HempStaff, specializing in medical marijuana recruiting and dispensary training, is selling out on training classes nationwide for the burgeoning legal marijuana industry, and Cleveland is no exception.
But some experts say it may be too early to get excited. With just more than a dozen medical marijuana licenses recently awarded in Ohio and unsuccessful applicants filing lawsuits, it’s going to take some time for state-licensed medical marijuana facilities to get growing.
In the rapidly evolving world of legalized marijuana, later this fall some of Ohio’s sickest residents should be able to use state-issued identification cards to shop at local dispensaries for medical marijuana products including oils, tinctures (alcohol-based cannabis extracts), plant material, edibles and patches.
In the past two years, hundreds of new regulations have been crafted and dozens of entrepreneurs have invested millions for their chance to break into the budding industry. Meanwhile, a new effort is afoot to make the drug legal for recreational use — a reality in eight other states.
But one thing is certain, no matter who you talk to – from pundits and opponents to experts studying various parts of the marijuana business – Ohioans can expect to see new business opportunities and jobs.
James Yagielo, a North Ridgeville native and CEO of HempStaff, is hosting two four-hour crash courses on March 30 at the Embassy Suites in Independence. He said his sold-out training classes indicate that people are eager to be part of this new industry.
Students, who pay $250 each, learn the basics about what kind of cannabis products would match up best with each patient’s ailments. So far, he said, the company has trained 3,900 students in 18 states.
And while participants range from medical professionals seeking more information, to career changers and college students, many are interested in becoming “budtenders,” a dispensary’s version of a bartender, interacting with customers and handing over goods.
The course covers what jobs in the cannabis industry are the most popular vs. the most difficult to fill, which upcoming cannabis markets are expected to grow the fastest, and which cannabis industry positions tend to earn the highest salaries.
While entry level jobs that include watering plants and taking soil samples generally pay about $15 an hour, a master grower in Ohio can earn between $100,000-$120,000 a year, according to HempStaff.
“First and foremost, we cover the science of cannabis and how it works with the body, and then state-specific rules and regulations,” he said. “Many people think, ‘I’ve been smoking for years I’m qualified.’ But that’s not what this is about; especially in Ohio where they don’t even allow you to sell plant material for smoking.”
For newer states with legalized medical marijuana, Yagielo said, products are generally listed on paper or displayed using iPads.
“If you’re lucky it will be on a glass shelf,” he said. “New states have stricter laws. Minnesota, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio don’t even allow any product to be smoked. They do allow vaping, which similar to e-cigarettes using nicotine, contains cannabis oil that is heated and turned into vapor to be inhaled.”
“When the medical marijuana industry started, it was more like a hedge shop, and now it’s turned into more of a pharmacy setting,” said Yagielo, 42.
The company, which describes itself as an “industry leader in medical marijuana recruiting and job training,” reports that while the afternoon class in Cleveland is sold out and only a few spots are left for the morning seminar, future classes are planned later this summer in both Cleveland and Columbus.
Patient counts in Ohio who could use marijuana for medical purposes are expected to reach 10,000 this year and are forecast to quickly grow to 50,000 by 2019, according to data published by Arcview in partnership wit BDS Analytics.
Medical cannabis sales are forecast to reach $30 million by year end. The first full calendar year of sales will be in 2019 with the total expected to reach $154 million, growing to $226 million in 2021, BDS analytics show.
Doug Berman, a law school professor at Ohio State University, said he’s participated in seminars such as the one offered by HempStaff, and while they provide useful information, he’s concerned that participants tend to get too excited about opportunities for a new field that only offers a limited number of grow facilities in Ohio.
“It’s not like it’s a field like real estate where there’s a lot more opportunity. Right now there’s only going to be 60 dispensaries that are going to be open. That puts a cap on growth, at least at the beginning … Nobody says there can only be 60 restaurants,” he said.
Berman cautions that similar to other states new to embracing medical marijuana, it will take some time for businesses to find their footing, for doctors to start getting involved and to determine how many patients will end up being in Ohio’s medical program. Doctors will have to sign off. A patient’s physician must certify in writing that a patient has one of about 20 qualifying conditions, and that they have discussed the benefits and risks to using medical marijuana.
“Right now there’s zero patients, but the program starts in the fall, and I’ve seen estimates that range from as low as 40,000 patients to as high as 400,000 patients. It’s a gigantic range,” he said, noting that he believes the initial number will end up being around 200,000 patients.
“At times I worry that people get too excited at the beginning, and it’s not clear how many jobs there will be until these businesses get started and we see how well they’re doing,” Berman said.
At the same time, Berman said he’s convinced that companies like HempStaff believe that they provide value for good reason. Not only are an increasing number of states legalizing medical marijuana, but now, several states have legalized recreational marijuana. And the economic impact for those states is phenomenal.
“That kind of optimism about the future of this market isn’t foolish given that other states have moved from medical to recreational or adult-use,” he said.
The pattern for states such as Colorado and Nevada, he said, was that it took years for the medical marijuana businesses to flourish, but everything changed once voters passed ballots for recreational dispensaries.
Les Hollis, former CEO and current board member of Illinois Grown Medicine, agrees with Berman that the process for Ohio’s new industry is going to take some time. While every state is different, he said that Pennsylvania didn’t face challenges such as states like Maryland and Ohio.
But as a business owner, he’s concerned about the process. Hollis is currently consulting aspiring dispensary applicants in both Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Illinois Grown Medicine, describes itself as “the only minority-owned, locally based, Chicago firm that provides medical cannabis dispensary services regulated under the Illinois Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program.” The company has both a dispensary on the far South Side of Chicago and a grow site in Elk Grove Village.
In Northeast Ohio, a maximum of 18 provisional dispensary licenses are expected to be granted this spring, including up to three in Summit County. Certification of physicians is also expected to begin this spring, according to the State of Ohio Medical Board.
“We in the business community hope that the roll out of of those licenses go smoother, so that we all can properly participate and plan for the opening of the dispensaries,” he said. “The state of Ohio announced the (processing and cultivation) licenses in November, and it’s been shrouded in controversy from that date, continuing with scores of appeals and at least one lawsuit.”
Hollis said any industry is threatened when there’s uncertainty, and the medical marijuana industry is no different, considering dispensaries can’t operate without products.
“Unfortunately, the process has been mired in controversy since the Nov. 30 announcement and that leaves a lot of uncertainty in the business community about if and when the grow licensees will be validated or confirmed,” he said. “The industry is uncertain right now.”
“It will be interesting to see what guidance the state gives to the impending dispensary license awards when its not clear who will be providing the medicine to them,” he said.
Meanwhile HempStaff’s Yagielo is extremely encouraged about prospects for the medical marijuana industry nationwide. His team travels the country training both established businesses and novices on products, dosing and state regulations, and he’s far from alone.
Last March, New Frontier Data, a company that specializes in providing insights into the cannabis industry, projected total market sales for cannabis will reach $24 billion nationwide by 2020. The Washington, D.C., based firm also projected the industry will create about 283,000 jobs over the next three years.
At the upcoming Cleveland seminar, 120 people will be attending the course in order to get a training certificate. The idea is to learn about a wide range of topics, from biology to law and medicine.
With a course aimed at teaching people the basics about cannabis and the state’s Cannabis laws, the material is presented in a fast paced way, that’s strictly meant to boost a resume. The course is designed to help people to speak intelligently for an interview for an opening at a dispensary in the future.
Some of the people who have completed the HempStaff crash course have received jobs working as trimmers and cultivation site workers, positions that include duties such as watering the plants and taking soil samples.
“They’re great entry-level jobs,” Yagielo said. “Employers like to see training on the resumes because they get about 100 resumes for every job. They like to see people who have taken the initiative to get some training.”