You can’t ignore the cannabis industry. In the United States and around the world, governments are realizing not only that prohibiting marijuana use is futile, but that cannabis can have palliative and even curative medical uses. While some governments are decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, others are legalizing it for medical and even recreational use. As more and more cities, states, and nations legalize marijuana, more and more markets open for the rapidly growing cannabis industry.
In January 2017, NORML reported that since its launch in the United States, the legal cannabis industry has created 123,000 full time jobs. The true number of jobs the industry created can be difficult to determine because the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not acknowledge or report cannabis-related jobs, so this figure comes from an extrapolation based on reports from states with some form of legalized marijuana, whether medical or both medical and recreational. According to Entrepreneur.com, the legal cannabis industry will create 283,000 jobs and sell a total of $24 billion worth of product by 2020.
As a freelance designer, developer, or writer, getting into the cannabis industry can seem like a no-brainer. Working with a cannabis company can be a great move for your career. There’s money there — lots of it — and no shortage of gigs for freelance creatives. But you shouldn’t ignore the potential pitfalls of working in this industry, especially if you live in a state or country where cannabis use is illegal.
Legal cannabis markets as of 2017
In the following countries, cannabis for personal, recreational use is legal. In many of these markets, there are limits to how much marijuana an individual can have at a time, where they can consume it, and how many plants they can cultivate:
- Jamaica, if the user is Rastafari;
- The Netherlands;
- Uruguay; and
- The United States in the following states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Nevada, Washington and Washington, D.C.
Many other countries have medical marijuana programs in place, making cannabis use legal with a valid prescription. These countries are:
- The United States in the following states and territories: Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Guam and Puerto Rico; and
In many more places, the possession of a small amount of cannabis has been decriminalized or existing laws are not enforced. These aren’t the legal markets we’re discussing in this piece. What we’re talking about is the markets where cannabis is legal for medical and/or recreational use, where the following types of business are currently making bank:
- Cannabis production;
- Cannabis processing, which can be anything that turns the raw product into something consumers can use, like smokable marijuana, edible products, topical health and beauty products, and concentrates;
- Retailers selling marijuana, edibles, accessories, and cannabis-infused health and beauty products;
- Delivery services;
- Business consultants that focus on the cannabis industry;
- Event planning and specialty lodging for consumers who want to make marijuana part of their travel or events;
- All aspects of digital marketing, like app development, software development, and social networking for businesses operating in the legal cannabis space.
Each of these business types offers a variety of jobs. As a creative freelancer, you’ll find a lot of great opportunities with cannabis companies. But should you take them? The answer to this question depends on your answers to a few other critical questions you need to ask yourself.
What to ask yourself before taking a gig in the cannabis industry
Let’s get your most important question out of the way first: whether you live in a state with legal cannabis or not, in the US there’s nothing illegal about writing about cannabis or designing for legal cannabis companies. As a freelancer in the US you can write and draw all the anthropomorphic pot leaves and catchy taglines you want, since you’re not selling marijuana or otherwise coming into contact with the plant. Once they have your work, your client does have to comply with local advertising laws to avoid being charged with Controlled Substances Act violations. If you live in another country where cannabis is illegal, you’ll need to make sure that designing anything cannabis related isn’t illegal there, before you start working with a cannabis company.
There are some other questions about doing design work for the cannabis industry that you’ll have to answer for yourself. Think about the following and give yourself time to reach sincere, subjective answers:
Do I want to make cannabis my primary niche (or one of them)?
If you’re thinking of making cannabis a primary niche, there isn’t much to your decision. Having a portfolio full of marijuana-related pieces will only help you secure more gigs in the future. But if you’re thinking you want a gig to be a one-off thing, the decision to take on that first cannabis client can be more difficult. Having a cannabis-related piece in a portfolio that wasn’t specifically curated to land more cannabis gigs can raise questions from prospective clients and potentially work against you, even if your work itself is strong.
Will freelancing for a cannabis company cause problems with my day job?
The answer to this question depends on where you work, not just regarding the company you work for, but where in the world you’re located. If you are self-employed, you don’t have to worry about what your boss will think about you working for a marijuana company, since you’re the boss and obviously, you wouldn’t take the job if it wasn’t something you approve of.
But if you have a day job and freelancing is your side hustle, you’ll have to think about how the two can potentially collide. Although you certainly can work with a cannabis company without indulging in the product, having your name attached to such a company can raise suspicions with your employer.
Could designing or writing for a cannabis company impact my future career?
This goes back to the first question — don’t just think of how your cannabis project will be a nice addition to your portfolio now, think about what it can do for your career in the future. If you often work with companies in more conservative spheres, having cannabis-related work in your portfolio can backfire against you. You might be able to avoid this potential backlash by using a pseudonym, but remember that there’s no guarantee you won’t be found out. Rather, think about whether being “found out” would matter.
Think about making vital business connections in the future. Could the types of professional connections you need take issue with your work in the cannabis field? As cannabis use becomes more accepted and normalized in the United States, this will become less of a concern as time and legalization progress moves forward. But attitudes vary from country to country, even region to region within countries and certainly, from industry to industry, so it’s important to always keep your ideal career trajectory in mind when you decide whether to work in this or another controversial industry.
Does working for cannabis clients fit with my personal values?
It’s simple, but it’s worth noting: the sale, possession and use of marijuana is still illegal at the federal level in the United States and in many countries around the world. Are you comfortable working in an industry that violates these laws? Many cannabis companies work with growers who operate in the “gray market;” not quite illegal, but not in compliance with the law. How would it make you feel to find out your client is one of these companies? Only you can answer this.
Am I a good fit for the startup lifestyle?
Although it’s gained a foothold in the past few years, the legal cannabis industry is still pretty new and working out its kinks. A lot of the companies operating in this sphere are startups, which operate pretty differently from established companies. You might have short deadlines, unconventional types and means of compensation and an inconsistent workload.
Make sure to take this work environment into consideration when thinking about working with clients in the cannabis industry on a regular basis.
How can I make sure I get paid, if I choose to work with the cannabis industry?
This advice sounds obvious, but it’s worth noting that because cannabis is illegal at the federal level in the United States, many companies don’t work with traditional banks or use the types of payroll system you’re used to because many financial institutions won’t work with them due to fear of legal repercussions. Some cannabis companies work with smaller banks and others run cash-only businesses. Going after a delinquent cannabis client when you get stiffed can be way more difficult than chasing down a client in another industry, so make sure you always have the client sign a contract and pay a deposit before you start the work they commission.
If you’re thinking about getting into the cannabis industry, take a look at the pieces our designers have produced for cannabis clients to get some inspiration for your next pitch. Are you ready to show off your design skills? Meet your next client by participating in a 99designs contest.