Hire: The Art and Science Of Cannabis Staffing


Okay, dispensary operator– you’ve dotted your “I’s” and crossed your “T’s.” You’ve got your licenses and paid your fees. You’ve found a location and got the dedication. So far, you’ve had to become a business planner, legal eagle, patient advocate and procurer of funding, in order to join the new ranks of cannabis entrepreneurs. But before you hang out the “We’re Really Open” sign, you’ve got to hire the employees that will help set you up for success.

And chances are, you won’t have any shortage of willing applicants to potentially hire – everyone from former pizza delivery guys and war veterans to your Aunt Ethel, who was a senior in high school when she smoked her first joint at Woodstock.

“First, you should know that a large number of people want to get into this business and on average you will receive about 200 resumes for every position you post,” said HempStaff.com Vice President Rosie Yagielo. “We’ve found 80 to 90 percent that apply are not qualified.”


Managers at La Brea Compassionate Caregivers dispensary, located on a busy street in Hollywood, California, agreed with Yagielo’s assessment, opining, “Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of people that want to work in this industry specifically, but also the job market is terrible right now so we get a ton of applications.”

So, how do you make sure you hire superstars and avoid a succession of short-timers? Managers at L.B.C.C. – like many dispensary operators – often rely on trusted friends, family and even longtime, qualified patients to hire for positions. By developing a tight-knit staff they say they’ve avoided the pitfalls of high turnover or “the ‘stoner crowd’ who think it’s super-easy to work in a place like this and just want to work here because they think we smoke pot all day.”

“The key to legal cannabis success is a qualified workforce,” WeedHire.com CEO Dave Bernstein told MG Magazine.

“Be selective on your hiring,” he suggested. “Don’t just hire friends for the sake of a relationship. Remember, a bad hire in legal cannabis can put you out of business and in jail. WeedHire has partnered with a company called Hireology, which helps dispensary owners make the best hires for their open job positions.”

Bernstein said, as cannabis employment opportunities continue to rise on a strong upward trajectory, targeted hiring of qualified job seekers will be crucial for the entire industry.

“First and most important are knowledgeable candidates that want to get into the industry,” HempStaff’s Yagielo reiterated. “The more knowledge they have, the better they can educate your patients, keeping them happy and coming back to your dispensary. You should be looking for the ones who have a passion for the plant and a passion to help others. Loyalty is very important, as the dispensary owner has put a lot of money into their business – the last thing they want is a lot of turnover of their staff.

“Many new dispensaries start by hiring their friends or people they know because ‘it will be fun to work together.’ This is a serious industry with serious consequences if not done correctly — and your entire staff needs to be on the same page,” Yagielo explained.

“Additionally, in the medical marijuana field many of these ‘friends’ do not realize they will be dealing with many sick people on a regular basis, and thus resign rather quickly. The team should be trained – in house or via outside classes,” she advised. “But most importantly, managers need to ensure everyone understands the product; how to interact and properly recommend dosage with medical patients/customers; and the laws and the consequences of not taking things seriously.”

The managers at L.B.C.C. pointed out that trustworthiness is a trait important to patients who require a budtender that understands their specific needs, as well as which strains and products will work best. A high level of customer service is required, combined with the skills of a pharmacist.

“Trust is really key, but outside of that one of the main skills we need in a budtender is to be able to adapt to any situation, especially socially. The dynamic of our patient base is really quite unique. Our employees need to be able to transition from helping an elderly sick woman to a group of young hip adults. It is a constant back and forth, so we really appreciate employees who can handle any type of patient,” the L.B.C.C. managers said.

Because employee theft is an expensive issue for most dispensaries, trustworthiness (and a solid security camera system) takes on even more importance. “Theft is a huge problem in the industry, which is why it’s so hard to hire strangers, regardless of experience.”

WeedHire and HempStaff are part of a new, growing segment of ancillary businesses that are springing up to service and fill the personnel needs of cannabis employers. Employment agencies, online employment resources, educational certification programs, and human resource consultants – all can help take the guesswork out of staffing.

Before launching HempStaff, Yagielo, with husband and business partner James, had 25 years combined background in training and staffing, and they’ve been involved in cannabis activism since 2001. They offer certification training for “budtenders” that is tailored to various cities, where they provide one-day seminars. They also offer job placement services for dispensaries and other cannabis businesses from their database of more than 5,000 certified or otherwise qualified candidates.

WeedHire has been called the “Monster.com for marijuana’ by media outlets like MSNBC, Inc.com and Forbes. The cannabis employment resource web platform has experienced rapid growth since debuting a little over a year ago and has recently branched out to mobile.

Because trust is a key factor when deciding on a hire, Bernstein said WeedHire sets itself apart by giving tools to employers and prospective candidates to connect and maximize the opportunity for a perfect match. “We are more than just a website with jobs. WeedHire is a platform that seeks to promote the most qualified workforce matched with legitimate businesses in legal cannabis. It’s a place for employers to showcase their companies, as well as post job openings.

“You will see many employers post YouTube videos that explain their company, so employee candidates better understand the company they are apply to work for,” he detailed. “We also offer private messaging for employee candidates and employers to securely connect and discuss any open opportunities. There also is a resume writing service for job seekers, as well as a background screening service for employers. WeedHire also was the first company to launch both an iPhone and Android app for the marijuana jobs marketplace.”

Positions that need to be filled by most dispensaries include cashiers and budtenders, as well as administrative roles like store managers and master growers. Security personnel, while largely filled by outside contractors, also are key in providing a safe environment for patients/customers, as well as deterring outside theft and other potential criminal activity.

At L.B.C.C.—a busy dispensary open from 10am-8pm, seven days a week with limited hours on holidays—the management knows that hiring employees is only the beginning of a somewhat extensive education process for the new hire.

“We are actually always training our employees,” managers told us. “At first, there is about a week of solid training – familiarizing with strains, using our POS system, patient introductions, etc. But because of this industry’s growth in the past few years, there is always something new for all of us to learn. It could be something like a new revolutionary product or a new research study that makes us reevaluate how we help patients.”

Programs and curriculums for cannabis certifications are springing up like weeds, to accommodate the tsunami of newbies that want in on the Green Rush and to get an edge on the competition. Dispensaries also are looking for venues where their prized staffers can learn about the latest products, therapies, marketing or legal issues. The employment experts advised MG readers to do their research and look for programs staffed by recognized, longtime cannabis professionals and educators familiar with laws and regulations in your local area.

If you’re interested in finding Cannabis League candidates – Clover Leaf University is the only cannabis college approved, regulated, and licensed by the state of Colorado Board of Education for Private Occupational Training. Oaksterdam University, founded in Oakland, CA, in 2007, by industry pioneer Richard Lee, sets high standards for cannabis education and research.

But the majority of qualified applicants may have taken a weekend seminar to obtain certification. At HempStaff, Yagielo said attendees run the gamut, explaining, “A big group of the students come from some type of medical background – caregivers, nurses, therapists and pharmacy techs. We also see people that are just starting their careers, post-college, and some people retiring from one career and looking for something to do next.

“There’s not really one group that tends to stand out in numbers from another group – our budtender students come from all age groups and all walks of life,” she added. “But the one common thread is their belief in cannabis and how it helps people and that they want to be part of the revolution toward a more natural medication.”

For dispensary operators doing business in the grey area of legalization, staying on the right side of the law is both a challenge and a necessity. Hiring managers must ensure that new hires are not only qualified, but also certified with a background check and registered with the state. The current patchwork of state and city regulatory standards for marijuana dispensaries requires careful diligence to be assured of compliance, as well as continuing education to keep employees updated on legal policies and standards.

Attorney Melissa Sanchez, with The Harvest Group, said, “The employers in this industry have to strive to keep up with constantly changing cannabis laws and must also be cognizant of regulations that apply to every small business, in regards to employees. Things like withholding taxes and employee benefits – all of that on top of the special licenses and certifications needed to work in cannabis.”

The Harvest Group, a market consultancy and legal advocacy firm, recently recognized a need for human resource professionals to assist cannabis business owners. Goals, said Sanchez, should include developing compliance strategies and policies tailored to local regulations, but that also maintains company culture and good employee relations.

Colorado is often cited as a primary model for what medical and recreational cannabis retail regulations will look like going forward. The current two-tiered occupational licensing system requires prospective employees to pass a background check. They can apply for one of three state occupational licenses. Medical marijuana dispensary worker licenses are available for “support” and “key” employees, which are good for two years at a cost of $150 and $300 respectively. Recreational or “retail” marijuana employees require a one-year license at a fee of $150. Details for employee licensing requirements in Colorado can be viewed at the state’s website, on Department of Revenue pages.

But, as Sanchez pointed out, if California voters approve recreational marijuana in 2016, it will create the largest market for cannabis in the U.S. Currently, 54 percent of surveyed California voters say they support legalization.

Three recent bills have been easily passed initial committees in Sacramento – AB 243 (Wood, D-Healdsburg), AB 266 (Bonta, D-Alameda) and SB 643 (McGuire, D-Healdsburg). The legislation is on the way to appropriations and a final floor vote, when legislators return from summer recess in mid-August. The proposed bills, if approved, would set up the bureaucratic framework needed to create structure for the state’s marijuana marketplace. Ultimately, California—already a heavily regulated state for businesses overall—also may set new standards for cannabis employment practices.

Sanchez suggested dispensary operators consider contracting with a 420-friendly human resource professional or agency, familiar with local and state regulations, to keep track of employee records and business standards compliance management.

She also noted that, because of federal policies that prevent medical and retail marijuana businesses from accessing needed banking services, most employees are paid in cash, which can add a layer of complication to payroll documentation and tax withholding. This is one of several situations unique to cannabis sales and a few other “cash only” businesses.

So… how much should a dispensary employee expect to be paid? Yagielo outlined averages for various industry positions:

“For dispensaries, that question has two parts: in a medical state, dispensary techs get paid $12 to $15 an hour to start. Assistant mangers go to about $18, and managers $20.

“In a recreational state, dispensaries can add in sales bonuses or even lure successful individuals with big salaries and sign-on bonuses from competing dispensaries, to drive their sales – thus the earning potential can be much greater in recreationally legal states. Dispensary manager ranges anywhere from $40-80K per year, depending on the size and location of the dispensary.

“For cultivation centers, the bottom level is the trimmers, making about $10 per hour. Then your cultivation workers are closer to $12 per hour. Assistant growers generally make $15-20 per hour. Master Growers are in high demand as very few have legally held this title. Salaries for the top Master Grower now range in the $120-150K per year range.”

“One of the things that I love about our industry is that there’s a real opportunity for people to make a living wage,” The Harvest Group’s Sanchez added. “The employers I’ve worked with pay valued employees what they’re worth and are committed to providing good benefits for employees and their families, as their businesses expand and mature.”

With four states and Washington D.C. legalized for medical and recreational cannabis, 24 states legal for medicinal use, and up to 11 states that may have legalization initiatives in 2016 (and Ohio this year), the rush is on to find qualified individuals in an environment where new legislation and guidelines are being created as quickly as the industry is growing.

Bernstein noted the current need for high-level employees. “As with any growing industry,” he explained, “the need for back office and operations are in demand. Accounting, bookkeeping, and IT seem to be trending. Additionally, we are seeing a lot of website development, as well as marketing/sales in products and plants themselves.

“Many states list their open state-funded employment opportunities on WeedHire,” he added. “This speaks to the legitimacy of the states’ efforts to ensure the industry runs according to plan and the way the voters wanted their medical or recreational programs. These tend to be the higher paying jobs in the sector, as well.”

Yagielo at HempStaff also sees a demand for candidates with specialized skills or employment experience in medical, marketing and several other fields, noting, “Most clients are still hiring the non-management positions on their own, but do not have the resources to search nationwide for candidates with experience in these high-level, specialized positions in this new industry.

“Right now, the most in demand – in regards to our clients using HempStaff to fill openings – are the high-end positions, such as a Edibles Production Manager or Master Grower,” she said.

“November [2016] elections will be very important toward the legal cannabis movement—specifically in California and Nevada, due to the large revenue opportunities for recreational,” Bernstein further speculated. “But multiple states have medical marijuana on the ballots, as well. Overall job growth will be slow and steady. It takes about 18-24 months from the date a state issues licenses, to actually see jobs creation.”

While the potential for the cannabis job market is hard to measure accurately, he’s obviously bullish on the jobs outlook. “Unfortunately, since there are the challenges with the federal status, most jobs are not tracked by, say, an ADP for payroll as most of it is done in cash. It is safe to assume about 100,000 jobs could be created in the next two years, based on the ancillary businesses surrounding the plant, such as hydroponics, lighting, distribution, edibles, vaporizers and other delivery methods, security, etc.”

So, Bernstein and other executive entrepreneurs are dreaming big in the early days of the Green Rush, while back in the trenches, the staff at L.B.C.C. deal with the realities of every day operation. The cooler is stocked with lots of brownies, cupcakes, sodas and sauces. The menu board has been updated to list daily specials and new strains. Every week, there are more new products in the glass display cases, where curious patients look for a long time, and then ask shy questions about this or that.

After four years in business, they try not to focus on the ever-present risks or difficulties. L.B.C.C. has weathered numerous changes in state and local legislation, while other Los Angeles dispensaries have come and gone. Still, the managers feel like several issues might be easier to address if dispensaries in LA were more unified.

“The atmosphere is disturbingly competitive,” they said. “There is no real communication between collectives in Los Angeles and no real sense of unity. We think that, among other things, hiring people in this industry would be a lot easier for applicants and employers if there were more of a positive rapport among the collectives.”

They’re patiently waiting for 2016, when California voters may finally clear away the grey area, resulting in unification of the marijuana marketplace, from a legal perspective, anyway—and ultimately, in a good way, they hope. Until then, “all of us are constantly vulnerable to the changing of state or federal laws, which can either work for or against all of us (small businesses, local farmers).”

“It’s really frustrating,” they added. “Imagine dedicating your time and effort and love to a business that, with the passing of a state or federal law, can either become criminal or—on the other end of that spectrum—corporate, overnight.”

By Joanne Cachapero