.
Alternatively, a traditional marketing background will teach you the basics of the job. Look for small agencies where you can learn a lot quickly, or in-house marketing departments of larger firms to gain experience.
Another way to showcase your passion for the industry and acquire marketing skills is to start your own social media brand, combining blogging, video, podcasting and social media. “If you can show that you grew your own brand, a cannabis brand will understand that you can do it for them, too.”
Brett Albanese, 29
Founder and CEO of Full Circle Enterprises in Los Angeles, which owns Cloud Penz vaporizers, Mr. Greenthumb (a maker of premium glass products that was co-founded by B-Real from Cypress Hill), and glass distribution and manufacturing companies. Albanese’s goal for 2015 is to hit $20 million in sales.
Duties: Starting, buying and running cannabis-related businesses; managing some 20 employees.
Favorite part of the job: “I love running the business. I have a great team, and every day I get to do what I dreamed of doing when I was a kid: traveling around and meeting awesome people,” Albanese says.
Least favorite part of the job: “I’m not a numbers person, so I hired an accountant and business manager to take care of that part.”
Career path: Albanese started selling weed as a teenager in Pasadena and then, at the age of 17, got a medical marijuana license from the state of California. He immersed himself in the industry, learning about the law and business and, in 2012, opening up his first dispensary. “I was always selling weed, and as the laws changed, I made an effort to go legit,” Albanese says. “I still have friends who are hustling, and that’s a dead-end road—the margins don’t outweigh the risk.”
In 2012, he opened a few more dispensaries, first in Los Angeles County and then in Orange County, before the local laws changed and he was forced out of business. That was when Albanese decided to launch Cloud Penz.
Career advice to others: Work hard, don’t overspend on marketing, and develop a reputation for reliability and consistency. As Albanese puts it: “Be good people; be about what you say. There are not too many people in this industry willing to put in the hard work that gets results. If you find those people, keep those relationships.”
Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist whose credits include the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Men's Health, Forbes, Glamour and dozens of others. She is founder of WealthySingleMommy.com, and the podcast Like a Mother with Emma Johnson, both of which speak to professional women about money, parenting, dating and sex. Emma lives in New York City with her two young children.