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The Changing World of Cannabis Workers: From Black Market to Legal and Aboveboard

By K.G. Trout

Here’s a version of the Law of Unexpected Consequences, as it relates to the Cannabis Industry: What happens to all of those workers who toiled underground, in the black market, as marijuana gets legalized?

It’s a good question, but unfortunately, black market operations have tended not to worry about personnel matters all that much, so there probably isn’t an HR Director to turn to when this happens.

The Cannabist in The Denver Post recently put it like this:

In the wake of last year’s policy changes on the vertical integration of marijuana shops in Colorado, wholesale growers are expanding their operations, creating loads of new industry jobs.

But is it worth it for black market growers to click off their lamps and go work for the man?

Profit margins may have sunk on illegal weed, yet these growers working in the shadows still can earn more than entry-level jobs in the white market are currently paying. Even if they were looking to go mainstream, are employers in the legal industry motivated to hire them?

Some cannabis employers look at an applicant who has spent the last decade raising 20 or 30 plants each season and think: experience. Others see it and think: stubborn habits and outdated technology.”

Black market skills in the legal cannabis economy?

Yes, lost in the race for full legalization is the fact that there is an entire industry of workers who have been burnishing their skills in the frequently underfunded and ill-equipped underground marijuana trade. They are probably good candidates to make the move to the now legal and highly-regulated cannabis industry, but do their black market skills translate to the new cannabis economy?

As The Cannabist noted:

A lot of those skills (from the black market) translate into this industry,” says Todd Mitchem, a Denver-based marijuana consultant who runs the CannaSearch marijuana job fair.

On the other hand, Native Roots Apothecary owner Rhett Jordan says that when his company, which has seven shops across Colorado, is looking at a potential hire, “a good work ethic, being timely, diligent and following up on things are more important to us than weed knowledge.”

Ata Gonzalez, CEO of G FarmaLabs, a wholesale marijuana grow company out of California and Washington, agrees with Mitchem that there are some skills that translate well from a black market business to a white market job — botanical knowledge about humidity, temperature, mixing nutrients, etc. — though in his experience, those assets can sometimes be more trouble than they’re worth.”

Overall, there is going to be a bit of a scramble as the legal Cannabis Industry grows and the need for specialized skills sets grows with it. While some may lose their jobs (like some drug-sniffing dogs in Oregon who can’t “un-learn” the scent of marijuana), others will find their niche in the legal marijuana industry that is now even holding jobs fairs to find the right kind of employees.

There’s still room for people with skills

But, there may still be room for those black market workers, too.

Marijuana consultant Mitchem probably put it best, telling The Denver Post:

I think those guys have a tremendous value, they’re craftsmen. I’ll often introduce them to people who have a large grow operation and need help. … Also, so many budtenders don’t know anything about marijuana, and will sell things to patients without knowing if it has mold on it, or what it’s supposed to look like. Someone who’s been growing and selling for years knows their product, and their customers.

That kind of tenacity works well in the legal market. With all the scrutiny and regulations you have to keep up with in this industry, you have to take ownership over what you’re doing, just like if you were running an illegal business.”

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