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How Many People Work In Mass Cannabis? It Depends On Who You Ask

Making sense of agent employment data and the Cannabis Control Commission’s burdensome badge system in search of critical jobs numbers

A national report published in April put the number of full-time equivalent jobs supported by legal cannabis at 440,445, with more than 27,000 of those in the Bay State as of March 2024.

“That job total represents a 5.4% year-over-year increase,” per the analysis by Vangst, a major marijuana staffing platform. “America’s legal cannabis industry added 22,952 new jobs over the past twelve months—a sign that the business climate has begun to stabilize somewhat nationally after the turmoil of the past two years.”

The Vangst survey of cannabis employment includes ancillary positions—trade publication editors and journalists, for example. And it is a valuable comparative resource which applies a uniform analysis involving multiple complex metrics across various markets.

But there are limitations to such vast inquiries—especially on a national scale, and when cannabis is involved. Unlike with countless other industries, there is no national clearinghouse where researchers can access state-level marijuana jobs data. As Vangst and its collaborators from the firm Whitney Economics note, “The federal prohibition of cannabis forces the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics to pretend that hundreds of thousands of American cannabis workers don’t exist.”

That lack of transparency around and public recognition of employment numbers trickles down to the state level. Contacted for this article, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission wrote, “At any time, designated Commission staff can identify the number of individuals working in the licensed cannabis industry as well as the number of jobs they represent.” They continued, “As of May 23, there were 15,178 active, unique industry identification numbers in the adult-use industry that identify specific individuals.”

That information has not been made public until now though, leaving everyone from headhunters to prospective new workers in the dark about the number of positions actually held in the licensed adult-use and medical markets. The CCC spokesperson also wrote, “The Commission shares updated data regarding individual employees and/or badged registered agent numbers frequently, whether through its public meeting materials packets, annual legislative reports, testimony, and policy letters to members of the Legislature and the Executive Branch, among others.” But that description doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.

The packet from the CCC’s April 11, 2024 meeting notes there were 23,120 “Active” “Agent Applications” up to that point. In the May 9 meeting materials, that figure is listed as 74,251. The latter is an apparent clerical mistake, but nonetheless reflects the mass confusion around this issue. Notably, neither report notes the number of jobs those applications represent. The commission may internally know how many people work in the licensed cannabis industry—more like 15,000, per the spokesperson—but this article is the first place that most outsiders will find that info.

The only data currently available on the CCC website regarding agents lists the total number of applicants, along with race and gender tallies. As of this writing, the agency’s open data portal similarly simply provides demographics. Meanwhile, a State of Cannabis in Massachusetts report that the CCC published on April 25 and presented to legislators made no mention of actual working agent numbers. Nor did the commission’s Annual Activities Report from last October, which only noted, “As of July 2023, the Commission had received 22,260 applications for Marijuana Establishment agent registrations,” with no further details about how many of them were hired.

Badges vs. people

The team at EzHire Cannabis has been rappelling down the information gap around cannabis jobs in Mass for more than a year. Jacob Carlson, the co-founder and CEO of the industry hiring platform, told Talking Joints Memo, “Compliance people have been saying how hard it is to track these badges and badge holders—they don’t actually know how many people are working in the industry.”

Though EzHire operates in other states as well, Carlson was born and raised in Mass, and “wants to do more business here,” where his company is based. But as a bean counter and former sales manager at the Boston CRM giant HubSpot, he’s troubled by the seemingly inadequate state apparatus and lack of reliable data. “It’s important for us to see how many people are working in the industry,” he said, “and that’s simply not available.”

In response to questions for this article, the CCC wrote, “As of May 23, there were 23,098 active, badged agent registration numbers in the adult-use industry,” compared to the “15,178 active, unique industry identification numbers” they reported to us. But those figures were not previously made public, which Carlson and others suggest is due to a messy and unmanageable badging system and back end. As a commission spokesperson explained, every individual who is approved to work for a CCC licensee has a “unique industry identification number” for “each licensed establishment at which they are employed.” But for each establishment they work at, an individual may need a cascade of badges—separate laminates for entering different sections, buildings, verticals, and locations of a workplace.

With more than 4,000 people currently holding multiple badges that allow them to work in various roles at one or more companies, according to an EzHire analysis, and close to 40,000 badges surrendered since the dawn of adult-use sales, per CCC figures—some of them by people who have since gone on to secure other badges under new unique ID numbers—it can be hard to even determine rough estimates.

The state

The apparent badging problem has been acknowledged by members of the Cannabis Control Commission as well as its Community Advisory Board. At a meeting of the former in February, CCC Commissioner Bruce Stebbins spoke about two industry roundtable discussions that he participated in—one hosted by the Massachusetts Cannabis Coalition, and another by the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association—where participant concerns included the badge burden. Some stakeholders suggested that an individual’s badge should follow them from job to job, instead of being tied to the employer.

And at a CAB meeting in March, members expressed a similar interest, with attorney Kim Napoli saying that agent registration should be “portable,” similar to how a patient can use their state card at any medical marijuana facility. CAB Chair Helen Gomez Andrews added, “Having an ability for farms to share labor without going through all the hoops of agent registration. … This should be, in theory, something we can quickly reform.”

Prior to those recent hints of interest, the team from EzHire met with CCC members Kimberly Roy and Shannon O’Brien in early 2023. Sensing that commissioners were interested in further impugning the issue, Carlson and company laid out concerns about the badging bottleneck. Their message: delays are causing people to abandon the industry, since if someone wants to switch between employers, their registration starts from scratch, forcing them to wait between two and six weeks before they’re cleared for the new job. Ideally, Carlson said the process could and should take less than 24 hours. 

In response to questions for this article, a CCC spokesperson wrote, “The agent registration process has been streamlined through [the Massachusetts Cannabis Industry Portal] so that registering a new agent occurs within days, and de-registering an agent occurs immediately once a Marijuana Establishment submits an application to surrender an agent registration.” Close observers, however, are skeptical, as they wait to see the results of new agency adjustments over time.

After the CCC approved its data team to share files with EzHire last year, the company continued meeting with commission members even after the suspension of O’Brien, the chair, last September. Carlson’s researchers built data tables using an enormous Excel file with anonymized state info, doing their best to parse badges according to “where [workers] lived.” It’s a herculean task; for starters, the Massachusetts medical and recreational badging systems weren’t linked at first, so several longtime employees have more than one unique system identifier. Also, when someone moves to a new workplace, they’re given a new unique ID.

“The information to catch, capture, and organize it—the infrastructure doesn’t exist,” said Melissa Rutherford, a compliance specialist and EzHire advisory board member who helped analyze the CCC employment data. She continued, “One of the questions I wanted to know is, Where are the employees? Where do they live?

For their calculations, EzHire broke the badges down into four statuses: Active, which are people who are working in the industry on a regular basis; Suspended, which are not active but remain in the system; Revoked, which means someone was fired or laid off; and Expired, in which a badge was not renewed after a year. Companies have to renew all badges annually (at a cost of more than $140 each) for the first two years, then every three years after that, and are required to do annual background checks for all employees in perpetuity.

Meg Sanders, the CEO and co-founder of Canna Provisions in Western Mass, has been a vocal critic of the cumbersome verification process. She personally holds five badges, three of which are for the same building, and even has one employee “who is responsible for everyone’s badge who had to be hired to manage all aspects of this costly and unnecessarily redundant process.” She added that her company “has approximately 100 employees across two dispensary stores and a cultivation and an office,” with “many employees badged at multiple locations,” while “all of their various badges cost money.”

Graph courtesy of EzHire Cannabis

According to the EzHire numbers based on data furnished earlier this year, Mass had 21,723 Active badges, 34,165 Surrendered badges, and 4,253 Expired badges. As for how many actual people were behind those Active statuses and working in the industry—by one state count, the Department of Public Health reported last November that “Massachusetts has more than 500 licensed cannabis industry employers that provides [sic] jobs to 22,000 workers.” After combing through the CCC employment data, though, EzHire put that number at closer to 14,000, showing an overall loss of jobs, from the boardroom to the trim room, over the previous year.

“Nobody [on the outside] knows what a lot of these jobs in the cannabis industry are actually like,” Carlson said. Without better data and a faster application turnaround, he speculated that entry-level positions in particular will become increasingly hard to fill: “We’re leaving it to these businesses that are losing money and trying to stay compliant and are also trying to compete in hiring against Home Depot.”

No easy fix in sight

Rutherford, the compliance specialist who helped crunch troves of CCC numbers, spoke about “the human cost” of the current Mass badging system. In addition to the financial toll it takes on businesses of all sizes, she said the difficulty around getting badged or rebadged is pushing people out of the industry and leaving them with negative impressions. Plus, “When you cease to be employed, your badge goes away, and so does all the education that goes with it.”

As Rutherford explained, while people who are fired or laid off from a cannabis job can receive financial help from the state, the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance does not steer people toward other careers in the weed biz. Nor are there expedited badge-processing options for those with prior experience at CCC-licensed operations. Adding to the inconvenience, every new hire needs time-consuming Responsible Vendor Training and forms signed by a notary, making for piles of literal paperwork outside of the already inefficient digital system. Even if the commission’s application processing time decreases, that’s still only after several prerequisite boxes are checked.

Surveying the quagmire, Rutherford said the “fix isn’t easy, because the system that tracks all of this is baked and paid for.” She added, “Whoever did the initial setup of the badging system, it’s just absolutely insane. … The data is wrong and they don’t know that it’s wrong because they don’t know how to count it.”

In response to questions for this article, a CCC spokesperson defended its system. But even with the commission using its Cannabis Industry Portal to “streamline” agent registrations, as a spokesperson noted, resulting in shorter wait times than those described by Rutherford and others with direct experience, there are other changes that can still be made to potentially help ease the pain. Sanders of Canna Provisions cited the way badging works in Colorado, where she helped write the regulations and where workers can apply directly with the state to become agents. She said, “A solution would be to assign a badge to a person, and that badge works for all facilities. Make employees responsible for getting their own badge. This becomes a helpful screening tool for serious employees and businesses can reimburse for badges if they choose as a means to encourage dedicated talent.”

Sanders continued, “This also opens up the ability for additional support businesses to operate, ie: employment temps or trim crews or cleaning crews—as a means to be helpful for local businesses, especially if they struggle to find employees in their town or region of the state. Finally, and critically, it would save Massachusetts cannabis businesses time and money.”

At a media availability after the May 23 public meeting of the CCC, Commissioner Stebbins said, “I’ve had the issue brought up to me before, and I’ve met individuals who are more than happy to show me the four or five lanyards they carry. The issue has certainly come up that maybe the license [should follow] the person. I’m curious about that and want to explore it further. What’s an easy way for us to help you get back into the workforce?

Also speaking from her own perspective, and not on behalf of the commission or other members, Acting Chair Ava Callender Concepcion said that she supports the idea of individual agents being able to apply for and hold badges, since, “It’s saying you are suitable to work in the industry.” Adding, “I do see [the CCC] taking this up.”

Small tweaks to the current protocols could spur big savings for cannabis companies. For example, Rutherford said there could also be a separate badge type for ancillary businesses, like HVAC technicians. Currently, if an operation is having a new ventilation system put in, it has to pay one or more of its badged employees to hover over the guest workers.

“The CCC is going to really have to figure out how it wants to take this industry to the next level,” Rutherford said. “Federal regulation is coming, so how do they preempt that and make [badging] easy?”