Legal Weed Companies Could Rake In Billions. So Why Don’t People Want To Work For Them

Photo Credit: Chris Roussakis

The Santa Ana, Calif.-based company Kush Bottles made $18 million in 2017. That’s twice what it earned the year before. Executives there expect to double revenue again in 2018.

The company, which makes marijuana packaging products, is in an industry already worth more than $7 billion globally and one that’s just scratching the surface. By 2021, the Brightfield Group has estimated that industry will be generating $31.4 billion annually, more money than McDonald’s makes in a year.

You would think the company would have Harvard business school grads banging down the doors to get in.

Think again.

“We’ve had candidates that we really like and they could do a great job for the company and they’ve turned down offers because of the affiliation with the cannabis industry,” said Nick Kovacevich, CEO of Kush Bottles.

As more and more states continue to legalize marijuana — and more people look to get jobs in the burgeoning industry — an intriguing problem has emerged for industry entrepreneurs: How do you grow a potentially multimillion-dollar business when top talent still sees an industry that’s been banned for decades?

As tech leaders once had to persuade promising grads hellbent on careers in traditional white collar fields, so too for those at the forefront of the legal weed trade. (And tech entrepreneurs weren’t fighting nearly a century of prohibition.)

Kush Bottles operates in states where cannabis is legal, but even when marijuana goes legit in these states, the stigma remains, say company leaders.

A recent candidate made it through the entire interview process at Kush Bottles and got an offer from the company, one Kovacevich said was competitive across industries. Then he balked, saying his wife wasn’t comfortable with him working in cannabis. The company offered to meet with his wife to try and get her comfortable with the industry. She wouldn’t even take the meeting, Kovacevich said.

“So that’s how much stigma still exists,” he said. “It’s not just ‘I don’t like it.’ It’s ‘I don’t even want to learn about it.'”

Businesses in New Jersey could very soon be feeling the same pressure. With a governor that supports marijuana legalization, the foundation of a cannabis industry is starting to take shape in the state. Even cannabis companies that never touch the plant still suffer, as Kovacevich has learned. Kush Bottles sells a range of packaging products, from the jars retailers sell weed in to batteries for vaporizers.

But the companies that actually grow and sell weed often have it tougher.

In late 2013, Matthew Gaboury was looking to transform a dilapidated warehouse in the industrial southern part of Seattle into the 50,000-square-foot headquarters and grow house for his company, House of Cultivar. It involved an extensive renovation, one that could offer big money for a contractor.

But Gaboury found willing construction companies scarce. One would show interest, learn that the work was for a business whose primary mission was to grow dank weed, then step back.

“There was definitely a lot of negativity that we have to get around and it made things very hard and it put big hurdles in place,” he said. Ultimately, Gaboury and his partners were able to get the work done and House of Cultivar is now one of the largest marijuana producers in Seattle.

“Being a legitimate business owner (the stigma) does sting, it does hurt and it does make it a little bit more difficult,” Gaboury said.

The stigma won’t last forever, experts agree. Even as businesses are currently struggling with residual stain that marijuana prohibition has left on the industry, signs of a shift are emerging. And consider this math: The cannabis industry is now valued at less than $10 billion, but investment firm Cowen expects a $75 billion industry by 2030. Some students are already betting their future on cannabis.

Northern Michigan University garnered plenty of attention last year when it announced a major in marijuana — officially called medicinal plant chemistry.

Rutgers also has a program that allows students to earn credit for interning at Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, one of New Jersey’s five medical marijuana dispensaries. Several undergraduate students and two doctoral candidates currently work at the dispensary, on the cultivation side.

I invited the head of their plant sciences program and they both were very interested in having their students work with us,” said Aaron Epstein, general manager at Garden State Dispensary. “To the best of my knowledge, no students have had any trouble getting class credit.”

Epstein said beyond the expected problems with banking and finance — federal prohibition of marijuana currently means most banks won’t work with the industry — he has had few issues as a cannabis businessman.

Still, expect more barriers if recreational marijuana comes to New Jersey. To date, no fewer than 10 towns in the state have banned recreational marijuana sales, even though any policy change is still months away. At least seven other towns are considering similar moves.

Business owners from other states say that New Jersey marijuana entrepreneurs will likely find that the stigma isn’t contained to the professional sphere, often seeping into their personal lives. What should they tell their kids? Their acquaintances?

Jill Trinchero, who owns a cannabis bakery in Portland, Oregon, said these conversations make for awkward situations.

“Yeah, it was weird,” she said. “It was a coming out on so many levels.”

Trinchero said her kids overheard a branding conversation regarding her bakery, She Don’t Know, which makes cannabis-infused cookies and crackers.

“At that point we weren’t really hiding it from them, (but) we hadn’t talked to them about it,” she said. “They said, ‘Mommy, are you opening a bakery?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, actually I am.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, can we help you?’ and I was like, ‘no no.'”

Trinchero said she doesn’t bring up her business in mixed company, like around parents of her kids’ friends.

“We still don’t talk super openly about it,” she said. “If we’re not friends first, if it’s the kids who are friends, I don’t talk to the parents about it.

“They can Google me. They probably are.”