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Growing Up: Cannabis Industry Workers Now Outnumber Computer Programmers

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JOB JUMP: Customers shop at Hayward-based Garden of Eden. Photo by Dan Mitchell

JOB JUMP: Customers shop at Hayward-based Garden of Eden. Photo by Dan Mitchell

For all the struggles the cannabis industry is facing—slim or nonexistent margins, illicit sales, the enormous costs of running a dispensary—the industry has nevertheless exploded. One can only wonder how huge it would be if the federal government were to legalize weed.

There are now more cannabis industry workers than there are computer programmers, Marijuana Business Daily reported last week as it issued its annual Marijuana Business Factbook. While there are many caveats to this (programmers make a lot more money than budtenders, for example) that’s an astonishing fact given that pot is legal for adult use in only 11 states, and medical marijuana is legal in only 33.

What’s more, the growth in jobs shows no signs of slowing.

Cannabis has been deemed an essential business by most governments instituting lockdowns to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, so the industry was likely saved from near-collapse. When the pandemic hit, stocks of public pot companies were plummeting and layoffs were mounting. Tight government regulations and high taxes in California and other states were threatening the foundations of the industry.

Those problems haven’t disappeared by a long shot, but due to high demand, in part spurred by the fact that a lot of people are stuck at home with little else to do, the employment picture looks pretty good.

At the end of this year, there will be between 240,000 and 295,000 people working in the weed business, according to MJ Business Daily. That’s nearly 50 percent more than in 2019.

By 2024, the number of jobs is expected to grow by another 250,000. That could be even greater if more states legalize marijuana or the federal government removes pot’s designation as a Schedule 1 narcotic. It could be more still if states where weed is legal also ease up on taxes and regulations and do more to combat illicit sales, which in California are three times greater than legal sales. 

Federal illegality has stymied the growth of the industry in myriad ways: it’s hard to get banking services because federally chartered banks don’t want to take the risk of dealing in “narcotics;” it has limited the tax deductions pot companies can take on federal tax filings; it makes interstate commerce impossible.

If more legalization doesn’t happen, and the pandemic-caused recession turns into a full-on depression, pot likely won’t be spared.

Congress is now debating whether to extend the $600 in weekly unemployment benefits for people who are out of work due to lockdowns. If that doesn’t happen, most observers think pot sales could sink.

The majority of cannabis jobs are in retail shops, and those—especially the smaller, independent shops that dot California’s landscape—would take the full brunt of any downturn in sales.

In its report, MJ Business Daily also points out that pot is segregated in a way that most other businesses aren’t, supporting more retail jobs than it would if weed were sold in liquor stores, gas stations and supermarkets.

“If a drugstore generated an additional $300,000 per year in cannabis sales, it might need to hire only a couple of additional employees to handle the increased sales volume,” the report said.

Meanwhile, it’s important to note that while it’s striking that pot workers now outnumber computer programmers (as well as librarians, journalists, and steelworkers, according to other news reports), it’s sort of an apples-to-oranges comparison.

The information technology sector as a whole employs about 4.5 million people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That includes marketers, support personnel, administrative workers and more. The pot industry is also dwarfed by Walmart alone, which employs about 2.2 million Americans.

Finally, while it’s possible to make good money in cannabis, the average salary for budtenders in California is less than $40,000, according to Salary.com. Programmers, meanwhile, earn an average of about $91,000 a year.

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