Rod McClelland used to be a barber. Then, he trained to be a glass cutter. But he never would have guessed where his cutting skills would take him next.
“I went from cutting hair, to cutting glass, to cutting buds,” he says.
McClelland, 42, trims marijuana flowers full time in Desert Hot Springs, a California town that has fully embraced the legal pot industry. And he’s one of thousands of people employed by cannabis businesses today in the United States.
When McClelland told his old barbershop buddies in Long Beach about his new scissor slinging gig, they had one big question.
“They were like, ‘How can I get into the business?’” he said.
The number of people employed by the cannabis industry is set to triple to 630,000 by the year 2025, by one estimate. These workers are entry-level hires like McClelland, trying out the marijuana business for the first time. They’re experienced growers who oversee hundreds of plants at a time. And they’re chefs concocting pot-infused candies and pastries.
That’s to say nothing of the thousands of workers who depend on the pot industry for their livelihoods even if they never touch the plant, like security guards who watch over pot shops and lawyers who have built a practice around the legal trade.
Marijuana proponents believe pot businesses can employ and retrain workers who are being laid off as the nation’s manufacturing and retail employment shrinks. Unions like the Teamsters see the marijuana industry as a promising source of new recruits.
The job numbers seem poised for even more growth after President Trump signaled his approval of the industry, easing fears of a federal crackdown. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, widely seen as a cannabis opponent, in January rescinded Obama-era policies protecting marijuana companies that operate legally under state law. But on April 13, a Republican senator said Trump assured him the federal government will respect state law on pot.
Legal weed, job creator
You can already find a job in the marijuana business in about half of all U.S. states. And the industry is growing across the country.
By 2021, Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics predict that cannabis job creation in California will explode to 99,000 people, making it more than three times the size of the marijuana workforce of Colorado. Meanwhile, Michigan will overtake Washington, and Florida and Massachusetts will overtake Oregon.
Those numbers actually understate how many people are employed thanks to legal weed. Like any other business, pot companies need financial expertise, legal counsel, real estate advice and myriad other professional services.
That’s an opportunity that John Dillinger, a former IRS auditor turned marijuana CPA in California, has used to grow a pot-adjacent private practice.
Over the past eight years, the 59-year-old accountant has catered to cannabis customers, a sphere he says that some CPAs avoid. Today, 20% of his clients are in the pot business.
“One of the local clients that contacted me was just so excited to find a CPA that would work with them,” he said.
But there’s an even bigger impact, analysts like to argue.
People in states where medical or adult-use cannabis is legal can also thank the pot business for boosting demand for local goods and services in their city – spurring more developers to hire construction workers and more coffee shops to bring on baristas.
Combining all three groups – direct jobs like budtending, indirect jobs like accounting and induced jobs like construction – Arcview/BDS counted more than 170,000 jobs in the U.S. in 2017 that wouldn’t exist if not for the cannabis industry.
Meet the weed workforce
The typical employee at a marijuana company is young, white and male, with at least some college education.
That’s according to recent research at Colorado State University, which surveyed 214 cannabis workers in Colorado.
Those findings, at least as far as age and gender are concerned, jibe with what one Denver human resources firm has observed in the cannabis industry, too. The company Faces HCM recruits workers and runs HR for cannabis companies.
Co-founders Caela Bintner and Chris Cassesse say they see all kinds of people working in the pot business, from young people starting out their careers as budtenders to Baby Boomers with advanced degrees switching from Big Pharma to marijuana.
Rolling back marijuana
For now, Trump has signaled that he’ll respect state laws legalizing pot.
But if the Trump administration should reverse itself again, the results would be striking.
Counting folks who don’t work directly in the industry, if the whole industry disappeared tomorrow, 170,000 jobs would dry up. That’s the equivalent of every agriculture job in the state of Colorado disappearing.
Here’s another way to understand what’s at stake: Look at California. In that state, there are almost twice as many people making aircraft parts as there are workers in the cannabis industry today.
But assuming there’s no federal crackdown, cannabis is almost certain to overtake those aircraft parts manufacturing jobs by 2021, when the marijuana business will employ nearly 100,000 people in the state, according to Arcview and BDS Analytics.
The last time there were that many aircraft parts workers in California was 1998.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine that the federal government could or would wipe out the legal marijuana industry completely.
“They would have thousands of arrests that they’d have to make,” said Dale Gieringer, Director of marijuana advocacy group Cal NORML. “It would be a huge project for them to undertake.”
Sure, federal agencies could stir up chaos by arresting business owners, he added, pushing some legitimate businesses underground. But a full crackdown?
“It’s not going to happen,” Gieringer said. “The polling is really bad.”
Legal weed is taking off quickly not just in spite of federal prohibition, but also because of it, says BDS Analytics principal analyst Tom Adams.
“My economist really blew my mind when we started talking about it,” Adams said.
The reason is simple: The drug can’t cross state lines legally, which limits competition.
In other words, an edible cooked up by a chef in Portland, Maine, doesn’t have to compete for shelf space with a chocolate bar concocted in Portland, Ore. You can’t grow marijuana in Palm Springs, Calif., and ship it to be sold in Palm Beach, Fla.
Instead, marijuana companies have to manage an entire supply chain in one state, from seed to sale.
And they have no choice but to hire local.