Budding job market: Arizona among top states for marijuana employment, study says

Ryan Randazzo

| Arizona Republic

With nearly 21,000 people working in marijuana dispensaries or affiliated businesses, Arizona ranks No. 4 nationally for jobs in the cannabis industry, according to a report released Tuesday by Leafly.

The report was based on employment in 2020, before Arizona launched adult-use marijuana sales in January, so those figures are sure to rise as dispensaries around the state ramp up to meet the new demand from sales to any adult over age 21, not just medical-marijuana patients.

Arizona had more than $1 billion in medical-marijuana sales last year, with about 5,600 new jobs created just last year, according to estimates in the report.

Jobs in the industry start at about $35,000 annually, but salaries top $60,000 for a variety of positions, with many managers earning more than $100,000.

Leafly’s jobs count estimate includes direct, indirect and ancillary jobs in the cannabis industry. That includes licensed dispensary workers and unlicensed workers in ancillary jobs such as consulting, legal affairs, public relations and governmental regulation.

Nationwide, 321,000 people work in the marijuana industry, a 32% bump from 2019, according to Leafly’s fifth annual cannabis industry jobs report, with 77,000 new jobs created last year. Leafly is a national online directory for dispensaries and products, which produced the report with Whitney Economics of Portland, Oregon.

The top three states for legal marijuana jobs are California, with about 58,000 workers; Colorado, with about 36,000; and Florida, with about 31,000.

With only its medical-marijuana program in place in 2020, Arizona’s cannabis workforce is larger than Washington and Oregon, both states that legalized marijuana years before Arizona. Arizona has about 300,000 people with medical cards allowing them to purchase marijuana from dispensaries without paying the 16% excise tax on recreational marijuana.

Arizona marijuana sales are surging now with dozens of dispensaries offering adult-use sales, which has required adding additional cash registers, dispensary additions and a host of new marijuana farm expansions across the state.

“It’s been a really exciting time since January,” said Steve Cottrel, president of Curaleaf Arizona. Wakefield, Mass.-based Curaleaf has eight medical-marijuana dispensaries in Arizona, with two more planned, and 101 medical and recreational marijuana shops total in 23 states.

“We still see a lot of people who don’t know about cannabis, brand new users every day,” he said of Arizona sales.

The company has hired 150 new workers to meet the demand from adult-use sales, bringing the company total close to 600 workers, Cottrel said. Another 100 hires are planned this year, he said.

“We are looking for people that are interested in working, to be honest,” he said. “We are looking for people who are interested in working and learning. We can train most people in this industry.”

New licenses needed for employment

The state has about a three-week backlog to approve new facility agent licenses for those who are new to the industry, Cottrel said.

“There is a serious bottleneck there,” he said. “They are working through it, but it is not going quickly.”

Under the medical-marijuana program, employees must be licensed by the Department of Health Services as “dispensary agents.” If the dispensary offers recreational sales, the workers must be licensed as “facility agents.”

About 9,500 people had dispensary agent cards as of January, according to DHS.

DHS says the backlog isn’t that bad. Since it began taking new applications Jan. 19, DHS has gotten 4,634 new facility agent applications, spokesman Steve Elliott said Tuesday.

“Of these, 3,458 have been closed (approved/denied/void), with an average time frame of 4.3 days,” he said.

Another 1,176 applications have yet to be approved or denied, but 877 of those require some sort of correction or additional information from the applicants, he said. Some of the remaining applications are new, coming in as recently as Tuesday.

More than 100 Arizona medical-marijuana dispensaries now offer recreational marijuana sales.

The people already licensed as dispensary agents have been able to keep working at those shops so long as they applied to become facility agents. But new facility agent licenses are taking time because the Department of Health Services is being inundated with applications, said Samuel Richard, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association.

But, he said, that should get better.

New license applicants must submit a full set of fingerprints for a background check to work in the industry. However, if an applicant already has a Level 1 Fingerprint Clearance Card from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which is required for a variety of other jobs, that may be submitted instead to speed up the application.

People with criminal records from drug offenses are unable to work in dispensaries. But some people with convictions that can be expunged thanks to provisions in Proposition 207, which passed in November and made adult-use of marijuana legal, may be able to work in dispensaries after getting those records erased.

“We can’t wait for that day,” Cottrel said. “This really speaks to the social justice side to this new law. There are thousands and thousands of people in this state that have petty cannabis violations and they can’t come work for us.”

Retail, manufacturing experience needed

Marijuana companies are pulling workers from other sectors as they expand, according to a separate analysis by Liesl Bernard, CEO of CannabizTeam, an executive search and staffing firm.

“They are pulling from the retail sector,” she said. “They are hiring science people for testing, (people with experience in) consumer packaging and manufacturing. These are all hotbeds for finding talent. And each cannabis company needs to hire executives, marketing specialists, CFOs.”

Experience in the cannabis industry is helpful for landing a job, but that’s not always possible because many of the jobs are so new, she said.

“It is not a blemish to say I have knowledge of the industry anymore,” she said of those who do have cannabis growing or other experience. “Most cannabis companies are in the start-up phase. They hire people who have the ability to think creatively.”

And the jobs can pay well. Following are the nationwide median salaries for some of the positions in the industry, according to research by CannabizTeam.

  • $32,000 for a “trimmer,” or someone who works in a marijuana farm cutting plants.
  • $37,000 for a budtender working retail inside a dispensary.
  • $52,000 for an extraction technician who works in facilities that make marijuana extracts.
  • $63,000 for a warehouse technician.
  • $71,000 for a plant breeder.
  • $75,000 for a territory sales manager.
  • $75,000 for a social media manager.
  • $85,000 for a dispensary manager.
  • $175,000 for a director of human resources.
  • $188,000 for a chief science officer.
  • $189,000 for a director of cultivation.
  • $330,000 for a chief financial officer.

The firm’s analysis notes that average wages in the Phoenix market are nearly 1% higher than those listed, while those in the Tucson area are about 3.5% lower.

Reach reporter Ryan Randazzo at ryan.randazzo@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4331. Follow him on Twitter @UtilityReporter.

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