Weed culture may feel like the antithesis of everything human resources once represented. But attitudes toward cannabis have changed dramatically in recent decades. While Gallup data suggests only 12% of Americans supported weed legalization in 1969, a survey from Pew Research Center found that 91% of Americans were supportive in 2021.
The HR industry and the workforce it oversees have also evolved over the decades, with the rollout of desegregation, greater LGBTQ visibility and inclusion, more thoughtful accommodations for workers with disabilities, increased resources for parents of all genders and other caregivers, and so on. As cannabis becomes decriminalized and legalized state by state, HR professionals’ interactions with weed may become more complex and positive than administering drug tests.
Cannabis CEOs, as well as cannabis inclusion and equity advocates and talent acquisition professionals, have illustrated to HR Dive the need for HR pros in the space.
Hiring is a top need
Because cannabis is an emerging market, the whole industry is a startup. Companies need to hire rapidly for a variety of roles, such as the budtenders (retail associates in dispensaries) and the engineers who create and test products.
“We need chief financial officers, heads of product, marketing managers, marketing directors. We need facilities folks, who can keep the organization clean. Anything that you can think of that a company would need to operate,” said Christina Odom, senior manager of talent acquisition at Vangst, a cannabis staffing firm. Accounting professionals and HR personnel are no exception.
Companies will also have to keep plant farmers, product manufacturers, packaging engineers, and quality control and compliance professionals on their payroll.
Bias remains an issue
Kassia Graham, director of community and strategy for DEI advocacy org Cannaclusive, has firsthand experience with the old guard of HR.
Graham, who uses she/they pronouns, said, in their experience, HR tends to neglect employees at lower levels in the workplace. “If HR [pros] were to exist in cannabis, they would [need] a completely different mindset from most other industries, [with] not just the best interest of companies at heart,” they said, “but the employees.” Emphasizing the importance of this, they said the cannabis talent pool is a microcosm of corporate America.
In the 1930s, prior to former President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, anti-Black and anti-Latinx sentiment couched in disdain for cannabis was rampant. Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, nearly said as much.
“You'll have people who have very little awareness of the history of the war on drugs, cannabis as plant medicine and how it's tied to marginalized communities,” Graham said. These cannabis leaders, unaware, “bring the same attitude that they had in mainstream corporate middle management to cannabis,” she said.
With this homogenous influx of leaders from corporate America, Graham said, “there's an opportunity, unfortunately, for greater exploitation.”
Works opt for collective bargaining
Unions are weed professionals’ main sources of protection, Graham explained. One prominent group is the Cannabis Workers’ Coalition. CWC’s aims include protecting the right to organize, championing workplace safety, combatting discrimination, and advocating for fair wages and caregiving resources.
Another key group is the Cannabis and Medical Marijuana Union Workers, a subset of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Per their website, they’re advocating for fair wages and comprehensive benefits, better work-life balance, fair scheduling, job security, improved public health and the right to retire, among other things.
Notably, CBN Holdings workers in Gresham, Washington staged a walkout in May 2022. Demonstrators cited alleged union-busting efforts and retaliation via termination. The union itself, formed with the support of UFCW, was the result of workplace safety concerns brushed off by CBN Holdings, workers said. At the time, a regional spokesperson for UFCW told Oregon Public Broadcasting that one oversight in the state’s legalization of cannabis was the lack of guidance regarding unionizing.
“Yes, there are issues with human resources. While [HR] can be problematic, it's also something that I feel is necessary,” Graham said. “We need to know what salary ranges are. We need protections for whistleblowers and such.”
Advocates push for equity
Graham’s organization, Cannaclusive, is well-known for its Accountability List. This publicly accessible record of weed companies’ antiracism work — or lack thereof — garnered reactions ranging from embarrassed to overzealous when it was rolled out in 2020. In the data-gathering process, Graham ultimately was frustrated by the industry’s lack of transparency. Her experience underscored the need for greater data collection regarding employee demographics, something cannabis companies aren’t required to do.
“And that's a problem, because we can never really get a set number – or at least a good set number – on who is employed and what they're doing,” she said. “OK, you want to boast that you have 10 Black employees. What are they doing? Are they all budtenders? Is someone in the C-suite? Is someone in a role where they can dictate what's going on from the top down? You know, what does that look like?”