How legal marijuana is reshaping state economies

Colorado now sports 18,000 state-certified pot industry workers. But critics worry, among other things, that a corporatized marijuana industry will target younger Americans in search of profits.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
A worker cultivates a special strain of medical marijuana known as Charlotte's Web inside a greenhouse, in a remote spot in the mountains west of Colorado Springs, Colo., Feb. 7, 2014.

Forget that postgraduation barista job. Given that four US states have legalized marijuana, “budtender” is now one of the hottest retail jobs in America.

The legalization movement, which began when California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996, has long argued that one big reason to legalize marijuana is to stop sending adults to jail for using a drug that basically doesn’t have fatal implications, unlike legal ones like alcohol and nicotine.

Yet the experiments in Colorado and Washington State, both of which legalized recreational marijuana in 2012 and where pot is now sold in shops, have begun to highlight an economic side to the issue. Residents in Oregon and Alaska will also soon see the impact of regulated marijuana sales.

Nearly a year after implementing its tax-and-regulation regime, Colorado now sports 18,000 state-certified, or “badged,” pot industry workers eligible for jobs ranging from cultivation to trimmers, from “edibles creators” to retail budtenders.

“Think about it: You have to count all the people working at the counter, in a cultivation or testing facility, people who are working for packaging and labeling companies. It extends pretty broad,” says Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., which lobbies for marijuana legalization.

To be sure, not everyone is bullish on the ability of pot to drive employment. For one, despite voter enthusiasm at the ballot box for legalized marijuana, pot-related stocks took a tumble this week – probably an investor acknowledgment that the federal government still has the power to squash the market.

“Investors have learned that despite the hype with the populace, marijuana stocks remain risky and mostly something to avoid for now,” writes USA Today’s Matt Krantz.

Critics also worry that a corporatized marijuana industry will, like the tobacco and alcohol giants, target younger Americans in search of profits. Such concerns have in part led to a slide in the polls for marijuana legalization, from 58 percent support a year ago to 51 percent now, according to Gallup.

And Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, a marijuana policy expert, argues that neither Colorado’s GDP nor wages have so far risen notably because of legalization, saying “neither indicates any effect of the policy changes.”

Nevertheless, it’s clear that legalization is already to some extent transforming state economies and workplaces in Colorado and Washington State.

There's "a big influx of employment opportunities for those in areas where legalization is in full swing,” writes Sam Becker in the Business Cheat Sheet.

Some examples of marijuana job market buzz:

• The International Cannabis Business Conference in Portland, Ore., last month was hopping. “Bullish is too weak a word” to describe the atmosphere, reported cannabis advocate Doug Fine for The Huffington Post.

• Charlo Greene, the KTVA reporter in Alaska who used a profanity to quit her job on the air in September, is now devoting her time to work in marijuana advocacy. “Yes, I had an awesome job as a TV journalist, but it was just that – a job,” she tells

• And more than 3,500 jobs have been created through Colorado’s cannabis industry from the beginning of 2013 through the first quarter of this year, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. A recent marijuana job fair in Denver brought out some 3,500 job-seekers eyeing 650 jobs. In the state, the average weekly wage of a marijuana industry worker is $555.

Most of the pot industry job-seekers are some of the same younger Americans who have gone to the polls to vote for legalization – a notable twist, given that the US economy has otherwise been rather unkind to younger workers in recent years.

But some older workers, too, have made the shift into legal marijuana. In an interview with Bloomberg, 40-something Colorado resident Josh Cusack says he’s making almost $20 an hour working in a medical marijuana dispensary.

That’s good but not great money. But, said Mr. Cusack, the satisfaction of helping people makes up for any pay gap, and he’s doing something he’s “passionate about.”

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