Within the United States, more than 321,000 full-time equivalent jobs have been supported by the legal cannabis industry. Public sentiment has shifted from an underground “stoner” culture to being associated with household brands like the National Football League, Rolling Stone, and Martha Stewart. A sign of job market maturity is the availability of advanced career opportunities other than a simple retail “budtender” role. Think of certified horticulturists using state-of-the-art cultivation technology. Think of chemists and engineers holding PhDs developing product formulations supported by data science. Think pharmacists and physicians integrating cannabinoid-based medicine with traditional pharmaceutical drugs. Think lawyers and certified public accountants navigating operational regulations and compliance with federal tax codes. Think frozen bank accounts, denied personal loans, and dealing with urban PTSD.
That’s right. Let’s sprinkle a dose of reality on top of the Ben & Jerry’s CBD ice cream and unveil some of the untold struggles that cannabis employees still currently face. From my time serving as Vice President of a vertically integrated medical cannabis facility, these are some highlights that have stuck with me:
- Cannabis companies experience frozen bank accounts and unexplained bannings on social media platforms like LinkedIn and Instagram due to “violation of policies”. National bank chains must adhere to federal guidelines including considerations of FDIC insurance. Social media sites operating across state lines follow regulations for media content dictated by the FTC within the US. With cannabis federally labeled as a schedule I substance but individually managed by state-run organizations, the discrepancy leaves companies stuck making impossible and sometimes illogical decisions. Erring on the side of caution leaves cannabis businesses with inaccessible funds and the need to rebuild their social media market presence from scratch. Every time a cannabis company goes “dark”, it’s a gentle reminder that we’re operating under different standards.
- Employees have been denied applications for traditional home mortgages or personal loans based on their employment. Credit checks and employment verifications immediately draw a red flag with any plant-touching business entity. Lending companies are trying to avoid violating federal regulations of money-laundering by loaning funds to individuals directly tied to, again, a federally illegal substance. These employees are alternatively being forced to use local credit unions (typically with higher interest rates and fees) or simply hope there’s somebody in their life willing to independently sign a loan on their behalf.
- I hired an honorably discharged combat veteran whose primary healthcare provider was operating out of the local VA hospital. This employee couldn’t have an upfront conversation with their practitioner about how cannabis helps them manage symptoms of PTSD over prescription medication. Physicians and major hospital systems fear losing federal grants if there’s even an association with cannabis. This employee who served time for our country was denied access to complete and thorough medical care for a treatment plan based on technicalities.
- Signs of urban PTSD were present with minority employees. When traveling home from work, they would exercise additional caution by carrying their Alternative Treatment Center ID badge with them. Working in a vertically integrated facility where cultivation and trim rooms were less than 100 feet from the dispensary, odors sometimes significantly lingered on clothing and personal belongings, especially during post-harvest days. They cited fears of an unexpected encounter with law enforcement that might end dangerously and having their employee ID badge present could mitigate potential issues.
In my personal life coming from traditional conservative Asian roots, the conversation with my family was extremely tough. When I spoke to my mother-in-law about my role as a cannabis pharmacist, I was met with an unknown phrase that Google translated to “opium dealer”. After an awkward but reassuring conversation that I was not in fact operating an opium den, it fell on deaf ears. The views of “drug” usage in Asian cultures are highly conservative so recent international news of cannabis support from countries like Japan and Thailand come as a refreshing surprise.
The movement for cannabis to become fully aligned with mainstream culture is happening slowly. Stigma rooted in misinformation will still exist on multiple levels and federal uncertainties hold the reigns of the conversation for the foreseeable future. Yes, the cannabis industry is developing at a rapid pace, and yes, there’s so much to be excited about but every rose has its thorns. This industry will continue experiencing growing pains but compared to less than a decade ago when unannounced raids carried out by the DEA would occur frequently, there’s much to celebrate. For those who are interested in pursuing a career in the cannabis space: I applaud and support you. If you’re expecting a smooth-sailing ride, you might need to find a different boat. As always, let’s continue the conversation.