Greener pastures: Marijuana jobs are becoming a refuge for retail and restaurant workers


After a year on the front lines, Jason Zvokel traded in his 15-year career as a Walgreens pharmacist for a different kind of drugstore: a marijuana dispensary.

Now instead of administering vaccines and filling prescriptions, he’s helping customers make sense of concentrates, tablets and lozenges. His pay is 5 percent lower, he said, but the hours are more manageable.

“I am so much happier,” said Zvokel, 46, who’s worked in retail since he was 18. “For the first time in years, I’m not miserable when I come home from work.”

The cannabis industry is riding a pandemic high: Marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities — deemed “essential” by many states at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis — became an early refuge for retail and restaurant workers who had been furloughed or laid off. The industry has continued to grow, adding nearly 80,000 jobs in 2020, more than double what it did the year before, according to data from the Leafly Jobs Report, produced in partnership with Whitney Economics.

An estimated 321,000 Americans now work in the industry, a 32 percent increase from last year, the report found, making legal marijuana one of the nation’s fastest-growing sectors. In other words: The United States now has more legal cannabis workers than dentists, paramedics or electrical engineers.

Many Americans reassessed their jobs and career prospects as the pandemic reshaped their social and working lives. Retail workers in particular are quitting at record rates, in search of consistent hours, better benefits and more opportunities to advance — which many say they’re finding in the legal cannabis industry.

“There has been a seismic shift of workers from retail and restaurants to cannabis,” said Kara Bradford, chief executive of cannabis recruiting firm Viridian Staffing, where she has fielded as many as 500 applications for one opening. “There is a sense that this is a booming industry that’s fun and interesting, with a lot of opportunities to move up quickly.”

Hourly pay at dispensaries, she said, runs from $12 to $15, in line with most retail and warehouse jobs. But given the newness of the industry, entry-level workers can often move up in less than a year to more specialized positions, she said.

That surge in cannabis hiring has put pressure on traditional employers — particularly in the 18 states and the District where recreational marijuana use is legal — to ease drug testing requirements. Amazon, the nation’s second-largest private employer, said in June that it would stop screening employees for cannabis use and would support federal legislation to legalize marijuana. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) A number of other employers, including retailers, restaurants and city governments have also dropped such requirements in an effort to attract workers in a labor market where job openings outpace the number of unemployed Americans 10.9 million to 8.4 million.

Workers’ rights groups are pressing for broader unionization in the cannabis industry, calling it a critical time to establish well-paying jobs with proper protections. With the right policies, they say, the industry could become a pipeline to middle-class jobs, much like the manufacturing industry used to be.

“It is so rare to have an opportunity to shape an industry from its inception,” said David Cooper, an analyst for the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. “There is an urgency to establish guardrails now, for well-paying, middle-class jobs, before cannabis is legalized federally and really takes off. Otherwise these jobs could quickly start to look like existing retail and agriculture jobs, which are often times the worst jobs in the economy.”

Legalization efforts have swept through the country since California began allowing medical marijuana use 25 years ago. Most U.S. states — 37 of them, plus the District — now allow its medical use, with a growing number of them legalizing the drug altogether. (The latest to do so, this summer, were New Mexico, Connecticut and Virginia.) As a result, business is soaring. Sales of legal cannabis grew nearly 60 percent to $19 billion last year, and are expected to balloon to $41 billion by 2025, according to Wall Street research firm Cowen.

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