.The Green Rush

The business of medical cannabis is definitely an East Bay growth industry in 2011.

Situated in an undisclosed warehouse in Oakland, the Bhang Chocolate Company factory seduces the senses with the smell of high-quality chocolate and highly potent ganja. As Snoop Dogg plays from the nearby stereo, Bhang founder Scott Van Rixel supervises an employee slathering viscous dark goo into cooling trays. The employee tempers Bhang’s hit medical cannabis chocolate bars, which won first place in the San Francisco Medical Cannabis Competition in November. The win catapulted Bhang and Van Rixel into the spotlight and sent his nascent East Bay business into overdrive.

Entrepreneurs view the cannabis industry jobs outlook as rather sunny in 2011 — with room in the market for professional cultivators and dispensary staff. An even brighter outlook exists over pot’s support market, whether it’s edibles factories ramping up, hydroponics stores doing brisk business, laboratories adding staff and capital equipment, and professional services like lawyers, accountants, and lobbyists, the last of which Esquire named as one the top ten “New Jobs for Men.” Even the staid insurance business is seeing a cannabump, said Richard Lee, founder of Oaksterdam University, one of the largest, most well-known weed colleges in the country.

Oaksterdam’s first class of the year is sold out, and half the students are out-of-state enrollees who’ve come to the East Bay to learn to cultivate, bake edibles, and study the fast-changing world of cannabis law. Growing remains a student favorite, but Oaksterdam requires students to take prerequisites on the politics and legal issues of dope “before they can take the fun classes,” Lee said. “Nobody knows what’s going on with the law, not even the lawyers and the politicians, because there’s so many different, conflicting ones, it’s changing, and everybody has their opinion.”

Oaksterdam tries to offer a neutral viewpoint on the now-legitimate industry. “The business is getting to be more about what are reasonable regulations and reasonable taxes, not just, ‘can you do it at all?’ It’s getting more complex,” said Lee.

Consequently, cannabis lobbyists are in high demand throughout the state, where a patchwork of regulations and enforcement range from outright bans and raids in San Luis Obispo and Santa Clara counties to taxation and environmental regulations in Alameda, San Francisco, and Humboldt counties. Cannabis lobbying and consultancy firm CannBe stayed very busy in 2010, and is seeing very high demand for their services in 2011, said founder Stephen DeAngelo, also the head of Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, among the largest dispensaries in the nation. CannBe moves into Arizona, the fifteenth medical cannabis state in 2011, where it will assist locals attempting to win one of 120 or so coveted dispensary permits, part of a new, billion-dollar industry there. “Arizona has little to no knowledge of how to operate a medical marijuana industry,” he said.

CannBe is a bright spot in a turbulent year for Harborside, as new taxation from the city and a federal audit harshed its mellow. Oakland’s new tax rate means much-needed capital improvements like replacing Harborside’s asphalt parking lot with “grassphalt” and facade repainting won’t get done. Harborside has also had to scale back on patient services. But as a whole, the Bay Area dispensary outlook seems rosy, Lee said.

San Francisco dispensary SPARC is undergoing growing pains as it tries to pace demand, said founder Erich Pearson. The thirty-employee dispensary gets an average of fifty new patients per day. San Francisco has no set limit on the number of clubs it may have, and more permits are in the works. Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland are also all set to add dispensaries in 2011, and more are cropping up across the state, despite harsh crackdowns outside of the Bay Area. “We’ve had lots of good reports from students getting jobs and starting businesses. Somebody came up to me at the New Year’s Primus show at the Fox saying they were a student who started a dispensary in Santa Barbara, and wanted to thank me,” Lee said.

Oaksterdam has also added cooking classes and a kitchen in response to demand for edibles training. The field is modernizing fast, from the stereotypical pot brownie to the artisanal, Whole Foods-quality delicacy, said Bhang’s Van Rixel. He plans to grow his company by seven people to twelve by June this year. “I’m excited. Our numbers have increased every single week. We haven’t even scratched the surface of this industry. We couldn’t take market share faster than what it’s growing. There’s room for everybody,” Van Rixel said. He’s looking for people with “culinary expertise” to help build out his gourmet chocolate line in 2011, as well as staff to simply stuff packages. “We pay better than your average chocolate company,” he said.

Bhang chocolate expands alongside its partners in testing, CW Analytical Laboratories, situated adjacent to the Bhang factory. Principal scientist and CW founder John Oram said the lab hopes to grow with Bhang, and double in size from six to twelve, while taking on more clients. Oram is looking for applicants with at least a bachelor’s, if not a master’s degree, in a related science to complement staff chemists and mycologists. CW Labs is also hiring eight to ten salespeople.

Fellow lab Steep Hill, also in Oakland, is undergoing rapid growth in 2011, opening up a Los Angeles office and adding staff not only to test local dispensary products for potency and safety, but to certify grows for safety as well as run its new SafeCannabis program. “We’re in the third year of the start-up phase, which is usually the big one,” said Steep Hill co-founder Addison DeMoura.

Even as testing takes hold at legal dispensaries in the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, quasi-legal dispensaries are fighting for a right to exist. Omar Figueroa, founder of the Cannabis Law Institute, said the institute’s accredited seminars routinely sell out as lawyers specialize in the field, and the institute plans its next seminar in San Francisco. Qualified tax lawyers are also in high demand, as the IRS appears to be taking a very close look at dispensaries, said San Francisco tax attorney Henry Wykowski.

The quasi-legal status of medical cannabis has created a transition zone where new markets can emerge, but there’s a dark side, too. Medical pot industry members face arrest, prosecution, and jail time under federal law. Even though the Obama administration issued a memo ordering US attorneys to not focus resources on legitimate medical cannabis concerns, the Drug Enforcement Administration continues to enforce federal law in the state. State police get in on it, too. In Santa Clara County in December, a narcotics task force used $750,000 in methamphetamine abatement funds from the federal government to sweep up San Jose medical cannabis delivery services, DeAngelo said.

It’s no surprise, then, to hear that local and state police are also hiring in 2011, promising relatively steady work, full benefits, and pension. California police will write more than an estimated 60,000 pot tickets and arrest more than 17,000 growers and dealers in 2011.

As pot turns from a black market to a white one, a lot of unsavory folks are still in it and attracted to it. One industry employee told the Express she went to Oaksterdam University, UniCann, and took one day of class at the Cannabis Training University, but her subsequent jobs at a large nursery and dispensary in Redding and at a company selling cone joints and tinctures in Oakland both fizzled. The nursery laid her off without paying, and the joints business owner paid under the table and wanted to meet in a bar. “I think these schools don’t tell the truth about the seamy side of the business,” she said. “I feel that the BS factor in this industry is huge. I have met some great people in my time but there are some sharks out there.”

But Lee said it’s still better than it’s ever been. “You’ve got to look back,” he said. “As long as I’ve been in this and after all we’ve done, some days it’s two steps forward and one back, but we’re moving the right way. Most of this industry is already there, we’re just taking it from underground to above ground. There’s lot of opportunities for people who have the business and political skills and as well as the horticultural skills.” 


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