Question the Cannasseur: What’s It like Working in Cannabis?

photo of a display case at a marijuana dispensary with three jars of cannabis strains inside, showing what it would be like working in the cannabis industry
Editorial credit: mikeledray / Shutterstock.com

Despite still battling for legitimacy in the eyes of the Federal Government, marijuana is the fastest growing industry in the United States. While the cannabis industry didn't just crop up overnight, there's no doubt the job opportunities are booming. As the demand for cannabis continues to rise, so do the employment prospects. In fact, ZipRecruiter estimates job listings in the industry are growing 700% year over year – or three times faster than technology which is growing at a rate of 245%.

As a former budtender in Denver, I will vouch – working in the industry is incredibly rewarding and exceptionally fun, as compared to most jobs. Let's use this week's Quora question to review some pointers about working in a cannabis dispensary.

How much do people who work in a dispensary get paid?

In my honest opinion, this has a concise, two-word answer: Not Enough.

As much as working in the cannabis industry, especially as a budtender, sounds like it would be a rockstar job, it's important to remember – it's still just a job. The truth of the matter is – the term "budtender" is just a glorified title for a "retail sales associate," and unfortunately that's exactly how they are paid.

Generally speaking, a budtender makes minimum wage, or slightly more, depending on their experience in the position. I started as a budtender almost three years ago, and I started at $12.00 an hour. Now, I don't know if you know how expensive it is to live in Denver, but $12.00 an hour is well below poverty level there. Our apartment cost over $1,000 each month, and we were in a terrible neighborhood. My rent was more than 50 percent of my monthly income before taxes. We were dirt poor that year.

Additionally, most dispensaries don't offer benefits to their employees beyond product discounts, sales incentives, and a few random bonuses. However, had it not been for these benefits, my husband never would've been able to afford the products he needed to end his legal opiate addiction.

How It's Different

photo of a cannabis farmer's hand as he puts a young marijuana plant into a pot

Now that I've pointed out that being a budtender is no different from say, working at Old Navy, let me explain there are a few differences:

  • You must be able to pass a background check. Here in Colorado, you can't have felony charges in the last five years, and you can't have any felony drug charges ever.
  • You are always under surveillance. If you so much as pick your nose, chances are good someone at the MED office might see it.
  • You will gain a new reputation. Like I said, some will look at you like a rockstar, while others will look at you like a drug dealer. Be prepared for the judgment.
  • No one cares if you use marijuana. In fact, it's encouraged, just not while you're working. In this industry, you don't have to worry about dropping a random UA, testing positive for THC, and losing your job.
  • The atmosphere is more fun than any other. I speak from experience here. I have worked in manufacturing, banking, higher education, retail, casinos, bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and even agriculture. None of them hold a candle to working in the cannabis industry.
  • You get to help people. The most rewarding part of the job is hearing the sighs of relief when a medical client experiences pain relief for the first time in years and comes back to thank you for it.

Why It's Worth It

photo of an outdoor cannabis greenhouse overlooking the beautiful mountains

So, as long as the industry continues to pay budtenders so little, the one thing you can count on is that the position of "budtender" will always be a stepping stone to something better. Turnover is a huge problem in the industry. One doesn't need a degree in Human Resources to understand; you can't expect people to stay in a position without paying them a living wage. However, those who take being a budtender seriously are likely to find their work as a budtender is more like a springboard than a stepping stone.

The beauty of a new industry gaining incredible momentum, like the cannabis industry, is that the potential for greatness lies in he who displays the most ambition. Hundreds of people are redefining their careers, chasing their dreams, and finding their passions within the budding industry. (Pun intended.)

For me, spending a year below the poverty level, working as a budtender, and taking my role seriously, ultimately led to creating my own niche in cannabis journalism. After spending 20 years in the corporate world, doing the 8-5, spending countless hours in a windowless office, today I work for myself, set my own schedule, and I'm surrounded by windows in the comfort of my own living room.

More than Budtenders

photo of cannabis strains in jars in a dispensary

With three years dedicated to the industry and countless interviews with CEO's and recruiters, the biggest piece of advice I can offer to those looking to make the transition to cannabis is this:

Don't reinvent the wheel – you have a skillset, use it. With such explosive job growth, the cannabis industry needs people in all walks of life. You don't need to learn new skills, use what you already know. While being a budtender or a trimmer can get your foot in the door, if you've worked professionally in any sector or have a degree in any field, there's a job for you. The industry needs accountants, compliance officers, engineers, laborers, marketers, communicators, educators, and many other positions. Look at the experience you have and ask yourself, "What can I offer the cannabis industry?" Chances are good; there's a company out there looking for your skillset. Your success in the industry is only limited by you.

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