5 Things I Learned From My First Year In The Pot-Growing Business

For many, 2016 will be remembered as the year all those beloved celebrities died and every musical performance in public turned into a tribute show. For others, it will be remembered as the year of the orange Armageddon, when hate trumped love and an ornery orangutan grabbed America by the presidency. For me, 2016 was something far more special and spectacular: it was the year I broke into the legitimate cannabis industry.

I’ve been a pretty avid pot smoker since I moved to San Francisco from Massachusetts in 2005. I didn't smoke much growing up on the East Coast, but I took to NorCal weed quickly. For the next ten years, I maintained a pretty mainstream lifestyle (by San Francisco standards) as well as a stable career in Operations-Management for a local non-profit, all while smoking massive amounts of ganja at every opportunity. Smoking rarely got in the way of work, and work rarely got in the way of smoking.

As I entered my thirties, my career was moving along nicely but I didn’t feel any fireworks for the job. While I was making good money in a respectable position, I didn’t feel any enthusiasm for my work. Slowly, I became one of those jabronis who dreads going to work every day for a measly paycheck. In truth, the best part of my work day was the fat joint I would smoke every night on my way home. So before settling for a job that was just barely good enough, I decided I would try to live the dream and get a job in the cannabis industry.

I started trying to pick up any work I could find around the marijuana business. I hit up friends, and friends of friends, and friendly folks who smelled like weed. My first gig was helping a buddy trim the 30 White Widow plants he had grown in his basement. Over the course of the next few years, I worked with a variety of outdoor growers in the famous "Emerald Triangle" of pot-growing counties in Northern California. I acquired some good knowledge and made some extra cash, but struggled to find a role beyond seasonal work.

Northern California pot grower on the job. Photo credit: Bo McGee

Northern California pot grower on the job. Photo credit: Bo McGee

Looking to make a full time career shift into the cannabis industry, I went to a cannabis job fair in late 2015. I made a good first impression with a clean shave, closed-toe shoes, and a grown-up resume. A little small-talk led to a phone call, the phone call led to an interview, and soon I was offered a position with one of San Francisco’s premier grow operations. They offered me a ground level position as a trimmer with an opportunity to work my way up in the company, and I took it. I started in November of 2015.

Now, I’m a cultivator and a veteran member of the team with an increasingly significant role to play. I’ve worked hard and learned on the job. I’ve thrived with the company and, while it hasn’t always been easy, I’ve loved every second of it.

I am proud to tell people what I do for work and eager to talk about the state of the business. With the groundswell of support the nation showed for marijuana in November, the conversation about cannabis has been brought into the public light more than ever. However, I’ve noticed a few recurring misconceptions which seem to come up whenever I talk about the cannabis business with outsiders.

And of course, it wasn't that along ago when I was an "outsider" myself, and had similar misconceptions. Looking back on the journey now, these are the five most important things I've learned about the cannabis industry:

1. The business isn’t just for gangsters and degenerates anymore.

I don’t really think it ever was just for gangsters and degenerates, but you know the reputation. When I talk about the pot business, people often imagine a guy with blond dreadlocks who smells like patchouli oil, sitting in a lawn chair in the woods with a pit-bull and a shotgun. "I'm hoping to work my way up to Head Guy Sitting In A Lawn Chair In The Woods," I tell them. And while that description may look a bit like me in that old picture a few lines up (trading the shotgun for a ukelele), it doesn't look much like the modern grow facilities that now dominate the marketplace.

Growers have been operating within the shifting gray areas of the law for decades around Northern California. With the passage of Prop 64, the business becomes increasingly legal, legitimate, safe, and regulated. The people that have operated at the outskirts of the law-- the rogue entrepreneurs, botanists, shamans, and outlaws who dared to grow a forbidden plant (it sounds so ridiculous now, doesn’t it?)--have a year to get square with Sacramento.

Meanwhile, the early on-boarders to legalization find themselves at the vanguard of the industry. The business is an eclectic mix of outlaws and upstarts; a true meritocracy with no discrimination or prejudice. Whether you're rich or poor, black or white, Protestant or Juggalo; the only thing that matters is how well you do your job.

And while there might still be more patchouli than your average workplace, marijuana growers are some of the greatest people on earth. 

2. But we’re not startups either.

“I ride to work every day on a bus that’s got a smoothie bar, foosball table, and vaping lounge” one of my techie chums tells me, “But I can’t imagine the amenities your workplace must have!”

The modern pot biz, I have frequently noticed, is easily confused with that other California boom industry: tech. And while there is a lot of cross-over between the cannabis and tech industries (such as app's and web-based delivery systems; an ever-more-perfect product line from PAX; and constantly advancing grow technology) their respective corporate atmospheres couldn't be any more different. While tech is famed for opulent facilities and lavish spending, the pot business is lean and spartan. A good grow-op will have everything you need to grow a huge amount of great weed, and nothing else. We pride ourselves on efficiency and we measure success in inches, seconds, and cents. A successful pot operation devotes maximum resources to the plants while creating as little extra cost as possible. 

(Flashy cars, sneakers, and dab-rigs excluded). 

3. The work is hard.

The work falls between agricultural and industrial. It requires a broad and diverse skill set. The gardening is peaceful, but there is also a plumbing and electrical system to operate, critical data to track, and a huge amount of routine janitorial work that comes with growing plants, which--inevitably-- includes killing rats.  

But, as we frequently say around the office, the plants never stop growing. The workload is heavy and unlikely to light up anytime soon as the market-demand for marijuana continues to grow. Fortunately...

4. We love what we do.

Imagine a workplace in which every single one of your coworkers has a deep and passionate love for the product. They use the product every day. It is deeply connected to their mental, physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual well-being. It has been more central to their identity than their race, religion, music, or favorite sports team. They love the product so much that they may have gone to jail for it. Maybe they even have the product tattooed on their neck, which probably wasn't a great decision in hindsight but still a meaningful testament. 

No one has “fallen into” the cannabis industry. Growing pot isn't anybodies “plan B” (unless “plan A” was seriously bonkers). The industry is populated almost entirely by people who are passionately, enthusiastically, fervently devoted to marijuana. Job satisfaction is high (*nailed it*). It's an inspiring atmosphere to say the least.

5. The future is bright, but the fight's not done.

Many folks think that with the pending legalization of the recreational use of marijuana, the fabled Green Rush is approaching it's peak. While the industry is certainly thriving now, the rush is just beginning. California is set to be the largest cannabis marketplace in the world when it opens in January of 2018. Additionally, the national market place is going to be available soon and even a legitimate international marketplace, eventually. Then, the best growers in SF will compete with those in Denver and Amsterdam to be recognized as the leading brand name in the global marketplace. A brand of cannabis that is likely now on the market will one day be recognized as synonymous with the product worldwide; joining corporate institutions like Nike, Coca-Cola, and Apple.

Then there are the secondary industries that will blossom in the shadow of the industry, from technology to tourism. A renaissance is beginning. Cultivators are coming together to share generations of knowledge and ground-breaking technology. Communities of cannabis-enthusiasts are forming on-line and IRL. Knowledge is flowing more freely than ever and the young mavericks of our craft are increasingly free to explore the rich depths of the industry. What's truly remarkable, are the possibilities we haven't even imagined yet. 

2017 will be my second year in the business, and the last before fully legalized marijuana becomes the law of the land in the Bear-Flag state. Our federal government has fought a war on cannabis for decades and the good guys are finally winning but the fight is far from done. As prosperity arrives for a select few of us, we must not forget our brothers and sisters who are still incarcerated as a result of the Drug War. According to DrugPolicy.Org, more than a half-million Americans were arrested for simple possession in 2015. I'm buying weed cooked into macaroons from a fancy boutique and 10,000 people are suffering the indignities of incarceration for having a bag? It's not right. 

It's also not time to take it for granted that legal weed is the law of the land. With Donald Trump on the Iron Throne, it's hard to be sure of anything. While he has historically held a progressive stance on marijuana, he has surrounded himself with several high-profile anti-cannabis crusaders (including garbage monster Chris Christie and kin-snugglin' lawman Jeff Sessions) who have repeatedly floated insinuations that the Drug War isn't done. 

8 states (and Washington D.C.) have now legalized marijuana for recreational use, and more than 20 other states have medical marijuana laws in place. While support has been strong for marijuana, almost half of the country still lives under prohibition. It is my belief that every American deserves to have access to the medicinal benefits of marijuana, and that no government should be allowed to interfere with a citizen's right to grow and harvest a plant on their own property for their own usage. 

So until that's the law of the land, I'm going to keep making noise about it in City Hall and on Facebook (and with some of the resources listed below).

And maybe one day the tides will turn so for as long as I can, I am going to keep trying to grow the absolute best weed that I can. 


Some good resources you can use to be one of the good guys in the Drug War are:

  • NORML is a titan in marijuana advocacy. If it's your first time getting involved, this is a great place to start.
  • The NCIA is a great resource for advocacy within the industry, from equal access to workers rights. 
  • Americans For Safe Access are doing the hard work of trying to get access to medical marijuana for anyone in need, no matter where they are.
  • The Veterans Cannabis Project are trying to get more herb for vet's, and I can get down with that.
  • And you know what? A good friend of mine has been really involved in the campaign to close Rikers Island  and reduce the incarcerated population so you should support their cause too, because their fight is our fight!
  • And you know what else? Fuck that Dakota Access Pipeline. Let's go ahead and shut that down too. That fight's not over, don't believe the hype. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.