Remedy, Rockland’s first medical marijuana dispensary, opened its doors to customers at its new location in Bardonia. Seth Harrison/Lohud, The Journal News/Lohud
New York’s recreational marijuana battle sits on the front line of a generational war over American cannabis laws. As debate heats up, USA TODAY Network New York is compiling answers to key questions about legalized cannabis.
As New York debates legalizing cannabis, politically charged efforts across the country seek to create more marijuana jobs for illicit pot dealers, chefs, immigrants and entrepreneurs alike.
Despite the threat of federal authorities cracking down, the marijuana industry already has more than 120,000 workers and is poised to add 500,000 more over the next decade, USA TODAY Network reported.
Yet concerns about banking limitations, black-market forces and prior drug convictions threatening job growth have some pro-marijuana lawmakers pushing government reforms.
Further, Colorado lawmakers are attacking Department of Justice guidelines that deny citizenship to legal permanent immigrants who have been employed in the state-sanctioned cannabis industry.
To grasp the stakes in New York, consider that legalizing recreational pot could create about 30,700 jobs, according to a Rockefeller Institute of Government study.
That would surpass the 13,000 workers in craft brewing but fall below the 62,000 in the state’s thriving wine industry led by the Finger Lakes, the study noted.
What follows is an analysis of marijuana jobs as part of the USA TODAY Network’s ongoing investigation of the cannabis economy.
Working with weed
Marijuana jobs span everything from budtenders selling pot and chefs cooking cannabis edibles to scientists, horticulturists and business leaders running the industry.
A scan of online help-wanted ads, for instance, show existing medical marijuana companies in New York are seeking delivery drivers, marketing specialists, chemists and pharmacists, as well as a range of other workers.
But many marijuana job postings across the country on websites like Indeed.com and Vangsters.com, which is billed as the cannabis industry’s largest hiring platform, require cannabis specific skill sets, USA TODAY Network reported.
While advanced jobs like master cannabis grower require college degrees and earn more than $100,000 per year, entry level budtenders and patient care representatives earning $15 an hour must still become familiar with each strain of cannabis they sell.
“Even at the budtender level, cannabis companies are looking for smart people who can learn a lot in a hurry about cannabis’ uses as medicine and can effectively communicate that to their customers,” said Tom Adams, principal analyst at BDS Analytics, which tracks the cannabis industry.
Most recreational pot jobs involved retail and business operations, according to early Colorado state data in 2015. Of the state’s 12,500 pot jobs at the time, about 9,000 were retail, administration and management, while manufacturing and agriculture accounted for 3,500.
Further, counting indirect workers, such as contractors and lawyers, the Colorado pot industry grew to about 18,000 jobs in 2015, up from 14,200 in 2014 when it legalized the drug for recreational use.
Another factor driving cannabis hiring is federal law prohibits moving the drugs across state borders, which means each state needs an industry capable of growing, processing and selling marijuana, according to the study by Rockefeller Institute, which is affiliated with State University of New York, or SUNY.
In other words, even massive international cannabis conglomerates must hire workers to get the drugs from seed to sale in each state, rather than consolidating operations and limiting jobs.
The study estimated legalizing recreational pot could generate a total economic output of $4.1 billion in New York.
Marijuana opponents, however, contend it downplayed the economic harm of legalizing recreational pot.
“This report by a SUNY-funded think tank, was clearly designed to bolster the state and marijuana industry’s argument that more drugs in our communities is a good thing with minimal human consequences,” said Kevin Sabet, CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
“The study lacks credibility because it completely ignores the significant costs to taxpayers due to massive projected increases in law enforcement, social services and other government spending due to legalization,” he said.
Training workers, fighting black market
As demand for cannabis workers grows, colleges in New York and across the country are starting to offer marijuana-based degrees.
SUNY Morrisville, east of Syracuse, plans to begin offering a cannabis industry minor in the fall semester. It will combine agricultural science, horticulture and business programs, according to the college’s website.
Similarly, colleges in other states like Michigan and Ohio developed marijuana-related curriculum amid legalization debates, USA TODAY Network reported. There are also schools catering exclusively to the industry, such as the Cleveland School of Cannabis that launched in 2017.
In addition to varying levels of marijuana growing careers, there are master extractors who take cannabis plants and turn them into oils and other concentrates. Many of the high-end jobs require advanced degrees in biochemistry and engineering.
Yet legal cannabis businesses have struggled to compete with the black-market weed workforce in states like Colorado and California, where growing and selling illicit pot brings in millions of dollars per year.
Similarly, some growers and pot dealers who could transition to legal weed have prior drug arrests, an employment barrier that some states aim to remove through laws expunging criminal records of low-level marijuana possession.
Federal crackdowns, reforms
Amid the marijuana rush, two immigrants in Denver were recently denied citizenship for failing to meet “good moral character” due to their employment in the cannabis industry, according to Congressman Joe Neguse, D-Colorado.
Further, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services compelled the Coloradans, who were lawful permanent residents with no criminal history, to sign affidavits confirming their cannabis employment, subjecting them to potential federal prosecution and possible deportation, he said.
“The recent incident in Denver, where two individuals were denied naturalization because of legal work in the cannabis industry, is completely unacceptable and reinforces the need to end the conflict between federal and state laws regarding cannabis,” Neguse said last week.
Colorado lawmakers have since urged Attorney General William Barr to retract the Department of Justice guidelines involved in the case, which underscored how federal authorities could indiscriminately crack down on marijuana business and workers despite state laws.
The immigrants were asked about their cannabis employment during citizenship interviews, suggesting similar cases may be forthcoming.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers pushed a cannabis worker citizenship policy more consistent with the 2013 Cole Memorandum, which established federal law enforcement’s hands-off approach to states that legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use.
“In Colorado, the cannabis market is a legal and legitimate industry which employs thousands of employees and brings millions of dollars into our economy,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colorado.
“I have long pushed for aligning state and federal law on cannabis to avoid issues like the one in these cases,” he added.
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