‘Diamonds in the rough’: How to hire cannabis workers with criminal records

Did you miss the webinar “Women Leaders in Cannabis: Shattering the Grass Ceiling?” Head to MJBiz YouTube to watch it now!

Image depicting a diversity employee

(Illustration by Katie Ruland)

“Social equity” is the legal cannabis industry’s biggest buzzword these days, with governments and companies of all sizes paying homage to the idea that people most harmed by the war on drugs – particularly people of color – should be first in line to reap the economic benefits of legalization.

One straightforward way to work toward that goal is to hire employees who have past criminal records for marijuana-related crimes.

Cannabis companies that go the extra mile to hire such workers recommend:

  • Spreading the word through relevant community organizations.
  • Carefully crafting job postings to welcome equity applicants with criminal records.
  • Tailoring job fairs and workshops to help those applicants succeed.

Working to hire and train employees with convictions can pay dividends in terms of experienced and motivated workers, those companies say.

Kika Keith, founder and CEO of South Central Los Angeles marijuana retailer Gorilla Rx Wellness and a Minority Cannabis Business Association board member, said about 10% of her employees were previously incarcerated, and they bring valuable experience to their roles.

“I think it’s a ripe market waiting to be tapped into,” Keith said.

“All we had to do was teach the compliance and the regulations, teach the policy side.

“Now you’re talking about diamonds in the rough, folks who have relationships, have knowledge of the plant, knowledge of how buying works.”

Benefits of giving second chances

Boston cannabis retailer Pure Oasis also employs workers with criminal records, said co-owner Kobie Evans, explaining that the company “(believes) in giving people second chances.”

“People with (criminal records) are definitely very valuable in this industry – especially with cannabis – because you really want subject-matter experts, people who can speak intelligently about the product,” he said.

One Pure Oasis employee had an open criminal case related to graffiti, Evans said.

“Those skills also transferred into our business, because he did some artwork for different installations, and that was valuable.”

Recruitment expert Kara Bradford said cannabis companies have become more open to employing those with criminal records as they recognize the potential benefits.

Bradford, the co-founder and CEO of cannabis human-resources agency Viridian Staffing, said that because so many other industries still won’t hire workers with a criminal history, “as cannabis companies, by providing these opportunities and treating these employees well, you also will likely have an employee who is loyal and who you are able to retain.”

Employee retention matters in a tight labor market, she added.

“In any labor market, but especially in this labor market, the ability to retain workers can mean the difference between you keeping your doors open versus reducing store hours due to not having enough workers.”

Stay informed with MJBiz Newsletters

MJBiz’s family of newsletters gives cannabis professionals an edge in this rapidly changing industry.

Featured newsletters:
  • MJBizDaily: Business news for cannabis leaders in your inbox each morning
  • MJBiz Cultivator: Insights for wholesale cannabis growers & vertically integrated businesses
  • MJBizCon Buzz: Behind-the-scenes buzz on everything MJBizCon
  • MJBiz Retail + Brand: New products, trends and news for cannabis retailers, distributors and marketers
  • Hemp Industry Week: Roundup of news from hemp farming to CBD product manufacturing
  • And more!


Potential business benefits aside, there’s also a strong moral argument for employing those with criminal convictions related to cannabis.

“When you throw people away and don’t give them a way to earn a living, then that just creates a cycle where they can’t provide for their family and the whole cycle repeats,” said Nichole Upshaw, executive vice president of human resources for multistate marijuana company Jushi Holdings.

Recruitment tips

Gorilla Rx’s Keith said her success in hiring formerly incarcerated cannabis workers grew out of a proactive, intentional hiring process.

“People aren’t just going to walk through your door, right?” she said.

“You have to have a commitment to make that social impact.”

For Keith, that involved visiting neighborhood councils and workforce-development centers in her area to spread the word that she wanted to hire disadvantaged applicants.

Pure Oasis’ Evans found hiring success with job fairs designed to be friendly to applicants with a criminal history as well as job postings that spell out that those with criminal records are welcome to apply.

He also suggested reaching out to local nonprofits, public defenders and social workers who work with the recently incarcerated.

“I think it’s about being creative, and really, somewhat aggressive about trying to achieve this goal,” he said.

Jushi’s Upshaw said the company held an all-day career event for communities of color in Pennsylvania last year, featuring talks on resume writing and mock job interviews.

They plan a similar event this year.

“If I was a single operator, or just had a couple of stores – get connected in the industry, and don’t do it alone,” Upshaw advised.

Privately held MSO Terrapin has also had success with job fairs, said Peter Marcus, the company’s vice president of communications.

Before holding a job fair in Michigan, the Colorado-based company offered a special social equity workshop in partnership with cannabis industry social equity advocacy group The Color of Cannabis.

The event included a career counselor who offered guidance on interviews and resume-building.

“The whole goal of that was to provide a leg up, the right background, the right resume skills, the right interview skills, to eventually, a week later, take (to) the job fair. … And we ended up hiring seven of the 12 people that went through the workshop,” he explained.

Marcus also advised companies to think carefully about how they craft and post their job descriptions.

“How are you writing your job descriptions? Where are you posting those job descriptions?” he asked.

“Are you advertising in community newspapers that appeal to Black and brown audiences?”

Marcus, who had a criminal conviction for attempted purchase of marijuana before joining Terrapin, stressed the importance of making second chances available to everyone.

“I had a successful journalism career before this, so I’ve been very lucky, but I’m also white,” he said.

“So there’s more privilege and more opportunity that comes my way, just by default. … It’s become very important to me to expand that equity to others who have experienced that.”

Equity hiring complicated by local laws

Viridian Staffing’s Bradford warned that state and municipal laws might limit a company’s ability to hire employees with criminal records, or at least those with specific types of convictions.

“In certain states, they may have a badging process in place that blocks many individuals that have those criminal convictions from working in cannabis,” she said.

Other jurisdictions might allow cannabis workers with criminal records, she said, but with an extra layer of bureaucracy.

“In Michigan, if there’s a pending charge or conviction within the past 10 years for a controlled substance-related felony, the licensee has to get permission from Michigan’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency, and their process is very subjective,” Bradford noted.

On the other hand, employing workers with cannabis convictions could actually ease the licensing process in some places.

For example, Los Angeles social equity applicants are supposed to employ a certain proportion of “transitional workers,” which includes those with criminal records.

Similarly, Pure Oasis’ Evans cited Massachusetts requirements that cannabis license applicants submit their plans to help those harmed by cannabis prohibition, including people with drug convictions.

Gorilla Rx’s Keith said such equity requirements can align well with employment practices.

“If, in fact, you’re saying, ‘Listen, I’m actually going to recruit and train people from these disproportionately impacted areas,’ all of a sudden, that’s your community benefits plan,” she said.

However, Keith said Los Angeles has not enforced its social equity hiring mandate, adding that it’s important for state and city governments to ensure such decrees are fulfilled.

“That’s creating equity in the industry, and diversity, and that’s crucial.”

Solomon Israel can be reached at solomon.israel@mjbizdaily.com.