The Case for Training in Cannabis

Why is training for cannabis companies important?

The cannabis industry is growing at a breakneck pace adding an astounding 211,000 jobs in 2019. A study conducted by Leafly and Whitney Economics demonstrates this very well.

According to Leafly.com,

The cannabis workforce increased 21% in 2017. It gained another 44% in 2018. We expect at least another 20% growth in jobs in 2019. That would represent a 110% growth in cannabis jobs in just three years.
— Leafly.com

Rapid job growth means people need training

This kind of job growth is both exciting in that it offers new job opportunities to a great many people, but therein lies a challenge for the cannabis industry. The array of people clamoring to enter this industry is staggering. Many of the folks who want to work in cannabis are long-time cannabis enthusiasts, and they come in all shapes and sizes.

Not everyone is ready to work in a regulated cannabis market

Image of a man covering his face with his hand. He is wearing a hood with a cloud of vapor wafting out.

I've been connecting with the professionals in the emerging cannabis market here in Pennsylvania. As I've been making my rounds, I've met many people eager to help the cannabis industry be the best version of itself. I've also met plenty of people who are not ready to work in the regulated market. In some cases, they aren't prepared to work in a professional cannabis operation because they can't code-switch to this new environment. These folks chafe under regulations, take delight in flaunting rules, and use black market knowledge when advising patients. These folks don't grasp that working in a regulated market requires a different mindset. These folks are figuring it out as they go along, which is really dangerous when it comes to complying with state regulations.

Compliance issues are already emerging due to bad actors

Over the past two years, since the cannabis industry has really picked up, there have been a few highly visible compliance cases that threaten to undermine the hard work of other more responsible operators.

Cultivators are just as likely as dispensaries to see compliance issues

Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Health issued a cease and desist order to AGRiMED due to its several violations of state regulations regarding its cultivation site in rural Pennsylvania. These violations covered a range of from inventory control failures to lax security protocols, and even evidence of diversion from the medical onto the black market. This compliance breach is bad folks, very bad. This kind of flagrancy should concern the entire cannabis industry given its uncertain legal status at the Federal-level and unpopularity among many political leaders. These incidents also undermine public trust in our government to successfully regulate cannabis. The cannabis industry needs government and private industry partnerships more than it needs to antagonize, "the man." We saw a similar blow to the industry's credibility when CannTrust was busted with an illegal grow operation. This compliance breach significantly hurt CannTrust stock value and investor confidence.

Processors are also a potential source of compliance issues

It saddens me, and many others in this space, to see an incident involving disregard for the environment like we saw with WellGreenCA. They were was caught dumping illegal toxic waste from one of its operations and doing so in a way that shows what unrestricted industrialists will do. News that a cannabis company was caught irresponsibly dumping its toxic waste was a blow to the heart and soul of the people working to make cannabis a respectable industry. Many cannabis advocates are also staunch environmentalists as are many in of the members of cannabis's target market -- optics matter more now than ever for cannabis.

Despite this fact, some people lacking the broader perspective will find jobs in this industry. And sadly, this lack of perspective won't become apparent until after the business has extended a job offer. Compliance with government policy is crucial for cannabis companies that want to see growth in more than just their greenhouses. You can't grow if you can't operate and you can't operate if your business fails a compliance audit.

Inadequate staff training will get you sued

Cannabis in apothecary jars with a digital scale in the foreground.

Dispensary staffs are the face of the industry at this point. They are the ones who introduce newcomers to cannabis and who represent the industry to their friends and neighbors. Dispensary staffs are industry ambassadors, and many of them have no formal training to do this job.

Important training implications for cannabis

This lack of training has important implications for cannabis on two levels. First, dispensary staffs represent the face of a new business-to-consumer industry. That industry needs ambassadors to introduce new consumers to cannabis in a safe, responsible, and customer or patient-centric manner. Second, as ambassadors of the plant, the average budtender needs to know a lot about a broad range of topics. This knowledge is the foundation of a trustworthy customer or patient experience and the cornerstone of not only repeat business but sensible and responsible use of cannabis. This list of topics can be extensive.

  • Plant chemistry

  • Processing methods

  • Types of concentrates

  • Modes of consumption and their different effects

  • Terpene chemistry

  • Cannabinoid chemistry

  • Specific product knowledge

  • Local regulations

  • State regulations

  • Disease states that are helped by cannabis

  • Store policies

  • Inventory management

  • Point of sale systems

  • Seed to sale systems

And the list goes on and on. Oh, and this is just the list of essential knowledge for the budtenders; we haven't even covered the knowledge requirements to run a dispensary as a manager.

Consumers have their own knowledge gaps about cannabis

Most consumers coming to the regulated market either have no knowledge or a head full of inaccurate black-market nonsense. The onus is on cannabis companies to educate their customers, and often that happens at the point of sale via the person standing behind the counter. So when you think about it, dispensary staff are not just brand ambassadors for their dispensary, but for each product they sell.

Cannabis companies are not making investments in Human Capital

A jar of cannabis in the foreground with a woman in the background.

Despite the critical nature of cannabis knowledge and the skills to do the job in a compliant manner, shockingly few cannabis companies have Human Capital plans that provide this training in a scalable manner. Growers and processors provide minimal marketing handouts to dispensary staffs. Cannabis companies are slow to develop corporate training departments, and very few of them have implemented an LMS to standardize and automate training for new employees. It's doubtful that states are taking this deficit in Human Capital investments seriously. Take Pennsylvania, for example. Pennsylvania has regulations mandating cannabis operators develop training plans, but I don't believe Harrisburg, our state capital, is enforcing this policy. I know the program is underfunded, but the end result is a lack of enforcement of a regulation put in place to ensure patient safety. Furthermore, I do not believe the regulators responsible for enforcement possess the expertise to determine if a training program is adequate for promoting patient safety. This was evident in the quality and content of the mandated eLearning provided by the state.

The Pennsylvania mandated training for cannabis employees leaves a lot to be desired

I took the Pennsylvania state-mandated training to gain some insight into where the industry is, and I have to say that the training was very disappointing. As a training professional who specializes in developing online learning programs, I was saddened by the quality of the courseware I encountered. Parts of the training are inaccurate relative to the policy changes that occurred since it was first created. The overall design of the training was sophomoric at best and was probably developed by a poor soul who was handed a PowerPoint deck and told to narrate it. The quizzes were buggy and in some cases asked me about content not covered in the training module. To anyone with an eye for these things, the PA-mandated eLearning for all new cannabis industry workers is a token effort that falls short in many ways. In no way does this meager training prepare someone to work with a war veteran looking for a product to help them manage their PTSD or a mother concerned about avoiding psychoactive effects while medicating a child with cancer or epilepsy. Any half-competent program evaluation would demonstrate that.

Cannabis companies are not investing in training and development

My networking and interviewing of professionals in the South Eastern Pennsylvania medical cannabis market leads me to believe that the state is not enforcing these regulations. From what I also gather, the Harrisburg is more concerned about auditing marketing materials than actually monitoring for compliance with state regulations. Without pressure from the government, few companies are taking Human Capital investments seriously as evidenced by a lack of training for new employees. Beyond the essential administrative HR functions, many cannabis companies are failing to invest in training and professional development simply because they do not see a need for it. The product flies off the shelf as fast as stockers can put it there, so why bother? The current strategy and gloss this one over and hope for the best. This isn't the most inspired of management strategies, and I'm reminded of a quote attributed to one of Pennsylvania's most famous historical figures.

If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.
— Benjamin Franklin

Poorly trained employees do expensive reputational damage to your brand

This type of oversite should be of concern to investors in cannabis companies because inconsistencies in training will result in genuine threats to ROI expectations. These issues will eat into the bottom line if not wipe out the capital investment altogether. First, poorly trained employees alienate customers. Imagine how you would feel if you continually received inconsistent information from the administrative staff at a medical clinic. How would you feel if you received inaccurate or false information from the medical team you depended on relief from chronic knee pain? Let's compound this by including a medical issue like epilepsy or cancer as part of this hypothetical situation. Imagine how you would react if the medical staff gave you conflicting information every time you came in looking for relief from your seizures. This happens in dispensaries, a lot. Over time, these interactions will build up, make their way onto social media, Yelp!, Google Reviews, Weedmaps, and Leafly. The reputational damage that untrained staff represent is severe and will threaten the viability of any business-to-consumer company. Rather than investing in the training staff need to develop better relationships at the point of purchase (an investment in repeat business), the business is investing in damage control and reactive PR consulting (a cost center with a negative ROI). At a minimum, damage control efforts will balloon your marketing budget and labor costs. Rather than growing your brand, you're trying to clean up the mess your staff left behind with every sale.

This issue gets more complicated for medical cannabis dispensaries

Here are some of the common questions a lot of medical patients ask dispensary staff, and the answers can be the difference between a loyal patron and someone considering a lawsuit.

  • Can I travel with my medication?

  • Can I take my medication on an airplane?

  • Will my medical card protect me from getting arrested?

  • Will CBD show up on drug tests?

  • Am I protected from being fired from failing a drug test?

A woman examining a bottle of hemp extract.

Many budtenders in small-time dispensaries operate off their black market knowledge, which is often wrong and lacking a scientific basis. If you don't think this knowledge gap is dangerous, consider the case of Jeff Anderson of Beaverton, Oregon. Jeff lost his job after taking a CBD tincture for his arthritis. Even after Jeff emphatically explained that he could not fail a drug test or he will lose his job, the dispensary manager assured him that he would not test positive on a drug test. Jeff Anderson eventually lost his job due to a failed drug test.

Jami Arvon, manager of GreenMart dispensary where Jeff bought his tincture, told Jeff he was going to be safe.

I genuinely believe Sun God’s product is not the reason why he failed. If it is, I’m not a scientist, but I have anecdotal-only evidence that this product will not make you fail a drug test.
— Jami Arvon, GreenMart Manager

Jami Arvon is demonstrating a supreme level of ignorance regarding this issue, but nevertheless is giving false information to patients who don't know any better. While Jami may be sincere in their protestations, this doesn’t match up with what other easily accessible online resources have to say on the matter. Multiple people across the country, including Pennsylvania, have lost their jobs using over the counter hemp-derived CBD tinctures. These tinctures are concentrated enough that the THC levels inherent to industrial hemp --the origin of all the over the counter CBD products-- can show up on a drug test. Remember, CBD products are unregulated, which means that there are wide variations in product quality, the accuracy of the information provided by the manufacturers, and product consistency. There are plenty of unscrupulous business people to exploit this widespread knowledge gap. But the problem isn’t with the products, the problem is that the purveyors of those products are not taking responsibility for the education of their staff to whom consumers look to for accurate and accessible information about the products they are purchasing.

A lawsuit may be looming for GreenMart

Jeff Anderson is out of a job, on early retirement, with no health insurance and chronic health problems. I'm sure there's a lawsuit GreenMart's future. If not, then it's just a matter of time before another person in the same situation as Jeff files suit. To all dispensary owners out there, I pose this question; are you confident that every one of your budtenders can answer the questions put to them accurately enough to avoid a lawsuit?

Next up, Human Capital as an investment and not a cost center

In the next installment of this post, I'm going to showcase examples where training yielded a positive ROI in other sectors. These are valuable examples of how such investments can improve the bottom line of any company not suffering from "not invented here" syndrome. In the third and final part of this post, I will map out what a scalable training solution might look like when it comes to cannabis education. Stay tuned folks.