Introduction to the State-Legal Cannabis Industry

A short but comprehensive introductory guide to the cannabis industry provides insight into how to break into the state-legal recreational and medical markets.

Opportunities for entrepreneurs and employees continue to grow as more states legalize cannabis for medical and recreational use. However, it’s tricky to navigate the complex laws that govern each state-legal market. In April 2018, I wrote a short but comprehensive introductory guide to the cannabis industry. In writing this piece, I drew from extensive research I’d conducted into the legal requirements for medical and recreational cannabis across multiple states. I completed this project in just over 11 hours.

Read the full document here or download a copy below.

Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Pursuing a Career in Cannabis


The cannabis industry has the power to transform state economies, creating a wealth of jobs and career opportunities in the process.

Consider Colorado as an example. Since voters legalized recreational cannabis in 2012, more than 500 retail stores have sprung up across the state. Combined, the medical and recreational cannabis markets here employ more than 26,000 licensed support staff and nearly 12,100 licensed key employees, according to the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division.

The gold rush isn’t limited to the Centennial State. By 2021, retail cannabis sales in the U.S. are expected to reach $30 billion, Forbes reports. It’s no wonder, then, that more professionals are considering careers in cannabis.

Are you one of them? If so, now is a good time to start preparing. Building a strong knowledge base is a good place to start. Whether you’re looking to become an investor, an owner, a manager or an employee in this rapidly growing industry, you must be able to answer these five questions:

  • Is cannabis legal in my state?
  • Is a career in cannabis a good fit for me?
  • What are the legal requirements to work in the cannabis industry?
  • Am I qualified for the role I want?
  • Am I ready to succeed?

Answering these questions now will help you decide if you should pursue a career in the cannabis industry and, if so, what you will need to do to thrive.

Sidebar: 2016 cannabis sales by state


  • 2016 medical sales: $45.6 million
  • 2016 adult use sales: $677.3 million


  • 2016 medical sales: $101.6 million
  • 2016 adult use sales: $292.1 million


  • 2016 medical sales: $1.837 billion


  • 2016 medical sales: $75.6 million


  • 2016 medical sales: $4 million


  • 2016 medical sales: $19.6 million


  • 2016 medical and recreational sales: $1.3 billion


  • 2016 medical sales: $341.1 million

New Mexico

  • 2016 medical sales: $97.9 million


  • 2016 medical sales: $9.6 million


  • 2016 medical sales: $36.2 million


  • 2016 medical sales: $651.5 million

New Jersey

  • 2016 medical sales: $31 million

New York

  • 2016 medical sales: $35.7 million


  • 2016 medical sales: $29.3 million

Rhode Island

  • 2016 medical sales: $48.8 million


  • 2016 medical sales: $100 million


  • 2016 medical sales: $7.6 million

New Hampshire

  • 2016 medical sales: $3.7 million


  • 2016 medical sales: $52.2 million

(Sources: National Cannabis Industry Association; Colorado Department of Revenue)

Is cannabis legal in my state?

If your state has passed laws regulating cannabis sales and use, then the short answer to that question is “yes.” Although cannabis is still illegal under federal law, a growing number of states have opted to legalize it for medical use. A handful have also legalized it for recreational use. If you plan to do business in one of these states, then you can participate in the state-legal market, so long as you abide by your state’s laws.

How do states legalize cannabis? It usually begins at the ballot box. Voters elect to legalize cannabis by passing a ballot measure that makes the substance legal for medical or recreational use. In some cases, however, state legislatures may initiate the process, such as when the Vermont legislature passed a bill in 2018 that made cannabis legal for adult, or non-medical, use.

Once cannabis is legalized, the state adopts its own laws to regulate different aspects of the industry — like cultivation, manufacturing, sale and distribution — as well as where and how patients or customers can use it and how much of it they can possess.

The state also designates one or more regulatory agencies to oversee activities like inspections and licensing. These agencies may also create regulations that further govern day-to-day operations of businesses like dispensaries, cultivations and product manufacturers.

It takes time for a newly legalized market to come online, and it usually does so in phases. Below is a brief description of what each phase of the process looks like.

Newly Approved States: In this first phase of the process, voters or lawmakers have legalized cannabis, but state regulators are still developing rules that will govern its sale and use. Specific details — like how many licenses the state will grant for dispensaries and cultivation facilities — often remain unknown. If your state is in this stage of the process, find the website for the regulatory agency or agencies responsible for crafting the rules and check them often. Agencies usually post updates to keep potential industry actors appraised of new developments.

Emerging States: States in this phase of the process have a basic regulatory framework in place. Regulatory agencies are established, and they are accepting applications for licensed cannabis enterprises. They may also begin awarding licenses to qualified applicants. If you live in an emerging state market, keep these tips in mind:

  • Agencies sometimes issue emergency rules, which may or may not be amended later.
  • Some states have laws limiting the number of licensed providers that can operate in a geographical area or in the state at large. Often, these states will accept applications only for a limited timeframe, and applications tend to come in quickly.

Active State: In an active state, licensed cannabis businesses are open and operating. By this time, laws and regulations that govern the industry are usually well-established.

Regulatory change is possible at any stage of the process. Lawsuits or significant changes in the law can upend previously established rules, even in an active state. For this reason, it’s critical to stay up-to-date on the latest rules in your state.


Beware: Not all state laws are the same

There’s rarely a one-size-fits-all approach to cannabis regulation. What’s legal in one state might be strictly prohibited in another. Here are some examples:

Some states allow cannabis consumption only in certain forms. In some states, smoking cannabis is legal, while others prohibit smoking.

Other regulations may dictate how licensed establishments are structured. Some states require businesses to be vertically integrated. In these configurations, cultivation, manufacturing, dispensing, or some combination of the three, all take place in the same place or under the same entity. Other states allow vertical integration but don’t require it. Others prohibit it.

Is a career in cannabis a good fit for me?

The cannabis industry offers a range of careers, each relying on different skills and experience. Seasoned pros and newcomers alike all have something to offer. Every key position in the cannabis industry requires specific skills, many of which are transferrable from other fields.


Budtenders serve as frontline staff in both medical and recreational dispensaries. They answer customers’ questions about cannabis products and their safe use. They’re also responsible for informing their customers or patients about laws that dictate where and how cannabis can be consumed. They also help keep their organizations in compliance with state and local laws. Compliance-related activities include checking customers’ identification to ensure they’re eligible to purchase cannabis and recording sales in a state-wide tracking system.

Key assets for budtenders include:

  • Excellent customer service
  • Experience in preventing sales to minors
  • In-depth knowledge of cannabis strains and delivery methods
  • Basic understanding of how cannabis affects the body
Administrative staff

These positions include managers, supervisors, lead workers and master growers. People in these careers often make important decisions that impact the day-to-day operations of an organization, whether it be a dispensary, a cultivation or a product manufacturer. They may also be responsible for hiring and training staff.

Key assets for administrative staff include:

  • Experience with security and sale tracking
  • For medical dispensary administrators, licensure as a physician or medical practitioner is a plus. (In some states, this is required.)

Growers use their extensive knowledge of cannabis to cultivate plants that yield a specific set of traits that make them desirable for therapeutic use. They must be well-versed in the characteristics of different cannabis strains, and they must know how to properly grow, harvest and cure the final product. Finally, they must abide by local and state laws governing pesticide use, odor control and waste disposal.

Key assets for growers include:

  • Extensive knowledge of the cannabis plant, including its nutrient, water and lighting needs
  • Cultivation in indoor and outdoor settings
  • Horticultural knowledge, including how to prevent blight and eradicate pests
Manufacturer of Infused Products Chef

An MIP chef makes edible goods infused with cannabis, either for medical or recreational use. These can include baked goods, candies and drinks. They’re responsible for following regulations regarding dosing consistency and potency. These regulations govern the maximum amount of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, can be present in each serving.

Key assets for MIP chefs include:

  • Knowledge of different cannabis concentrates and how they can be incorporated into edibles
  • Experience working in industrial kitchens
  • Knowledge of food handling safety practices

An owner of any cannabis business is ultimately responsible for ensuring the institution complies with state and local laws. They’re tasked with securing the necessary licenses for the business and ensuring that all employees are properly licensed. They also secure the necessary capital, facilities and real estate for the business.

Key assets for cannabis business owners include:

  • Experience working in a state or federally regulated industry
  • Experience working with state regulators and complying with inspections

Investors supply the necessary capital to cannabis businesses, particularly in the critical start-up phase. In some instances, this capital is convertible into an ownership interest.

A successful career in cannabis also requires some soft skills. The cannabis industry can be risky and unpredictable. Regulations can change with little or no warning. Product recalls can upend a business or put it out of business entirely. A high tolerance for risk and an ability to adapt to uncertainty are key to succeeding in the cannabis industry, regardless of what career you choose to pursue.

What are the legal requirements to work in the cannabis industry?

If you’ve decided that a career in cannabis is a good fit for you, then the next step is to determine if you’re eligible to work in the industry.

Most states will require proof that you are of good moral character and have a history of following the law. Regardless of what career you pursue, you will probably have to submit to fingerprinting and a criminal background check. You’ll also probably be required to disclose past criminal convictions and report licenses you’ve held in other jurisdictions. Finally, you must prove that you are of legal age to work in the industry.

Some states require that everyone at a cannabis business obtain an occupational badge or license from the state. These badges authorize you to work in a dispensary, cultivation, manufacturing facility, or other cannabis businesses. Safety and compliance training may be a requirement for obtaining or maintaining your badge. Most badges must be renewed on an annual or biennial basis.

You may have to meet additional requirements based on your career path. If you’re a business owner applying for a cannabis business license, be prepared to show proof that you have access to necessary land and facilities. You also must show how you will maintain security and prevent cannabis products from being diverted to the illegal market. Some states may prohibit out-of-state owners from obtaining a license.

If you’re an investor, you may be required to register with the state. Or, you may be required to disclose positions of management or ownership you hold in other companies.

Be aware, though, that some factors may make it more difficult for you to work in the cannabis industry. Depending on the state regulations, prior felony convictions may make you ineligible to work in a cannabis business. So, too, may past convictions for drug-related crimes, even if the sentences have been discharged. Prior suspension or revocation of a license, even if it’s not related to a cannabis enterprise, is another common disqualifier. Unpaid fines or other unresolved business with state or federal agencies may also bar you from participating in a state-legal market.

Conflicts of interest are also disqualifiers. For instance, if you’re a physician who recommends patients to your state’s medical cannabis program, then you might be prohibited from owning or working in a medical dispensary.

These are just a few common examples. Be sure to check your state and local regulations for the rules that apply to your situation.

Am I qualified for the role I want?

Possessing the necessary skills, experience and legal eligibility is a step in the right direction to succeeding in the cannabis industry. But these assets alone won’t guarantee you’ll land the role you want.

Consider this: In 2017, the number of job postings for cannabis industry jobs increased by 445 percent. The most recent estimates suggest that the U.S. cannabis industry employs as many as 230,000 people. That’s more than all the dental hygienists employed in the nation, Business Insider reported. However, industry experts warn that the competition for jobs is fierce, and the number of applicants often outpaces the number of available jobs.

It’s not just employees who have to worry. Cannabis is a constantly evolving field, subject to rapid change that can unsettle even the most seasoned business owner or investor. To succeed in cannabis, you need the foundational knowledge that will set you apart and anchor your business decisions, regardless of what role you seek.  Continuing education is the best way to prove your professional acumen and your commitment to becoming a good actor in the industry.

A certificate of completion from a reputable training company is the only industry-recognized education currently available. It shows you’re willing to invest time, money and energy into mastering your craft. Because it’s an objective assessment of your knowledge, it demonstrates that you are a capable actor in this new industry. This badge of professionalism proves that you’re serious about your career.

Am I ready to succeed in the cannabis industry?

Maybe you’re just curious about working in cannabis. Maybe you’re seriously considering a pivot into this exciting field. Or, maybe you already work in the industry and you want to remain competitive. Regardless of what your professional goals are, Cannabis Industry Institute offers two key courses that can help you achieve them.

Cannabis Industry Overview provides the core knowledge about the history of cannabis cultivation and use, as well as its past prohibition and the recent emergence of state-legal markets. You’ll also learn the basics of how it is cultivated, harvested and consumed. Finally, you’ll learn about common roles and responsibilities in a dispensary.

Introduction to Cannabis Growing offers a deeper dive into the cultivation side of the business. Here, you’ll learn about the three main types of cannabis and their dominant characteristics. You’ll also learn how the cannabis plant develops over its lifecycle. You’ll also get primed on the nutrients, soil, lighting water and air requirements cannabis plants need to flourish.

If you’re an employee in the industry, or you want to become one, these courses ensure you have up-to-date knowledge you need to help your customers or patients. Even if you don’t intend to work directly with cannabis, a certificate of completion from these courses will ensure you have the knowledge you need to manage your business or your business investment wisely. You can also use them to train your employees, your managers or even yourself.

The cannabis industry offers a wealth of opportunity, but it’s also riddled with challenges. However, you can overcome these obstacles if you arm yourself with the right information first. A certificate of completion from Cannabis Industry Institute is an investment in your success.


Intro to the Cannabis Industry e-book