Legal cannabis sales in 2021 have continued their upwards trend since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and that demand has led to an increase in jobs in the legal cannabis industry, even though there are plenty of obstacles to hiring that vary by state. And as jobs continue to grow, so do workers’ demands for safety and benefits.

We looked at Michigan and Ohio in the Midwest and Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island in New England. These are states that responded to inquiries and have either a medical or both a medical and regulated adult-use market.

Massachusetts and Michigan had the highest number of regulated cannabis workers, even when compared to the state’s workforce. Meanwhile, Grown In reports that Massachusetts is having problems filling out cultivation roles

Jobs by the numbers

Michigan’s first adult-use marijuana stores opened in December 2019. Its sales grew by 58% from October 2020 through October 2021. There are 33,528 cannabis employees in the state, making up 0.7% of the workforce – the highest in our group of states. As of October, there were over 29,000 caregivers in the state. Caregivers can grow up to a dozen marijuana plants for each medical patient with whom they are connected to.

Ohio has 5,531 active employees, making up 0.09% of the civil workforce. 

Illinois regulators did not provide worker data in time for publication, but a 2021 Leafly Jobs report found that there was an increase of 8,348 jobs in the state’s legal cannabis industry.

“There’s still a lot more room to grow, though, as the state regulatory agency has only approved 81 stores so far to serve a statewide population of 12 million people,” the report found.

In Massachusetts, sales grew despite taking a dip after Gov. Charlie Baker ordered adult-use operations in the state to shutter because of the coronavirus pandemic. For the same time period as MIchigan, there was a 47% increase in sales. 

Legal cannabis workers make up 0.5% of the civil labor force in 2021 in Massachusetts.

There are over 19,400 active Marijuana Establishment agents (owners, employees, executives, and volunteers) in Massachusetts as of December 2021. 

Maine has 5,841 registered caregiver employees and assistants and 3,012 registered caregivers, according to a state medical marijuana data portal. That’s 0.86% of the civilian labor force. In that state, caregivers can grow cannabis plants and sell their harvest to medical dispensaries and registered patients.

In Rhode Island, there are only three compassion care centers or dispensaries in the state employing 1,214 people. That number is made up of 425 compassion center employees and 789 cultivator employees.

Connecticut, which has 18 dispensaries, reported 698 cannabis workers in the state, or 0.03% of the workforce. Vermont reported 111 active cannabis workers.

Sam Marvin, director of organizing for UFCW Local 328, which represents southeast Massachusetts and Rhode Island, said demand for quality, safe, and affordable cannabis is driving the growth in cannabis jobs.

“When they first rolled out legalization, we saw a lot of pops on small businesses. But as time has gone on, we’ve seen a lot of the corporatization of cannabis,” he said. “You have the larger companies coming in and buying out some of the small- to medium-sized stores. We’ve seen expansion in Massachusetts, for not only cannabis employees, but certainly the footprint of corporate cannabis as well.”

Worker concerns

Coupled with the boom in cannabis jobs, employees across the nation are organizing in droves and unionizing, calling for healthcare, paid time off, and other benefits. 

How multistate operators respond to bargaining is a “mixed bag,” Marvin said. Organizations fall into two categories: high road employers and union busting ones, he said. 

“We’re the largest private sector union. We’ve been able to actually establish some healthy working relationships in other parts of the country. Oftentimes, if they come here, and they’re looking for a license in Massachusetts, they’ll come to the table and they’ll negotiate in good faith and listen to their workers and be responsive.” he said. “But then you have some employers who are certainly union busting. They can utilize the same kind of tactics that really any employer who is trying to stop their workers from organizing. They’ll hire union busters.” 

It’s not just finding the right job application and getting through the interview process. Workers interested in the cannabis industry have to jump hurdles that vary by state.

Michigan requires licensees to perform background checks on prospective employees. If there’s a charge or conviction for a controlled substance-related felony, written permission from the Marijuana Regulatory Agency would be required. Growers and processors must have two years of experience as a caregiver or have an active employee with such experience – a requirement that ends Dec. 31, 2021.

There are two departments in Ohio that oversee the legal cannabis industry – the Board of Pharmacy and the Department of Commerce. For dispensary employees, all workers must be licensed as associated key employees (owners, principal officers, board members), key employees (managers, administrators), or support employees (budtenders). Employees are also required to submit FBI and BCI background checks to the state.

All employees must wear a department-approved badge while in the facility. Ohio has had issues with rolling out badges, making workers wait eight weeks for the badges needed to be on site, Grown In previously reported.

In Massachusetts, cannabis workers must be at least 21 years old and must have never been convicted of distributing a controlled substance to minors. Agents are required to register with the state and submit information like date of birth, registrations at other marijuana companies, and demographic information like gender, race, ethnicity, veteran status, and farmer status. 

Rhode Island employees are not required to undergo a background check, but owners, board members, officers, directors, managers, and agents are required to.