By Jennifer Boeder
Cannabis remains a wildly misunderstood plant, due in part to a long-standing anti-cannabis propaganda campaign—so it’s no surprise the newly legal cannabis industry remains greatly misunderstood as well.
People see the headlines about the exploding value of the cannabis industry (projections put its value at $57 billion in the U.S alone by 2030) and assume everyone who works for a cannabis business is making millions. Um, no—unless you’re a CEO at an MSO or a global celebrity licensing your name to a brand. I love working in cannabis, don’t get me wrong—but this space is not a get-rich-quick scheme.
Here are three myths that cannabis workers wish more people understood:
1. “Cannabis sells itself.”
This statement is both a giant red flag and also something every single person in the cannabis business has heard stated confidently in meetings. As Elijah Mattox of Friendly Farms said in a LinkedIn debate on this topic, those who think weed sells itself “are people who’ve never sold cannabis.”
Many cannabis newcomers assume that because cannabis was a billion-dollar business before it was legal, everyone who bought it illegally will simply flock to dispensaries and spend those same billions. No need for marketing, customer service, branding—all weed is the same and it just sells because it’s weed.
Based on this logic, stoners sound like addicts (addicts with lots of disposable income) who will go anywhere and do anything for their marijuana fix. In fact, their addiction is so powerful that they can suss out where dispensaries are and what they sell without any help. Banned from advertising on Google and Facebook? NBD, who needs online ad campaigns? Individual retailers, product quality, branding, marketing, sales, education and customer service are all apparently unnecessary!
“It’s shortsighted to assume everyone who enters a dispensary is already ‘sold’ on cannabis,” says Danniella Brazel-Adams, a Vancouver cannabis retail consultant. “Just like a consumer in a liquor store, they often have questions, want to be engaged, want to know what’s new. Especially if they’re consuming cannabis for health concerns, customers need information from someone with product knowledge. If cannabis actually sold itself, there’d be 10 national suppliers and we’d call it a day.”
The Huffington Post published a piece titled Marijuana Doesn’t Just Sell Itself nine years ago. Yet somehow this myth persists, dismissing the intense market competition and steep costs of running a cannabis business, while also diminishing the difficult work that the majority of people in the industry do to stay afloat. Legal cannabis has countless hurdles to overcome before profits even begin to come into view—and those hurdles are cultural as well as logistical, which brings me to my next myth….
2. “Cannabis is totally mainstream and accepted now.”
Is it more accepted? Yes. Do the vast majority of Americans now think it should be legal in some form? Yes (although 30 percent of Americans say it should only be legal for medical use, and another 10 percent say it should stay banned completely). Considering that marijuana was branded “the most dangerous drug in America” by our highest-ranked government official as recently as 1980, and that cannabis consumers have been smeared as violent criminals for decades, this is real progress to be celebrated. But the idea that it’s even close to being as accepted as, say, alcohol, just doesn’t track with anyone who works in the industry.
Despite progress on cannabis legality and acceptance, the majority of Americans strongly oppose having a dispensary in their neighborhood. Even in California, where medical cannabis has been legal since the 1990s, more than half of the state’s cities and counties prohibit cannabis businesses. Opening a cannabis dispensary means having to convince many of your neighbors that you are not, in fact, a nefarious drug dealer preying on children and attracting violent criminals into their community.
Ask your friends in cannabis how often their social media accounts get shut down, or how much they have to spend on security, or how many people their company has on staff whose job is simply counting cash. Find out how many of them can even share with their families what they do for a living. It’s easy for me as a white lady who doesn’t have kids to be open about working in cannabis, but the social risks are often far higher for people of color, or for people living in conservative communities, or people in certain professions (teachers, child care workers, parents).
I’ll believe cannabis has gone fully mainstream when I see t-shirts that say “it’s weed o’clock” sold in the women’s section of Target.
3. “Everyone in cannabis is making millions off the green rush!”
Once again, legal cannabis is NOT a get-rich-quick scheme.
Each state has its own cannabis economy, so it’s difficult to generalize. But in my state of California (the biggest legal cannabis market on the planet) growers and retailers are struggling to survive, much less profit. Particularly for plant-touching businesses that pay astronomical taxes and deal with miles of red tape to sell a plant whose market value they have no control over, startup costs are insane.
Just applying for licenses can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Some states require applicants to have at least $250,000 in liquid capital—none of which you can borrow. Although this classification may change soon, cannabis is still a dangerous Schedule 1 drug in the eyes of the federal government, right alongside cocaine and heroin. Imagine trying to start a small business without access to a bank account, business loans, declaring any business expenses on your taxes (despite paying state and federal taxes) being able to advertise on Google or Facebook (essentially a ban on almost all digital advertising) or sell anything outside of the state you reside in.
CEOs and CFOs of a gigantic multi-state operator might get million-dollar bonuses, but most non-executive people in weed are working hard just to make ends meet.
Though I’ve worked in cannabis since 2017, I wouldn’t call myself a veteran (especially considering the risks taken by those who’ve been in cannabis for decades—that would feel like stolen valor). But the joke in the industry is that this business is so volatile, unstable and littered with obstacles that you can measure your tenure in dog years (i.e., a year in cannabis equals five years working in a federally legal business where you’re allowed to open a bank account). I love what I do, I love the community I’ve found, and I encourage people to look for work in the cannabis industry—but I always want them to go in with their eyes open.
If you want a cushy (kush-y?) gig where you can cash in on a green rush and smoke dope all day (another myth!) legal cannabis is probably not the place for you. But if you like challenges, learning every single day, and have the inner balance to cope with a certain amount of uncertainty and chaos? If you like startup life and want to work with funny, subversively inclined people in an exciting new space where you get to change hearts and minds and undo decades of toxic anti-plant propaganda? Come work in cannabis. You may not get rich quick—but you’ll never be bored.
The cannabis industry is super competitive—but we’ve got strategies that can help your cannabis business thrive for the long haul. Let’s talk!