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 Others see it and think: stubborn habits and outdated technology.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