Where the Cannabis Industry Fails: Workplace

The second of four in a series

By Toby Shillito

Prohibition has prevented the normal growth of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) issues in the cannabis industry. In this second of four articles, Shillito considers:the effects on the Workplace.

Prohibition does not only mean that horticulturalists can go to jail. It also means that business people find it hard to:

  • form partnerships
  • make long-term investment decisions
  • avoid a transactional sales mentality
  • develop a positive corporate culture and
  • manage a socially and environmentally sustainable business model.

In short – prohibition disrupts cannabis businesses from functioning healthily.

With prohibition in retreat, there are emerging opportunities for companies to show – and mean – how their operations both:

  • address the threats to the planet and people and
  • take advantage of the opportunities to do business in a considerate, conscious way.

To do this successfully, companies need to look beyond the traditional borders of the industry, to address their impacts on the wider environment and beyond this to their social responsibilities: to staff in the workplace, suppliers and customers in the marketplace and the communities that live around their areas of operation.  This second article looks at the impacts of prohibition on the workplace.


Many of the tasks in the grow room are mundane and repetitive, requiring a low skill-base and thus is low in reward. In an unregulated market, this leads to the use of an unrepresented labour force, working in unsafe conditions and paid little or nothing. About twenty years ago, adverts for cultivation equipment started to appear in the Vietnamese language. At the time, this seemed weird – until you realise the focus was on an emerging segment of gangs using cheap labour from Asia. One of the cheapest ways to produce illicit cannabis is by taking over an abandoned factory, rigging the electrics and installing hammocks for imported young people to sleep on site between shifts. These days, it is right that the trafficking of child labour is to be seen as a crime far more serious than the cultivation of cannabis plants.


Today, as Cannabis becomes legal, employees expect rights to fair pay, safe conditions and time off. This is great progress, but there is further to go. What about diversity of opportunity in the workplace? Under prohibition, virtually every cultivator and pot dealer was male. These days, though still few and far between, there are individuals whose outstanding personalities and integrity allow them to stand out as powerful individuals in the industry. Women, such as Hilary Black of Canopy Growth, are emerging as serious and skilled cultivators. Hilary started out delivering joints to medical users by bicycle and is now a key manager at Canopy Growth, Canada’s largest legal cultivator, listed on the New York Stock Exchange with a Market Capitalisation of over US $ 10 Billion. Ken Estes, of the GrandDaddy Purp Collective in California, has used a wheelchair since a motorcycle accident in 1976. By some definitions, he is ‘disabled’. He is also one of the most respected advocates for medical marijuana and a world leading geneticist and breeder. These role models show the diversity of people who find their professional skills are in demand in an evolved, modern industry.

Company structure

Beyond the impact of individuals, what about the organisational cultures of post-prohibition cannabis companies? Too often, they are hierarchical, male-dominated, brutal places to work. Last Autumn, two friends from Catalonia, women in their twenties, found themselves working as trimmers on a farm in the hills in Mendocino – until they discovered their hosts enjoyed drunkenly taking cocaine, shooting shotguns into the wilderness and burning stolen cars at night.

Health and safety

In the future, employees will take Health and Safety at work for granted – requiring the use of goggles when pouring toxic chemicals, safety gloves when operating trimming machines. This will become a basic threshold of a business’s moral and legal License to Operate. Responsible businesses are built on the principles of fairness, inclusion and an eye to the wellbeing – in the widest sense – of their employees. It is the employers who understand this – and who deliver into working practices – that will thrive.

Our next article will look at the effects of prohibition on the Marketplace.

1 Environment / 2 Workplace / 3 Marketplace / 4 Community & The Future