The low wages in the cannabis industry forced me into illegal side jobs

The low wages in the cannabis industry forced me into illegal side jobs

VicesDecember 11, 2018

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

Remember how Goodfellas began? Like a young Henry Hill peering out his window onto the bustling Brooklyn streets, I looked up to mobsters as a kid in a way any parent would fear. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone, in spite of my dope job in the cannabis industry, that I’ve done some shady shit to pay my bills. I fear many of us have. 

The fact of the matter is that the average job in the cannabis industry is a low wage, low skill job with little to no room for advancement. Most people, like myself, are in this because of passion rather than a desire to get rich. However, in a city like Los Angeles or Denver, that mentality is for suckers. In Los Angeles, the average rent for an apartment is around $2,265 -- studios are around $1,600 and one-bedrooms $2,000.

Most Los Angeles budtender jobs on Indeed advertise starting wages between $11.00 and $12.00. Reality check: a person couldn’t afford a one-bedroom apartment if they worked 40 hours a week making only $12.00 an hour. They would net $1,920 and take home approximately 80% of that or $1,600. After rent was paid, you’d be starving in a dark and empty place. 

Of course, budtenders, like bartenders, make tips. But if your wages barely cover rent, your tips literally have to pay for everything else. Food, bills, student loans, recreation, and maybe healthcare. While there are numerous other jobs in the cannabis industry, wages in the neighborhood of $12.00 - $14.00 an hour seem to be the norm. Dispensary managers, compliance managers, directors of cultivations, and directors of extraction make decent money, but alas, there’s usually one of them in each business. While the rest of the crew makes $12.00 - $14.00 (which, by the way, is what Good TImes Burgers and Custard is paying). 

So what do we do? We have side grows--everyone has a side grow--or we trim for side grows, hustle entheogens, headies, hatpins, and ship packs. Colloquially, it’s trapping. For many of us, this means risking our entire careers. 

I decided to make light of this after a recent close call. 

WIthout giving up too much, it happened something like this. I was muling marijuana somewhere it’s not supposed to go. I’m talking a very large quantity worth tens of thousands of dollars. About as soon as I landed, cherries and berries lit me up. Predictably, I was pulled over for some bullshit. My rear license plate was too dirty to read. Although, it wasn’t. He wasn’t an ordinary cop either--this supertrooper had a K9 with him. HIs questions were pointed, if not razor sharp.

Where are you traveling? Why? Would you happen to be traveling with marijuana in your car? 

The fear that gripped me was overwhelming, but only I knew that. I smiled. Answered his questions, calmly and succinctly, always referring to him as sir. It was an Oscar worthy performance, and boarishly he ate it up. Also, for context, I’m white. 

Oddly, I drove away more defeated than relieved. Although the Lawman was rapidly disappearing in my rear view, my old, bad habits were persisting like a silent vapor that would that would choke me before I got to my final destination. I’m not talking about where the packs were going. I’m talking about where I’m heading in my career. 

I’m not alone. These are my people. My coworkers and best friends. One of the best growers I know -- the kind of guy that should be making 100k a year -- runs multiple side grows. He topped at around $16.00 at his regular gig, Many budtenders I meet, increasingly ones from Southern states, ship packs back home. Nowadays, everyone is shipping cartridges. 

It’s striking how trends in the black market mirror legitimate industry trends. 

My sympathies go out to everyone that has a side hustle that isn’t above-board. Shit, it goes out to anyone that has a side hustle at all. It’s 2018, and for many of us growing up, we didn’t imagine life would be this difficult. Working two to three jobs, and net”working” in your spare time.  

Remember how special our parents told us life would be? Especially if we said no to drugs. Well, mom and dad, life sucks and all the drugs in the world couldn’t convince me otherwise. 

In positive news, Vangst is reporting a %16.1 increase in average salaries in the cannabis industry between 2017 and 2018. For someone making $14.00, that’s an extra $2.00 hourly or $5,000 a year. No small sum.  At the same time, prices for everything in the illicit cannabis market continue to fall. If these trends hold steady, we may continue to see trappers being forced above ground and into regular 9:00 - 5:00’s. In the meantime, with low average wages and little room for growth, these are the risks some cannabis professionals take.