When medical marijuana was legalized in Puerto Rico through a 2015 executive order of former Alejandro Garcia Padilla’s administration, lawmakers and advocates saw it as an economic opportunity for the Archipelago.
Back then, hundreds of citizens decided to get certified, either as patients or as industry professionals.
One of them was local industry leader Jean Manzano, a 30 year old college graduate who has worked with cannabis for six years.
Although he says he cannot be grateful enough for the laws passed in favor of medicinal cannabis, he acknowledges there is still a long way to go for this industry’s professionals and business owners.
By Cristina Ramirez Doval | Special Report
Since its approval into law in 2017, the medicinal marijuana industry in Puerto Rico has faced several challenges: hasty changes in government regulations, the inability to work with federal banks and a hiatus on the number of applicants interested in becoming patients.
However, industry leaders remain hopeful, an observation that is evidenced by the number of dispensaries that continue to open, and the testimonies of those who have been working with cannabis for years.
Manzano has tried out different roles within the industry during this time. His first starting role was in manufacturing, selling homemade edibles. He also worked as lab manager in Novacan Labs, which upon opening, was the only laboratory responsible for quality control in cannabis products. Recently, he offered consulting services to two founding partners who opened their own dispensary in the San Juan metro area. In this position, he oversaw employees from different ranks.
“I think that for young people, it’s more than just smoking and feeling the effects of THC [contrary to popular belief], it’s about all the conditions cannabis can help treat and how they can work with patients and explain each product’s properties in order to help them find the best fit for their individual condition, and in the form that best works for them,” Manzano said.
There are downsides to working in this industry, some of which the young leader has been able to identify.
According to Puerto Rico’s Medicinal Cannabis Regulatory Board, every employee needs to have an occupational license to be able to work in a dispensary, including receptionists and security guards. Trimming technicians, dispensary technicians, manufacturing staff, and managers need to have this license, along with a two year or four-year degree.
“It’s sad because, in the case of a budtender (dispensary technician), they have to pay around 500 dollars a year to become licensed, plus a yearly license renewal, and in return, they only earn eight or nine dollars an hour,” Manzano said.
He mentioned the business model built around dispensary technicians is deeply flawed. Manzano has noticed firsthand that some dispensary owners were previously business owners in a different type of industry. They are interested in making a profit, he says, but are not entering the field with the right mentality.
According to Manzano, this is extremely detrimental to the industry. He indicated that while he understands turning a profit and recovering investments are important factors to consider, dispensary owners who only think about profits can harm the industry’s safe practices.
For one, if each dispensary’s only purpose is to sell, budtenders may not take into account each patient’s health issues and needs when recommending a product. And also, dispensary employees who do not feel appreciated or well compensated will move on, a turnover which is bad for business and bad for patients who put their trust in a specific budtender to guide them through the selection of products.
“I’ve sat through some of the training that budtenders receive, and they literally have no idea what they’re selling to the patient, they have a linear way of thinking in regard to each patient’s condition and what product to recommend,” he said.
He further explained that this is because the courses taken by applicants -some of which he has taught- are not enough. “If I worked in the Regulatory Board, I would enforce a rule that makes budtenders take science or research courses, without asking for a specific degree, I think a good budtender has to be someone who is always willing to learn something new, but on the other hand, I would encourage dispensary owners to consider better compensation for those employees,” he pointed out.
But would it be possible to even consider such changes, according to the cannabis industry’s current employment landscape?
Doctor Indira Luciano, an Economy professor from the University of Puerto Rico, has overseen the economic statistics of medicinal marijuana since its establishment in the Island. Despite the optimism shown by advocates regarding patient and employment growth, the data Luciano and one of her students collected in 2020 is not so hopeful.
New jobs have been created since cannabis law reform, and these new positions certainly didn’t exist before. Many job seekers were attracted to the new opportunities and a community has formed thanks to the opening of laboratories, dispensaries, manufacturing, and agriculture. But compared to other industries in Puerto Rico, it is a very small amount.
According to Luciano’s research findings, in 2020 the cannabis industry accounted for 282 direct jobs in the crop sector, 280 in manufacturing, and 2,216 in dispensaries. This adds up to a total of 2,778 direct jobs, and if we add 6,411 indirect jobs and 2,219 induced jobs, we get a total of 11,408 jobs. All other job fields accounted for up to 986,000 direct jobs in 2020, which is why employment in the medicinal cannabis industry was classified as low, even more so if only direct jobs are being considered.
As for the possibility of increasing the number of certified patients, Luciano estimated it wouldn’t increase by much, thus making little or no impact on product demand. “The types of conditions that are considered certifiable for a patient to start using cannabis is broad, which in turn, makes medicinal marijuana very accessible in Puerto Rico,” she pointed out. Since most people have conditions that can be treated with cannabis, there are basically little restrictions, so every person interested in getting certified for medical use most likely has already obtained their license. The number shouldn’t increase or decrease by much in the foreseeable future.
“Every state and territory that has legalized medical cannabis lacks authentic data for the number of users, because usually the patient shares the product with other people, and the latter won’t feel the need to get certified,” Luciano added. This is yet another contributing factor as to why the number of patients is likely to stay the same, since such users can get the product from someone else, without the need of a license or a trip to the dispensary.
While the medicinal marijuana industry in Puerto Rico has created new professions in different types of fields, the employment rate is small compared to what the public and many advocates were expecting. Statistics show that it has helped increase some economic activity when it comes to indirect and induced employment, however, it is still less than what other industries have contributed.
One thing is for certain, for people like Manzano, the legalization of medicinal cannabis in Puerto Rico has opened a door to career opportunities in the fields of research, manufacturing, and commerce while also seeing the growth of a community of patients who can now openly talk about which hemp-based products best help treat their ailments.
This is what I think
Puerto Rico’s medicinal cannabis industry has faced several challenges: hasty changes in government regulations, the inability to work with federal banks and a hiatus on the number of applicants interested in becoming patients. However, industry leaders remain hopeful, an observation that is evidenced by the number of dispensaries that continue to open, and the testimonies of those who have been working with cannabis for years.
Thanks, Ely Shemer