Six years ago recreational marijuana use was illegal in all 50 states — and had been for nearly a century. Following the 2018 midterm elections, anyone over 21 will soon be allowed to legally consume marijuana in 10 states plus the District of Columbia. Overall, 33 states in the past 22 years have passed some form of marijuana legalization, from medical to recreational use.
Despite the ever-present federal threat — the Drug Enforcement Administration still considers marijuana a banned substance, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened a crackdown — the $8.5 billion U.S. marijuana industry seems poised to grow as rapidly as the law will allow it. And it's generating jobs just as quickly.
By 2020 the industry is expected to create 250,000 new jobs, according to New Frontier Data, an industry research firm. In 2017 the number of job posts for openings in the marijuana industry increased by 445 percent, outpacing tech (254 percent) and health care (70 percent), according to ZipRecruiter.
The industry is in search of workers across the spectrum, from accounting to compliance, customer service, sales, technology and more. As the industry grows, so too do the opportunities. California, Colorado and Washington currently have the greatest demand for workers, but that could shift as legalization spreads.
Though the total number of marijuana jobs are still far smaller than those other, much older industries, they include several positions that didn't exist prior to legalization, offering enterprising workers the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an entirely new career.
Because legalization has come state by state, there is no single association or governing body offering licenses, training or certifications. Workers looking to enter the industry will need to do a bit of research to find out their specific state requirements.
But newcomers don't necessarily need an encyclopedic nature of weed culture to succeed in the industry. In fact, Karson Humiston, CEO and founder of recruiting firm Vangst, said she decided to start her firm, which specializes in the cannabis industry, after discovering the breadth of talent required by entrepreneurs attending a 2015 industry convention.
"When I asked people what positions they were hiring for, it was everything from a botanist to a chemical engineer to a Ph.D. to a retail store manager to a marketing manager to a human resource manager to a CFO," she said. "You name it, and these companies were hiring for it."
Though some may hesitate to join an industry selling a drug that's still banned by federal law, everyday workers have little to fear, said Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association. "We haven't seen any U.S. attorneys make an effort to crack down on businesses that are compliant with state law, even though the former attorney general gave them carte blanche to do so," he said, referring to Sessions. "If someone is just an employee of a company, I would think there's pretty much no risk."
Here are five fast-growing new careers driven by marijuana legalization. Salary data is gleaned from the 2018 Vangst Salary Guide. In most cases the salary ranges are unusually broad due to the industry's youth and rapid expansion.
They call it a weed, but growing crops of strong, healthy marijuana is both an art and a science. All grow operations, no matter how small, need a director of cultivation — also known as a master grower — to oversee planting, cloning, feeding, watering and pest management. At larger operations, cultivation directors have management responsibility for a team of growers, and the position typically requires frequent interaction with law enforcement to ensure compliance.
A background in horticulture or agriculture is a must for this job, and advanced degrees in either are sometimes required. Familiarity with cannabis is preferred, but plenty of employers are happy to hire someone with experience managing a large-scale greenhouse operation.
Average national salary range for qualified professionals: $88,000 to $250,500
Equal parts pharmacist, bartender, confidant and hall monitor, the budtender is where the marijuana industry meets the consumer. From behind the dispensary counter, budtenders check IDs and prescription cards, track all cannabis sales and — most important — help customers understand the products and how to use them.
Though budtenders are expected to have extensive knowledge of the goods, previous marijuana experience is not necessarily required. "Budtending is a great way to familiarize yourself with the industry and the peculiarities and particulars of it," said Fox. Many dispensaries will offer on-the-job training, and budtenders are well positioned to advance in the industry.
Average national salary range for qualified professionals: $13.25 per hour to $16 per hour.
In some ways, managing a marijuana dispensary is a lot like managing any other retail store: manage the staff, track inventory, and cultivate a clean, professional atmosphere. But the highly regulated nature of the product makes it a bit more complicated. It's the manager's job to make sure all employees are compliant with state laws, that everyone entering the store is 21 or older or, if it's not a recreational store, that all customers have proper medical credentials.
Slip up and your dispensary could be shut down by the state. Dispensary managers often have experience running a high-end retail operation, like an apparel or jewelry shop.
Average national salary range for qualified professionals: $56,000 to $98,000
Legal marijuana is sold in a dizzying variety of forms, including gummies, vaping oils, candies, lotions, teas, pills, perfumes — even tampons. The director of extraction oversees the production of the oils and concentrates within the plants needed to manufacture such products. That means running — or possibly building — a laboratory, managing a staff and maintaining strict scientific protocols.
Not surprisingly, this is a job that requires some skills. "Typically, we see a lot of Ph.Ds, chemists and people coming out of pharmaceutical labs going for these jobs," said Humiston of Vangst. Fortunately, these positions tend to be well compensated, with salaries topping $250,000 in some states.
Average national salary range for qualified professionals: $72,000 to $191,000
This entry-level, hands-on job represents the marijuana industry's intersection with the gig economy. Trimmers are called in at harvest time to remove buds from stems and trim leaves in preparation for sale. And while some large indoor grow operations employ trimmers year-round, most smaller businesses will hire trimmers either on a part-time or per-day basis. In fact, digital job boards, like Mary's List and Vangst GIGS, are popping up to connect growers with freelancers. Though trimmers require no special education, they are usually required to be at least 21 years old and to obtain a special state permit.
A word of warning: Trimmers are the first marijuana workers to face possible displacement by technology. "There's starting to be a little competition here between humans and machines, which can produce three to four times as much product as a human trimmer," said Fox. But many marijuana purists insist on a hand-trimmed product, which they believe carries greater potency.
Score one for the humans.
Average national salary range for qualified professionals: $12.25 per hour to $14 per hour.