Eight years ago, Samantha Miller was earning six figures a year as a product developer for a LED lighting company in Northern California when a high school friend called to ask a favor. Would Miller be able to help her friend's boss at a medical marijuana dispensary figure out how to use a new machine purchased to analyze the quality of pot?
Miller passed on the job, but offered some free advice. With her background in machinery design and lab supervision, she told the dispensary folks: "You need (to hire) a scientist because you are going to ruin that piece of equipment if you don’t know how to run it."
The dispensary owner ignored her warning and sure enough, Miller soon received a call that the machine had gone kaput. Fed up, the owner offered to give the high-tech device to Miller if she could repair it — and would be willing to test the dispensary's marijuana for free.
Miller fixed the machine, and her business was born. "I look back at the moment, and I don't know what totally seized me," she said.
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These days, Miller employs about 10 people at Pure Analytics, a quality assurance and testing company outside of Santa Rosa. Last month, she hired four people, including two high-level scientists. (One's an expert with terpene, a component of marijuana that gives it its aroma.) Both are types of jobs that can earn six-figures, Miller said.
She also hired field sample technicians — employees who go to customer facilities and collect product to bring back to the lab. The job requires workers to have a Bachelor of Science degree, she said, and employees in those kinds of positions can earn between $40,000 and $55,000 annually, depending on "how many years out of school and how wet they are behind the ears."
More than a year and a half has passed since Californians legalized the adult use of recreational marijuana, and since then, pot has become one fastest growing employment sectors in the U.S. Job creation isn't limited to dirt-under-the-fingernails positions like growers and trimmers. White collar work in the industry also is exploding, with businesses scrambling to hire scientists, attorneys, accountants, technicians and marketing experts.
Employment sites such as Monster.com and Indeed.com are filled with openings. A medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento needs an experienced store manager. Salary: $40,000-$60,000. A cannabis lab in Los Angeles wants to process manager-lab technician and will pay $75,000-$110,000. CEOs and master growers also can command six-figure salaries — and equity in the company.
California leads the nation in marijuana employment. In 2017, the state had 38,233 people directly employed in the pot business, and 18,165 people in related employment, according to BDS Analytics, a market research firm that follows the industry. By 2021, BDS predicts that almost 100,000 Californians will be employed in the cannabis industry.
Similar gains are expected nationally well. With recreational or medical marijuana legal in 29 states and the nation’s capital, the pot industry employed 121,000 people in the U.S. last year. By 2021, that’s predicted to more than double, according to BDS.
Those looking for cannabis jobs already can feel the momentum. According to employment site ZipRecruiter.com, marijuana job postings increased 693 percent from the last quarter of 2016 to last quarter 2017.
California, Colorado and Washington had the highest number of marijuana jobs posted last year, according to the site.
The allure of the industry is about more than the abundance of positions or the amounts they pay. Similar to those who signed up to work at Silicon Valley start ups, many marijuana employees were drawn by the opportunity to work in a nascent industry and help create companies from the ground up. This applies to millennials as well as mid-career professionals looking for a change.
“There may be some people who are getting nice salaries, but the majority of reasons we are seeing people from other industries come over is because … it’s exciting,” said Lara Kaminsky, executive director of the Cannabis Alliance, a Seattle-based trade association. “It’s uncharted territory. They can apply skills they developed in other industries and be more creative. This is an opportunity to really shift the landscape to what a new industry looks like.”
There's also the hope of being a part of the "green rush," and possibly landing "a little piece of the action" in the form of stock options that one day could be worth millions, said Hugh Hempel, CEO of Strainz, a cannabis brand-management company that is one of the few weed businesses operating in multiple states (Washington, Colorado, Nevada and California).
For some in the industry, job creation is a sign the marijuana business is maturing.
Dr. Bao Le got into the medical marijuana business about eight years ago after his son was diagnosed with autism. The boy had night terrors, and Le wanted to avoid giving him traditional pharmaceuticals and began researching cannabis oils, he said.
He realized there was a need in the market for ingredients that were quality-assured and pure. That led to the launch of his own company, BAS Research, a cannabis research and manufacturing company in Berkeley.
Le said that with the mainstreaming of the marijuana marketplace, pot companies increasingly are relying on employees with the same job skills and talents as those in other industries. “You have got to have a full spectrum of professional people to take it from procurement to extraction to production and then go sell it,” he said.
And people want in. “Within minutes” of posting a job, Le said, his company is flooded with responses. “We probably have 1,200 resumes right now for five positions,” he said.
Hempel, an early employee at Netscape, said he got into the cannabis business seeking a treatment for his two twin teenage girls, who have Niemann-Pick Type C, a rare genetic disorder with no known cure.
He said that while the job market in cannabis is hot right now, it’s just beginning to see recruiters headhunting for candidates with the same frequency as they do in other industries. Until a few years ago, his main way of finding talent was word-of-mouth or informal job boards such as Craigslist. Recently, a recruiter contacted him on LinkedIn to see if he was looking for a new opportunity.
“It took me a little by surprise,” Hempel said. “It’s not the norm in this industry.”
The idea of switching to the pot business from her job as an account manager at marketing agency for web development initially gave Heather Smyth pause. “I had concerns about having cannabis on my resume,” she said.
But her worries evaporated as she realized that the cannabis business is just like any other business, she said. She’s now director of marketing at Wurk, a management consulting firm for the cannabis industry in Denver.
“It’s a professional office space, and I’m doing a lot of the same things I’d be doing at any other marketing firm,” Smyth said. “ It’s fun.”
Despite its growth, the pot industry faces challenges. Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. The government considers it a Schedule 1 drug, one that has no accepted medical use and can be subject to abuse. That complicates the industry’s ability to use banks. It also means higher taxes because business owners can’t take advantage of federal tax deductions available to other businesses. It’s also hard for job candidates from overseas to get work visas.
Meanwhile, California's marijuana tax revenues are off to a slow start. The state had expected to collect upwards of $175 million by mid-year, but only collected $34 million in the first quarter of 2018. That's in part because fewer communities than expected have welcomed the marijuana trade. Sales have been down as well, as some buyers, put off by high state and local taxes, opted for the black market.
On the upside, a Gallup poll last fall found that two-thirds of the country supports legalization, including 51 percent of Republican respondents, a jump of 9 percentage points over last year. That represents a long, strange trip from the days of illicit nickel bags, fringed jackets and light shows.
“It’s definitely a sea change,” said Lindsay Robinson, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group. “It’s taken activists many, many years to get here. It’s really exciting to see politicians become outspoken. We’re hopeful that federal government will catch up to the will of the people.”