Working in cannabis used to be a crime, but now it’s looking like a real career, complete with benefits.
Photo illustration by Seth Laupus
Alicia Ashley works in what is essentially a weed factory. Her job is to roll joints by hand, run a label printer, and attach those labels to jars of cannabis flower, all while making sure the products look and smell appealing. Ashley works for Flow Kana, a cannabis processing and distribution company in Mendocino, California, that serves as a sort of clearinghouse for the crops from numerous small pot farms in the area. By modern standards, it’s a pretty good job: She has regular work hours, health benefits, paid time off, and the peace of mind that comes with working in the legal side of the industry.
Ashley’s gig is one of many created by the legal cannabis industry. While it’s yielded winners and losers, legal weed has made it possible for people like Ashley to switch from being employed by quasi-legal or criminal enterprises to legit businesses. In the process, working in cannabis has become less like an outlaw adventure and more like a career.
It wasn’t always that way. Ashley came up through the black and gray markets, growing and processing weed “on the hill,” as many in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle refer to the hundreds of small farms that dot the higher elevations of that region. Back then, she would spend days at a time during harvest season trimming flower—that is, cutting the stems and extraneous leaves of each bud by hand to turn raw weed by into a product that people want to buy. It’s long and tedious work, and comes with some risks.
During non-harvest times, she would water and feed plants and help out around the farm. Ashley surmises that some of what she helped grow went to California’s medical dispensaries, and some to the underground recreational market. “I didn’t inquire too much about all that,” she said. Oftentimes, there was little to no communication between farm owners and workers on the hill. Even drivers, who brought pounds of weed from farms to town, would not interact with workers much—when operating in an illegal industry, it’s often best not to know what goes on along other points in the supply chain.
Trimming and growing was a full-time job for Ashley, but one in which she could often set her own hours and work in pajamas if she felt like it. During long days spent with scissors and bud in hand, workers would socialize on farmhouse couches or listen to podcasts. But what that job boasted in chill factor, it lacked in dependability. Farms could fold or change owners at any time. And though Ashley was never caught in a raid herself, they happened frequently in the Emerald Triangle. “You had to worry every time you heard a helicopter,” she said.
Bud trimmers who are women can be targets in a mostly male-dominated industry. While Ashley was fortunate to have had good experiences during her years in the unregulated market, and didn’t endure the sexual harassment that some women experienced, or the withheld pay and fear for personal safety that have been well-documented, she also felt the need to keep her wits about her. “Knowing who you know, using your head, being clear about what you’re getting yourself into, trusting your gut”— these were the ways she kept safe.
“Whenever you have a behavior that’s prohibited or underground, it makes it inherently more dangerous for everyone involved,” said Amanda Reiman, a cannabis expert and public health researcher who now serves as VP of community relations at Flow Kana. “The cannabis industry under prohibition was just another example of what happens when there’s no one looking out for the wellbeing of the people who have less power.” In the legal market, she said, workers get the protections they lacked in the informal market as well as access to things they want, like employer-paid health insurance.
There’s no shortage of people working in the regulated market who used to be part of the illegal world. Even though automation, or partial automation, is replacing some of the old hand-trimming and weighing methods, there are still many jobs to be found. Across the US, 200,000 to 250,000 people were estimated to be working in the $10.4 billion legal cannabis industry in 2018. It’s projected that by 2021, one cannabis job will exist for every 1,000 people in the US—that’s roughly 325,700 jobs nationwide.
Still passionate about cannabis, Ashley, who is 30 and mother to a nine-year-old daughter, is attending business school in hopes of rising within the ranks of Flow Kana. She’d like to work as a supervisor and farm liaison one day and feels enthusiastic about the future of the industry and her place in it.
Not everyone is as pleased with how legalization has unfolded. In California, businesses have complained about intrusive regulation, and some have remained at least partially in the black market. But Ashley’s story shows the best-case scenario for how legalization can work, and many others are transitioning from the informal side to the above-board cannabis industry. “I’ve been in the legal market for eight months,” Ashley said, “and to even think about going back to the black market now—it’s like no way!”
Drug convictions can bar people from industry jobs in some places, which critics say further harms minority communities disproportionately damaged by the war on drugs. And many advocates are dismayed that hundreds of thousands of people, many of them of color, are still arrested every year for pot. But reforms are trying to address these inequities: In California, someone who broke cannabis laws in the past can work in the industry, and in some cities having such a conviction means you are more likely to get a business license. For many people looking to go legit, the rapidly growing legal industry is a boon.
Jennifer Mehta is one of those people. The 47-year-old has for three decades worked with weed in a variety of capacities, as a trimmer, grower, cloner, edibles baker, and maker of bubble hash and butane honey oil. Back in the unregulated days, Mehta would often get paid in product and make her money by selling weed and hash after harvest season. Today, she’s a cannabis entrepreneur working exclusively with legal hemp through her two companies, Cannalina and Shine.
Her transition from to the legal one was through the gray market in the early days of incremental medical legalization—what Mehta calls the “wild, wild west times ten.” Working in southern Oregon after the medical regime took effect there gave her the chance to hone skills that serve her as a cannabis business owner today. At the time, dispensaries took products as long as the seller had a medical card, and entrepreneurship among people who had long worked in cannabis was off the charts.
“Everybody was making money,” said Mehta. “Me, I was making fudge and medicated sugar in my kitchen that wasn’t certified—but I went and sold it to dispensaries.” She learned to clone—an alternative to growing plants from seeds—and started selling her clones at dispensaries as well. She remembers that time as a golden age of sorts for her work. “I was given a green light to the industry,” she said, “that I had only been in the shadows of before.”
Having grown up in the Deep South as the daughter of two first-generation immigrants—one from Ireland, the other from Gujarat, India—“I look like everybody that was hated throughout the 9/11 experience,” she said. She believes her skin color has affected her opportunities in the cannabis industry. “I’ve got stores (in her now-home of North Carolina),” she said, “that won’t carry my product. But when I send someone else in to represent me—a white male, for instance—the transactions go much more smoothly.”
The biggest obstacles to going legal, said Mehta, are the banking and shipping restrictions that make it hard to run a business. Insurance—for those able to get it at all—is pricey. But despite the hardships, Mehta is committed to the industry. “If I walk away, and everyone else who’s like me walks away, who’s left? You can’t just take all the sugar out of the recipe,” she said, referring to the people like her who risked their freedom back in the illegal days to bring medical cannabis to people who needed it. It’s a metaphysical connection for Mehta. “This plant and I are symbiotic,” she said. “I cease to exist without it.” And it’s a matter of pride, as well as a practical consideration, to stay in the industry she knows best. “I’m gonna walk away and let those guys have my plants and my industry?” she asked. “Hell no!”
Much of the work in today’s legal market, such as cultivation, trimming, processing, transportation, and sales, existed under prohibition, but, Flow Kana’s Reiman noted, “the focus now is on maintaining compliance, not maintaining anonymity.” That means staying up-to-date on the changing state regulations as well as doing a lot of paperwork and legal consultation.
That also means professionalization, at every level. People who may have never before considered working in weed, like scientists and entrepreneurs, are jumping in. And as cannabis grows in legitimacy—and the money rushes in—a number of jobs in supporting industries are popping up all around it. A new legal industry “will always bring with it a whole slew of other things,” said Ekaterina Sedia, a professor of biology and coordinator of the cannabis studies minor at New Jersey’s Stockton University.
Those who specialize in cannabis law, IT engineering, and security, as well as your run-of-the-mill business administration skills, will in higher demand as the industry matures, added Sedia. A small number of US colleges and universities, like Stockton and the University of Denver, are also beginning to offer cannabis-related undergraduate coursework to accommodate young people who want to get started in the above-board industry.
Anjanique Kent is a Stockton student who plans to start taking cannabis studies courses and works in social media development as an intern at Hudson Hemp. She said that her interest in cannabis began with getting stoned and “giggling about cheeseburgers” with her friends. But since learning about her best friend’s epileptic nephew whose condition is effectively managed with CBD, Kent’s passion for the industry has grown. As a young woman of color, she feels excited about the prospect of working in a space where the rules are not yet set, and where there’s an opportunity to right history’s wrongs. “There’s this idea that we can do something, and we have a chance to do it like we think it should be done. We need to just grab it,” she said.
Kent would like to one day work in communications or marketing for a cannabis-based personal care and household goods company that makes everything from shampoo to renewable storage containers. It’s the kind of business she likes to imagine as the “P&G of weed,” referring to Procter and Gamble, the multinational corporation that owns such brands as Gillette, Pampers, and Tide.
But the normalization and professionalization of the cannabis industry is complicated by federal laws criminalizing the plant, as well as the negative perception that still surrounds it. Emily Burns, a Baltimore attorney specializing in cannabis law, said that while colleges and universities receiving federal funding for things like research and financial aid cannot officially permit cannabis consumption on campus, they can offer cannabis-related coursework. However, many of these institutions still fear the stigma associated with cannabis.
Burns said that for some young people wanting to enter the industry, a college degree accompanied by a large time commitment and (likely) a debt burden may not prove the best preparation. Trade schools, she believes, can help get people on the career path “who would otherwise be shut out of the cannabis industry due to financial considerations as opposed to interest, desire, or passion for the work.” Oaksterdam in Oakland, California, is one of those places. Many more programs will be needed in the coming years to meet the industry’s growing needs.
As the industry matures, many like Reiman hope that it doesn’t become just another sector of the economy dominated by large corporations unconcerned with environmental and social wellbeing. “There is time to avoid the mistakes of the past,” said Reiman. “The cement is still wet in the cannabis space. Decisions that we make, and values we embrace today, will become the hardened traditions of our industry years from now.”
For younger people like Kent, the growing acceptance of cannabis means they have the chance to be on the cutting edge of a fast-growing industry that’s increasingly perceived not only as normal, but professional. And for those like Ashley and Mehta, it means the chance to come out of the shadows and take a more conventional life path while doing work they’ve long loved. “Many people, like me,” said Ashley, “are looking for more stability in the ever-changing cannabis industry. We want to become legit and be a part of something bigger and better.”
Danielle Simone Brand writes about cannabis and parenting—and their occasional overlaps—from San Diego, where she lives with her family.