The first time Kirk Lawrence got a job selling weed, it was in the 1990s at a record store in Far Rockaway, Queens, where he had to be discreet. In the years that followed, he was arrested over and over, feeling the consequences of police crackdowns on marijuana users.
There were rides in police vans, lockups “for smoking outside my job,” Mr. Lawrence, now 45, said. But last month, he landed a job as a budtender, entering a new world where he now sells cannabis in the open at a Manhattan dispensary. “When this came up, I was like, why not?” he said.
He has joined one of the fastest-growing industries in the country. With recreational sales of cannabis recently launching in New York, companies are expected to go on a hiring spree over the next few years to fill thousands of cannabis-related jobs.
Legal cannabis is expected to generate 63,000 jobs across New York by 2025, according to an estimate by CannabizTeam, an industry executive search and staffing firm. In a recent report, the firm forecast that New York, New Jersey and Connecticut could surpass the West Coast region in sales and revenue over the next decade.
The creation of new jobs would be a boon for New York City, which has lagged behind the rest of the country in recovering employment lost during the pandemic. Most of the jobs in the cannabis industry are in retail and customer service, providing opportunities for workers who left the city’s hotels and restaurants.
Mr. Lawrence, who previously worked for a mobile therapy app, is not alone in making the leap into legal cannabis. His manager, Mike Conway, spent more than a decade working for Walgreen’s before moving to the cannabis industry in 2017.
Mr. Conway, 38, now runs retail operations for the cheekily named Union Square Travel Agency, which on Monday became just the fourth licensed recreational dispensary to open in the state. After wading through 1,500 applications, he spent a recent week training Mr. Lawrence and 57 other new hires whose professional backgrounds ranged from bartending and music to labor organizing and sex work.
Nationally, the legal cannabis work force has tripled over the last five years, according to one industry estimate, even though the sector is illegal under federal law, tightly regulated and forced to compete with the illicit market. The pace of job growth has already surpassed tech at its peak, and it is still gaining steam, said Sinem Buber, the lead economist for ZipRecruiter.
Because the industry has not yet matured, entry requirements are low, pay is flexible and the prospects of advancement are high, she said. “Five years down the road, we’re going to need more people who have experience in the industry,” she added.
“The demand for this product is not going to go down, and legal supply is just going to go up.”
Here’s what would-be workers must weigh as the industry staffs up.
More About Cannabis
With recreational marijuana becoming legal in several states, cannabis products are becoming more easily available and increasingly varied.
Risks and rules weigh on growth.
The rollout in New York hasn’t been smooth, and as with any emerging industry, there are risks — most cannabis businesses fail and workers could face layoffs during an economic downturn, for example. Already, large medical companies that ramped up hiring when New York was on the precipice of legalization have begun layoffs after regulators began structuring the rules to favor local small businesses.
But the market is expanding even as the rules governing it are still being written. More than 5,000 jobs in the weed industry were posted to ZipRecruiter between January 2020 and last month, and all but a few were based in New York, according to data provided by Ms. Buber.
The slow pace of government rule making has limited how fast the legal industry can grow, and a lawsuit has halted licensing in places like Brooklyn and Buffalo. Adding further uncertainty, a federal decision looms on whether to legalize cannabis nationally.
New York state policymakers and law enforcement authorities are also grappling with how to shrink the illicit market, a crucial but delicate task that would allow demand for legal cannabis to continue to grow.
A large portion of the state’s cannabis work force will be in New York City, where Mayor Eric Adams’s administration predicts it will grow to about 24,000 jobs in three years.
“This can be a real win for our city,” the mayor said during a news conference on Feb. 7 where he announced a partnership with the Manhattan district attorney to crack down on unlicensed cannabis retailers, seen as a threat to official dispensaries.
You can work in the industry without touching weed.
Most of the jobs available in cannabis involve working directly with the plant, from farmers and chemists to the retail servers who help customers navigate selections of smokable flower, concentrates and gummies.
But that’s just a start. Those businesses need a range of other services and are expected to fuel the growth of more support roles in accounting, advertising, compliance, human resources, marketing, packaging, security and transportation.
And the pay is competitive. According to the CannabizTeam report, median salaries for full-time cannabis workers in New York can range from about $40,000 for budtenders and plant trimmers to roughly $100,000 for dispensary and deliver managers, with salaries for executives in supporting industries reaching over $200,000.
A realistic sense of the industry helps.
One of the cannabis industry’s most persistent problems is workers quitting after realizing it’s not as relaxed as they expected. It is difficult for some employees to grasp that the legal industry will be more rigidly run and regulated than the illicit market.
A number of education and training programs have popped up in recent years, ranging from free, weekslong workshops to longer degree programs. Some courses are aimed at those who have had arrests linked to marijuana in the past or suffered other repercussions such as having children taken away after testing positive for cannabis use.
The state launched a $5 million work force development initiative last year that officials estimated would provide around 5,000 people with skills and training to work in cannabis. Most of the funds were directed to schools serving predominantly white populations upstate, prompting outcry from activists in New York City, who are pushing for more resources to be focused on people of color who bore the brunt of anti-marijuana enforcement.
State officials noted that the largest grant was awarded to Borough of Manhattan Community College, where 89 percent of students are nonwhite.
Most of that training has been provided by small nonprofits like Hospitality Pathways, which trains people from marginalized communities to work in the restaurant, travel and cannabis industries. Beatrice Stein, who founded the program after spending 30 years in the restaurant business, said that about half the students in her cannabis program have either been arrested on cannabis charges or have a close relative who was. (The program received a grant from the work force development initiative.)
“It’s one thing to talk about equity and another to give them the tools they need to be successful,” she said.
In additional to law and workplace policies, the courses dive into subjects ranging from the natural compounds that give weed its flavors and potency to the human body’s system for processing cannabinoids.
“I didn’t know we were going to go so in-depth,” said Morgin DuPont, who worked in gyms and nightclubs before landing a budtender job with the Union Square Travel Agency. ”
A criminal record can help or hurt.
People with convictions for cannabis-related offenses are allowed to work in New York’s cannabis industry and receive preference in some circumstances. Mr. Lawrence, the budtender, said he found his job through Unloc, a nonprofit that helps people who were in the industry before legalization find work in the new market.
But in some circumstances, an employer can still hold a cannabis conviction against a job applicant.
There were more than 1.2 million arrests for cannabis offenses in New York between 1979 and March 2021, when lawmakers legalized recreational cannabis, according to the Office of Cannabis Management. While most low-level offenses are now automatically sealed, people who were convicted of certain more serious offenses still need to go to court to clear their records.
Judges and prosecutors in more conservative parts of New York have resisted such efforts, and the sealing statutes do not apply to federal charges or convictions in other states.
In New York City, job candidates are not required to disclose convictions that are sealed or arrests that did not lead to a conviction.
However, employers in the city can ask about any unsealed convictions, as well as charges that are pending during the hiring process. And the city’s restrictions do not apply to other areas of the state.
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