A sea of green: Plants fill a room at a commercial marijuana grow in Denver, which is being inspected by Denver Fire Department Lt. Tom Pastorius on Dec. 2, 2014. (RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file)

A divided weed world: Black market growers and legit industry jobs

When legal marijuana becomes so mainstream that being a black market grower is as antiquated as bootlegging moonshine, what will become of those who have devoted their lives to the underground trade?

In the wake of last year’s policy changes on the vertical integration of marijuana shops in Colorado, wholesale growers are expanding their operations, creating loads of new industry jobs.

But is it worth it for black market growers to click off their lamps and go work for the man?

Profit margins may have sunk on illegal weed, yet these growers working in the shadows still can earn more than entry-level jobs in the white market are currently paying. Even if they were looking to go mainstream, are employers in the legal industry motivated to hire them?

Some cannabis employers look at an applicant who has spent the last decade raising 20 or 30 plants each season and think: experience. Others see it and think: stubborn habits and outdated technology.

“A lot of those skills (from the black market) translate into this industry,” says Todd Mitchem, a Denver-based marijuana consultant who runs the CannaSearch marijuana job fair.

On the other hand, Native Roots Apothecary owner Rhett Jordan says that when his company, which has seven shops across Colorado, is looking at a potential hire, “a good work ethic, being timely, diligent and following up on things are more important to us than weed knowledge.”

Ata Gonzalez, CEO of G FarmaLabs, a wholesale marijuana grow company out of California and Washington, agrees with Mitchem that there are some skills that translate well from a black market business to a white market job — botanical knowledge about humidity, temperature, mixing nutrients, etc. — though in his experience, those assets can sometimes be more trouble than they’re worth.

Gonzalez says that growing up, his family was always in the restaurant business, and when his father would hire cooks, “he’d rather hire someone that didn’t know how to cook than one who did, because the ones who did know how to cook came in with bad habits. Someone who didn’t know how to cook, he could train them his way.”

“If someone is used to growing in soil, it’s difficult to train them in another type of medium,” he continues. “Growers can be dialed in to a certain method, and once you change that it can mess up their quality and yields. A lot of black market guys have been buying their materials at hydroponics stores and aren’t up to date on the new hardware. And they typically only know a few strains and stick with them — and those strains might not even be applicable to our market.”

With competition and an expanding market responding to the different medical and recreational needs of consumers, the legal market has made hundreds of marijuana strains easily accessible — which is very different from the three or four types of weed black market growers traditionally offer. And since growing seasons and flowering times can vary so drastically for different strains, an underground grower may know nothing of the logistics of white market commercial grows.

Last summer, Mitchem says he saw more than 2,000 applicants looking for work at his job fair, many of them amateur growers eager to show off their product. But they didn’t know how to break into the industry.

“I think those guys have a tremendous value, they’re craftsmen,” Mitchem says. “I’ll often introduce them to people who have a large grow operation and need help. … Also, so many budtenders don’t know anything about marijuana, and will sell things to patients without knowing if it has mold on it, or what it’s supposed to look like. Someone who’s been growing and selling for years knows their product, and their customers.”

Mitchem says that the intricacies of being a black market dealer — which many small-time growers are — takes a great deal of moxie. If you’re running an illegal business out of your house, you have to take great care to deal with the pageantry of coded phone conversations, not cycling people in and out of your house every five minutes (in case law enforcement is scoping out the place), and being selective about whom you invite into your little tax-free operation.

“That kind of tenacity works well in the legal market,” he says. “With all the scrutiny and regulations you have to keep up with in this industry, you have to take ownership over what you’re doing, just like if you were running an illegal business.”

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There’s no denying that if you’ve surreptitiously evaded the cops, maintained customer loyalty and kept your business afloat through the plummeting profit margins of recent years, you know a little something about growing and selling pot effectively.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” says Marcus, who’s been growing marijuana out of his house since 2008 and dealing since he was a teen. (His real name isn’t Marcus, but he agreed to speak to The Cannabist under conditions of anonymity.) “It’s like having a sick, newborn baby who can never leave your house. You have to constantly be there taking care of it. You can’t travel, you can’t have people over.”

Marcus isn’t being blindly hyperbolic when he compares caring for pot plants to raising children. At the age of 16 he became a father, and his daughter has now grown to the age of 16 herself. Throughout those years, Marcus had to take great caution to hide his operation, particularly once he started growing his own plants. He’s proud of the marijuana he grows and would like to be more public about what he does for a living.

Just as there are pot smokers who avoid dispensaries out of old-school paranoia surrounding marijuana purchases, Marcus is an old-school grower who is not accustomed to admitting in a job interview that he’s been breaking the law for the last decade. After all, this is a secret he’s kept within a limited social circle for the last seven years.

“Once you put your cards on the table, you can’t take them back,” he says. “How do I know that some political thing isn’t going to go crazy and everything changes? If it was just me and I didn’t have my daughter to take care of, I’d be like, ‘Sure, lets see what those jobs are like.’ But right now I don’t trust it.”

Read more about the dramatic expansion of Colorado marijuana since 2009

When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced federal guidelines for medical marijuana in 2009, the number of marijuana dispensaries and MMJ cardholders in Colorado spiked exponentially. The state would eventually pass bills that more tightly regulated the medical cannabis industry, but for a brief period many black market growers embraced the gray areas of the budding new marketplace.

“For a short time (in 2009), you could walk from dispensary to dispensary with a backpack full of marijuana and just say: ‘You wanna buy some weed?’” says Diego (again, not his real name), a Denver resident who’s been growing pot since 2006. “And they would buy it from you!”

After voters passed Colorado’s Amendment 64 ballot initiative to legalize adult use of marijuana in late 2012, the state enacted recreational licensing rules that included a provision that forbade anyone with a felony controlled substance conviction from starting, or being employed by, a marijuana business. This does weed out a lot of potential black market growers from even applying for a job in the legal industry.

“From 2009 to 2014, we had a surge of black market business owners who wanted to get into this industry,” says Jordan. “But a lot of them have been filtered out because of the stringent requirements for licensing, background checks, and improper business management — because being a drug dealer is a lot different than running a business.”

Jordan adds that while a lot of the erstwhile black market business owners didn’t survive to 2015, he speculates that “a majority of the people in this industry got their start (in the black market).”

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Since recreational sales started in Colorado on Jan. 1, 2014, there has been a great public-relations effort coming from all corners of the industry to prove to the world that they are not criminals. Thankfully for them, the media likes to focus on characters like former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, who announced recently that he will be the CEO of Kush, a new marijuana company that makes cannabis-infused products. There’s also Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, whose venture capital firm has invested in Privateer Holdings, another company that is launching the Marley Natural cannabis brand.

Capitalism often has been a selling point for marijuana legalization, and having established, credible names that have been successful in other industries now becoming the face of marijuana goes a long way toward convincing skeptical voters and investors. Though if you’ve spent the last decade secretly growing weed in your basement, it’s unlikely that you’ve also been out networking at the Rotary Club in your spare time.

“They probably wouldn’t hire me; they don’t want to be associated with criminals,” Diego says of the marijuana industry. He doesn’t have any drug convictions on his record, yet feels the stigma of his black market dealings would prevent him from being taken seriously as a grower.

Despite Jordan’s admission that many of those in the industry technically might have a criminal past — they were just never caught — Diego is right: Having your business in any way connected to black market growers (or any type of crime) is the kiss of death in this business.

During the course of writing this story, I spoke with a marijuana grower who began in the black market but has since seen tremendous success as an entrepreneur and innovator in the legal market. He declined to be interviewed for this story, fearing that his company (which, like most, are currently expanding) could come under special scrutiny if he admitted that he used to grow pot illegally.

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While Jordan and Gonzalez both say they don’t flat-out reject applicants with a black market history, they add that it’s not the incentive one might think it is. And with so many people clawing for a foothold in this booming industry, they can afford to be picky about who they hire.

According to the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division, as of Dec. 31 the state had issued 15,992 occupational licenses to work in the cannabis industry. This is only the number of people who have gone through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to be employed by a marijuana company, so it’s possible that the number of jobs created is lower.

But many of the jobs are entry level: checking I.D.’s, rolling joints, cutting trim for hash. If Diego or Marcus were to give up their illegal operations and go work for a dispensary or grow facility, it’s likely they’d be taking a serious pay cut, at least at first.

“We pay about $10 an hour for non-experienced employees,” Gonzalez says, though he adds an experienced grower could potentially land a salary of “about $120,000 a year.”

For the type of management position at a cultivation facility that would pay a $120K salary, an applicant would have to have overseen a large-scale greenhouse in a university, a commercial flower or other agricultural growing operation, or had several years under his or her belt with the medical marijuana industry.

With the stigma that comes with being a black market grower, an applicant would be better off never mentioning he or she has experience growing and selling their own, and hope that the botanical knowledge they do have helps them rise from an entry-level job to a management position.

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Naturally, Mitchem is optimistic about the upwardly mobile opportunities the white market industry can offer those looking to abandon their illegal trade (after all, he does run a marijuana job fair). “It’s like agriculture,” he says. “I may start out as a farmhand, and then the head farmer realizes I have skills, and I could move up in that operation. And maybe my goal is to have my own farm.”

Starting your own “marijuana farm” was a much better deal in 2009 than it is today. Back then, the danger of being raided by the feds, or getting shut down by the city for violating ever-changing laws, made the industry a risky — yet lucrative — gamble. And as Jordan points out, many of these folks knew all about risky business, having been involved in the black market leading up to medical legalization.

At that time, you could start your own dispensary with only a couple of plants and a few thousand dollars. Today the industry is a relatively safer bet, and so competition is much stiffer. If you’re looking to open a dispensary in Colorado in 2015, you’d better have either about a million dollars in the bank, or a very trusting investor with a MED associated person license, and you’d also need a clean financial and criminal background. And that’s just to get started.

Sure, there are fortunes being made in the marijuana industry today, but it’s primarily by those who took the big risks in 2009. Just as there was a lot of money to be made in the black market before the expansion of medical marijuana, when there was a greater threat of going to prison.

This is one of the cornerstones of capitalism: Reward is often relative to risk.

“Back then pot was very expensive and very profitable,” Diego remembers of his days growing and selling marijuana in the mid 2000s. “But it was also risky and scary as shit. No one was doing it; you kind of had to be crazy to, because you were looking at serious jail time back then.”

Today, both Diego and Marcus say they’re considerably less concerned about going to prison.

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Growers like Diego and Marcus do have entrepreneurial personalities that fit well within the marijuana industry. The problem is, they’re too much like the people at the top of the ladder, the individualistic visionaries who have strong opinions about how things should be run. Being a black market grower, you’re your own boss, the only cook in the kitchen. Transitioning from that to being a cog in the mechanized world of large-scale grow operations — or wearing a uniform and smiling at strangers as a budtender behind the counter — would most likely be a culture shock to Diego and Marcus.

Marcus has always kept a side job to supplement his income, and is currently spending his days as a carpenter. But he says the freedom of running his own marijuana operation is what makes the day jobs tolerable. “It’s always been my ace-up-the-sleeve. It makes going to work every day easy — when your boss is telling you to get your ass over here, saying, ‘This is wrong, that’s wrong,’ you can be like, ‘You know what? I’ve got 24 plants at home. You can fuck off.’ You’re not just some fool (with a) 40-hour work week.”

While becoming a master grower in Colorado would be a long, involved process, requiring a period of less income and possibly the swallowing of some pride, leaving the state for the ground floor of new marijuana operations may be the ticket. “The states that are just coming into legalization would be good options for black market growers looking to enter the industry,” Gonzalez says, referring to Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., where voters approved recreational marijuana in 2014.

Though for some, the desire to be an outlaw is so ingrained in their psyche that it has become instinctual to avoid mainstream legitimacy. When Diego tells me that he’d be interested in applying for jobs in a grow house, he adds that he wouldn’t be willing to give up growing marijuana at home. When I tell him that the company probably wouldn’t hire him if he did — and that the Marijuana Enforcement Division definitely wouldn’t give him an occupational license if he did — he gives me a slow, mischievous smile, and says: “Well, I just won’t tell them.”