Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

The “essential” designation for medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities, and the recent legalization of recreational cannabis, opened the door to many who were out of work or looking for a career change in New Mexico and around the country. The cannabis industry became an early refuge for retail and restaurant workers who had been furloughed or laid off by the pandemic, and the exodus is still going on.

In many cases a much better pay scale and better hours sealed the deal for the career shift, and there is no going back to life before COVID-19. An estimated 321,000 Americans now work in the cannabis industry, and that number is growing by leaps and bounds daily.

As more states legalize medical and recreational cannabis, the industry has continued to grow, adding nearly 80,000 jobs in 2020—a 32 percent increase from 2019, according to data from the Leafly Jobs Report, produced in partnership with Whitney Economics. The report found the legal marijuana industry is one of the nation’s fastest-growing sectors, with more legal cannabis workers than dentists, paramedics or electrical engineers in the country.

As the pandemic shook up and rewrote our social and working lives, many Americans reevaluated their jobs and career options. In particular retail workers are quitting at record rates, hunting for consistent hours, better benefits and more opportunities to advance. And surprise … they’re finding these in the cannabis industry.

“There has been a seismic shift of workers from retail and restaurants to cannabis,” said Kara Bradford, chief executive of cannabis recruiting firm Viridian Staffing, where she has fielded as many as 500 applications for one opening. “There is a sense that this is a booming industry that’s fun and interesting, with a lot of opportunities to move up quickly.”

Standard hourly pay at dispensaries runs from $12 to $15—in line with most retail and warehouse jobs. However, there are often more benefits, and because of the newness of the industry, entry-level workers can and move up in less than a year to more specialized positions.

Traditional employers have begun easing drug testing requirements as the surge in cannabis hiring has put pressure on them to hire employees, particularly in states where recreational marijuana use is legal. In June Amazon, which is set to open a massive distribution center on Albuquerque’s Westside, said that it would stop screening employees for cannabis use and supports federal legislation of marijuana.

As job openings outpace the number of unemployed Americans 10.9 million to 8.4 million, other employers—including city governments, retailers and restaurants—have also dropped similar requirements in an effort to attract workers in a labor market.

Sales of legal cannabis are expected to balloon to $41 billion by 2025, according to Wall Street research firm Cowen. The industry could easily become a channel to middle-class jobs, paralleling what the manufacturing industry used to be. Workers’ rights groups are saying it’s critical to establish well-paying jobs with appropriate protections and policies and are insisting on broader unionization in the cannabis industry.

“It is so rare to have an opportunity to shape an industry from its inception,” said David Cooper, an analyst for the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. “There is an urgency to establish guardrails now for well-paying, middle-class jobs, before cannabis is legalized federally and really takes off. Otherwise, these jobs could quickly start to look like existing retail and agriculture jobs, which are oftentimes the worst jobs in the economy.”

Restaurant jobs abound in Albuquerque, but many New Mexicans appear to want something better to come back to as their unemployment runs out. It’s a workers’ market, and employers are desperate to hire people, often offering higher salaries and hiring bonuses. Service industry jobs, even with enticements, often pay less than a living wage, offer few opportunities for professional advancement or hold little personal meaning for workers.

Many workers can see that it is possible to work well and be productive in different working arrangements, and that there are options out there that might enable them to have more fulfilled lives. Labor Department statistics for “quits” in New Mexico from March 2021 showed 19,000 people leaving jobs, and the state Department of Workforce Solutions reported 71,973 online job openings for June, the most since at least 2008.

There are a wide variety of jobs available in the fast-growing New Mexican cannabis industry.

At Minerva Canna Group dispensary jobs are being offered at $15 to $22 an hour. Benefits include an employee discount, flexible schedule, health insurance, paid time off and an eight-hour shift with weekend availability. COVID-19 considerations: 

Urban Wellness med tender and concierge full-time and part-time positions are available and pay $13 to $15 an hour. Benefits include employee discount, health benefits, paid sick time and paid time off.

The Bloom Brand dba Hi Extracts offers full-time assembly line worker/production job workers in Albuquerque $14 to $17 an hour. Benefits include, dental insurance, health insurance, paid time off, vision insurance and an eight-hour day shift Monday to Friday with standard COVID-19 considerations.

On the upper end of the pay scale, a cannabis master grower at Sandia Exotics LLC in Albuquerque pays from $70,000 a year for a full-time contracted employee with an eight-hour shift.

While some employers can afford to pay higher rates, that’s not the case across the board, especially for “mom and pop” shops around the city. Many smaller businesses are unable to do so, which ultimately means they struggle to recruit talented workers.

For thousands of New Mexico workers, the pandemic is opening new doors and opportunities. Many are saying adios to their old way of doing things, including their jobs. Many potential employees are asking employers what they are worth working for. A cannabis job is enticing and a breath of fresh air to many who are looking for new job opportunities.

Leafly’s report is also a blunt reminder that we have lots of work to do to make certain that the cannabis industry becomes a beacon of hope for all entrepreneurs, regardless of their skin color or gender.