The first time Kirk Lawrence got a job selling weed, it was in the 1990s at a record store in Far Rockaway, Queens, where he had to be discreet. In the years that followed, he was arrested over and over, feeling the consequences of police crackdowns on marijuana users.
There were rides in police vans, lockups “for smoking outside my job,” Lawrence, now 45, said. But last month, he landed a job as a budtender, entering a new world where he now sells cannabis in the open at a Manhattan dispensary. “When this came up, I was like, why not?” he said.
He has joined one of the fastest-growing industries in the country. With recreational sales of cannabis recently launching in New York, companies are expected to go on a hiring spree over the next few years to fill thousands of cannabis-related jobs.
Legal cannabis is expected to generate 63,000 jobs across New York by 2025, according to an estimate by CannabizTeam, an industry executive search and staffing firm. In a recent report, the firm forecast that New York, New Jersey and Connecticut could surpass the West Coast region in sales and revenue over the next decade.
The creation of new jobs would be a boon for New York City, which has lagged behind the rest of the country in recovering employment lost during the pandemic. Most of the jobs in the cannabis industry are in retail and customer service, providing opportunities for workers who left the city’s hotels and restaurants.
Lawrence, who previously worked for a mobile therapy app, is not alone in making the leap into legal cannabis. His manager, Mike Conway, spent more than a decade working for Walgreen’s before moving to the cannabis industry in 2017.
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Conway, 38, now runs retail operations for the cheekily named Union Square Travel Agency, which on Monday became just the fourth licensed recreational dispensary to open in the state. After wading through 1,500 applications, he spent a recent week training Lawrence and 57 other new hires whose professional backgrounds ranged from bartending and music to labor organising and sex work.
Nationally, the legal cannabis work force has tripled over the last five years, according to one industry estimate, even though the sector is illegal under federal law, tightly regulated and forced to compete with the illicit market. The pace of job growth has already surpassed tech at its peak, and it is still gaining steam, said Sinem Buber, the lead economist for ZipRecruiter.
Because the industry has not yet matured, entry requirements are low, pay is flexible and the prospects of advancement are high, she said. “Five years down the road, we’re going to need more people who have experience in the industry,” she added.
“The demand for this product is not going to go down, and legal supply is just going to go up.”
The slow pace of government rule making has limited how fast the legal industry can grow, and a lawsuit has halted licensing in places like Brooklyn and Buffalo. Adding further uncertainty, a federal decision looms on whether to legalise cannabis nationally.
New York state policymakers and law enforcement authorities are also grappling with how to shrink the illicit market, a crucial but delicate task that would allow demand for legal cannabis to continue to grow.
A large portion of the state’s cannabis work force will be in New York City, where Mayor Eric Adams’s administration predicts it will grow to about 24,000 jobs in three years.
Most of the jobs available in cannabis involve working directly with the plant, from farmers and chemists to the retail servers who help customers navigate selections of smokable flower, concentrates and gummies.
But that’s just a start. Those businesses need a range of other services and are expected to fuel the growth of more support roles in accounting, advertising, compliance, human resources, marketing, packaging, security and transportation.
And the pay is competitive. According to the CannabizTeam report, median salaries for full-time cannabis workers in New York can range from about $40,000 for budtenders and plant trimmers to roughly $100,000 for dispensary and deliver managers, with salaries for executives in supporting industries reaching over $200,000.
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