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Five tips for growing and selling marijuana like a pro – from a university instructor

The developer behind a Canadian university’s online course for prospective cannabis professionals offers key advice for success in the newly legal business

A worker tends to cannabis plants. Growing marijuana for personal use or illegal sale is not the same as running a professional operation, warns Tegan Adams. Photograph: Abir Sultan/Corbis/Corbis

A worker tends to cannabis plants. Growing marijuana for personal use or illegal sale is not the same as running a professional operation, warns Tegan Adams. Photograph: Abir Sultan/Corbis/Corbis

Last modified on Wed 20 Sep 2017 19.44 BST

I f you’ve had enough of your nine-to-five’s wearying toil, perhaps a change of vocation is in order. The Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Vancouver can recommend an intriguing alternative starting this September: selling pot.

The shady-looking fellow on the corner will tell you that you hardly need a college diploma to sell weed for a living. But Kwantlen’s new 14-week online course will sculpt aspiring dealers into professionals in a robust – and newly legal – field.

The course promises to be a rigorous survey of the landscape of marijuana production and sale, educating prospective growers in everything from irrigation to marketing.

So what exactly makes for a good professional manager of marijuana for medical purposes?

I spoke with Tegan Adams, the programme’s developer and primary instructor, to get a clearer idea of what those eager for education in the discipline can expect.

1. Don’t rely on past experience

There were, of course, “various growers doing it long before it was legal” but even pot veterans find their expertise distinctly lacking. “People have done the best they can given the resources,” Adams says – but growing marijuana for personal use or illegal sale isn’t the same as running a professional operation. “I’ve noticed that there is a pretty big labor shortage in the marijuana industry,” says Adams. “That’s one of the major problems we’re facing right now: there’s no training anyone can take.”

She continues: “A lot of people have been growing for 20 years. That’s great. Chances are they are very knowledgeable about growing the plant. But when it comes to regulations, financials and everything to do with exchange, they have no idea how that part works.”

That’s where Adams and the programme come in. “Having a standardized education system is going to be important to the licensed producers and anyone doing it legally going forward.”

2. Get to know the logistics

Growing and selling marijuana the proper way is rather more difficult than simply popping a plant under a black light in your closet. Doing it right means planning to grow on a large scale – and planning to deal with large-scale problems.

“As with any agricultural crop,” Adams says, “there are going to be ongoing issues with pest management that you need to look at.” Energy consumption, too, poses challenges few people consider. “Indoor facilities especially have huge electrical bills,” Adams points out. “For a four- to five-thousand square foot place you’re looking at around $30,000 a month. That’s a lot. That’s $360,000 a year for the lights in just a small facility.”

A marijuana field. Photograph: Stephanie Paschal / Rex Features

Preparing for such eventualities is a key part of any business plan. “If you were going to grow any crop, you would sit down and make your production plan. You would look at how much money you would spend on different input, and also look at how your production and labour are going to work within regulations.” Of particular importance is the MMPR – the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, which govern the production of pot for legal use and sale in Canada.

Then there are “environmental monitoring and sanitation issues” unique to the growing of weed. “I think the main challenge,” Adams concludes, “is that marijuana is an agricultural or horticultural crop but it’s being regulated from a pharmaceutical perspective. One of the major challenges is joining the agricultural and pharmaceutical ways of doing things.”

3. Build a client base – and keep them

“A lot of people are buying marijuana,” Adams says. “There’s no doubt about that.” But does that mean the would-be marijuana seller has a built-in clientele? Not necessarily. “It’s going to be quite competitive,” she warns. “There are conglomerates who have already joined. There’s some big money involved. And I think you’re going to see a lot of it move more in that direction.”

The solution? “We need to focus on consumer satisfaction. How do you get your messaging out to your patients? How do you retain them, make them happy, answer their questions? How do you get their loyalty?” Answering those questions, Adams says, is “how you’re going to stay in business in the end”.

One advantage the educated and licensed pot purveyor has over his illegal competitors is consistency. “With legal products you know exactly what you’re getting,” Adams says. “There are pesticide tests to make sure there are no residues on the plants. If you get it from an illegal supplier, those guys aren’t allowed to test their products. You have no idea what they’re putting on their plants. You don’t know how they’re handling it. If you get it from a licensed producer, you know that it’s clean and a lot safer.”

4. Build a boutique brand

With so much money in the marijuana game, it may be difficult for the independent supplier to stand out – unless independence is seized upon as a virtue.

“The main thing that’s important is to make a boutique brand rather than a mainstream one,” Adams says. “As long as that mom and pop store is able to market to its local consumers, it will stay in business. And people in its area may even buy more than they would from, say, Advil because they know them and trust them and like their brand.”

Legal in Canada … for medicinal purposes. Photograph: Alamy

But in the end, it comes down to loyalty and marketing: “With beer and wine the marketing and branding is important but the flavours really contrast. Marijuana strains vary, but in terms of actual flavouring there may be less variation. So it has to do with branding.”

If you’ve got a good product, you’ve got to get it into your customer’s hands and have them come back.

5. Be a well-rounded grower and seller

“I’ve done a lot of consulting work,” Adams says, “and one of the main issues that I see, especially in startups, is that there’s a knowledge gap between the marketing guys and the people on the ground. The people who work in the facility really need to be able to communicate with the patients and marketing side of things, and vice versa. It’s important that both sides understand each other.”

For the prospective grower that means knowing both the production side of the industry as well as the sales: you’ve got to be as good at producing pot as getting someone else to pay for it and smoke it.

For Adams, it’s about a union of personal assets. “You need to be someone who is able to balance technical abilities and social and communications skills,” she says. “Maybe understand numbers and look at finance and know what they need, but can you then go and talk to an upset customer and know what they need, too. That’s the key. Having both skills is necessary.”

The developer behind a Canadian university’s online course for prospective cannabis professionals offers key advice for success in the newly legal business

Can You Actually Get Rich Selling Weed?

When you’re in high school and college, selling weed seems like a dream job on par with race car driver or pirate. The access to drugs ups your social cache, you make your own hours, and you can get high whenever you want. I assume that pretty much everyone between the ages of 15 and 25 has dealt drugs, or seriously considered it, or at least fantasized about the ways they would avoid the cops while raking in that sweet, sweet drug cash. I would sell only to trusted classmates and refuse to talk business over phone or computer except by way of an elaborate code that might fool cops and parents. All in all, a perfect plan.

So why doesn’t everyone cash in? Well, to begin with, even though the people I bought weed from as a teenager were far from cool or tough in the traditional sense, they clearly had some kind of savviness or street wisdom that I lacked. I have no idea where they were getting their drugs from, but I assume at some point dealers have to handle interactions with sketchy people who are either their suppliers or their suppliers’ suppliers. Every dorky kid slinging dime bags at the Jewish Community Center is only a few degrees of separation from a dude with a gun.

Nevertheless, even in hindsight, the weed merchants of my youth appear to have gotten off scot-free. As far as I know, no one I ever bought from got arrested, or even suspended. In my mind, selling weed would have enabled me to save more money than I did through my grunt labor at Panera Bread, Firehouse Subs, Pollo Tropical, and a litany of other fast food restaurants.

But were any of those dealers I knew making any real cash? With so many weed dealers roaming America’s campuses and 7-Eleven parking lots, is the market too crowded? And has the loosening of weed laws helped or hurt dealers looking to get rich? To find out, I hit up people in both the illegal and legal marijuana trades to see who—if anyone—was cashing in.

I started with a college student I’ll call Darren. The Manhattan native got into selling weed two years ago when he was behind on rent. He and a friend pooled together $120 each and bought an ounce from an old high school buddy, then went to Ace Hardware, bought some baggies, and started offering delivery for orders as low as $15.

Because Darren was wiling to haul ass around NYC for the tiniest amount of money, people started hitting him up slowly but surely. The fact that he doesn’t smoke made it easier to turn a profit. When he and his partner doubled their money, they went back and asked for two ounces, and managed to haggle for a discount. Two weeks later, word had spread to other dealers in the area.

“Now this is where people started figuring out who’s entered the market,” Darren says. “Word moves quick.” Another old acquaintance sent a text offering a quarter pound of weed, and a menu of choices.

“So like I was getting shit like Blue Dream, Cookie Monster, Girl Scout Cookies, Platinum Kush, Blackberry Kush, White Nightmare,” Darren says. “I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ And he was willing to put it on the arm, which means on credit.”

The new arrangement was that Darren had two weeks to pay back the price of the quarter pound, which was easy, he tells me, since he and his friend were the only dealers selling any exotic strands in their area. About a month or two after that, another old friend texted with an offer to front an entire pound, which was about the size of a bed pillow. The friend also didn’t care about when he would be paid back.

This sort of friendliness is incredible to me, but one of the big things I learned from Darren is that most of the weed world seems to operate around credit. As he explained, though, “Why would you run off with a pound that would sell for $2,000, when the potential in the long run is worth so much more?”

The second lesson I learned was that middle-tier dealers are making a lot of their profits doing flips, or moving big amounts of weed for tiny amounts of money to other dealers below them. It seems obvious in retrospect, but they’re basically selling the fact that they have a connection.

“There’s a guy I sell an ounce to for $200,” he tells me. “He’ll literally sell the ounce to some other dude for $220, and it’s an easy $20 for less than 30 minutes of his time, so he’ll come back and do it again right away. Sometimes it feels like you’re not even selling weed.”

Darren’s been dealing for three years now, and he’s moving a pound or two every week and a half. The guy above him, he says, is moving anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds a week, but still doesn’t consider himself a kingpin, or even big-time.

Darren has no desire to get to that level; he wants to pass his business onto someone else when he graduates from college. But if he kept with it, he might come to resemble a dude I’ll call Brian, who makes big bucks running drugs as a full-time business.

Brian claims he grosses half a million a year, which comes out to about $250,000 after payroll and other expenses.

Brian’s been in the weed business for about three years and has watched it become even more lucrative in that time. A pound used to cost $4,500, but now he can get one for $3,330 or $3,800. “Retail prices haven’t changed at all,” he says. “That means a lot of people are making good money now because wholesale has gone down so much.”

On paper, Brian makes next to nothing, about $15,000 a year. He has an LLC officially set up in Delaware, where taxes are lower, and now employs an uncurious accountant and a handful of deliverymen to do the schlepping he’s grown tired of doing himself.

Brian claims he grosses half a million a year this way, which comes out to about $250,000 after payroll and other expenses. Despite this, he doesn’t consider himself big-time, either.

“Big-time guys are out in California and have connects to multiple farms,” he insists. “They fly out here, arrange things, fly back and make sure everything is packaged correctly. They do that twice a year and make a million each time and are chilling in California the rest of the time.”

Brian tells me that he knew quite a few people who had been robbed, which highlighted one of the big downsides to selling weed illegally. The thought of that looming risk, coupled with his comment about big timers having connects with Cali, though, made me wonder about the other side of the weed business—the legitimate side. Was it easier to make money selling weed the legal way?

To answer that question, I called up Anthony Franciosi, the budding entrepreneur behind the Honest Marijuana Company, who moved to Colorado from New Jersey when he was 18 to become a marijuana farmer. As he learned to grow, he worked as an irrigation specialist and did restaurant work in the resort town of Steamboat Springs.

He got his start hawking extra buds from his harvest to a local dispensary. “I found that when I would give it to them, it was just disappearing, and they wanted even more of it,” he tells me. “If I had the foresight back then, maybe I would have put some money away and got some licenses.”

Instead, he found starting a farm of his own difficult. His first opportunity came in the form of a family friend who figured Franciosi was responsible enough to entrust with a $300,000 investment. The idea was to control the product from seed to sale, eventually opening a storefront. But it soon became apparent they didn’t have the funds to build that kind of operation.

“They weren’t really happy with the product they were gonna be able to come out with using that kind of money,” Franciosi says. “Basically that whole plan just flopped on its head.”

He found a second partner from New Jersey, however, someone with a bit more capital who was willing to spend $1.5 million to build a growing facility from scratch in a rural area. It’s set to open early next month, and it will employ five full-time employees as well as some auxiliary help, like trimmers. Those workers will earn around $45,000 a year, Franciosi says, which is a pretty good deal considering those jobs don’t require a college degree.

Overhead is a lot more complicated for on-the-books businesses like his; Franciosi not only has to pay his employees, he has to fork over a ton in taxes, without a lot of the write-offs that many federally legal businesses enjoy. Still, he remains optimistic.

Much like the illegal weed industry, the legal one seems to run on Monopoly money.

“I feel like the margins are shrinking, and that the people who got into the industry early were able to realize huge profits,” he says. “I think going forward it’s still a profitable business but practices just need to get better. I want to be a boutique facility—7,000 square feet as opposed to some in the state that are 200,000 square feet.” In the end, he hopes to produce 90 pounds per month in flower and have it retail for $200 an ounce in Denver and around $300 in the mountains.

Obviously, having a backer to the tune of $1.5 million helps. What I learned from talking to Franciosi is that much like the illegal weed industry, the legal one seems to run on Monopoly money. While it’s called “putting it on the arm” in the former, it’s called “venture capital” in the latter.

Eddie Miller is one of the guys who has a vested interest in seeing small-scale entrepreneurs like Franciosi succeed. The marketing professional, who built his first website in his parents’s Long Island basement at age 16, is one of the new breed of weed enthusiasts, almost evangelical in his passion for both kinds of green. He tells me he thinks it’s not a bad idea for kids to skip college and head to California or Colorado, and that he knows a guy who just invested $4.5 into the cultivation side and hopes to make it all back in the first year, and that the most profitable sector in pot is technology—which is why he’s the CEO of InvestInCannabis.com, a company that aims to sell infrastructure to fast-growing weed companies.

The unbridled optimism, though, made me a little weary. If everyone followed Miller’s example, wouldn’t all those new businesses and all that VC cash create a marijuana bubble? And what about when a couple of companies make it huge and become the Mercedes or Starbucks of weed?

When I asked would happen to the little guys, or to people who wanted to run boutique stores, Miller replied they would simply get eaten up by something like the Apple Store of pot.

I guess that makes sense. After all, there are huge companies like Anheuser Busch InBev that swallowed up many other businesses on the way to becoming global conglomerates. Just in 2015, ABIV bought the largest independent operation in California, Heineken bought 50 percent of Lagunitas, and MillerCoors purchased most of Saint Archer Brewing. It stands to reason that the economics of the weed industry will eventually resemble those of the beer market.

In Miller’s vision of the future, selling marijuana won’t be any different than selling DVDs or paper. Presumably that’ll be nice for him and others who have gotten in on the ground floor.

“Twenty years from now you won’t go into a store and ask for a gram of Khalifa Kush Bubble Hash, you’ll ask for a pack of it, or a box of it,” Miller says. “Everything will have been sized accordingly. The measurements by which it’s sold will have changed. As soon as there’s federal legalization, the tobacco, alcohol, and pharmaceutical industries will all get into cannabis.”

Add the two inevitabilities of legalization and consolidation together, and it seems unlikely that tomorrow’s teens will even be afforded the choice of becoming either becoming sandwich artists or dime-bag-slinging outlaws. Perhaps they’ll all be working at either the Starbucks of weed or actual Starbucks.

Franciosi, the grower, says that soon most of the weed on the market will be pharmaceutical grade, and that the people with 200,000 square-foot warehouses will be forced to use pesticides and other nasty chemicals to keep up. He hopes the people who want to deal with that will be motivated to buy his stuff, which he likened to small-batch whiskey. But he also thinks the black market will probably remain an option for the foreseeable future.

“The price for drug dealers is $50 a quarter, no matter what,” he says. “That’s kind of a joke here, though. It’s like, ‘Yeah, good job, you got some for $9 a gram, and this other guy paid $17,’ but you compare the two, and one’s some smushed-up stuff that looks like it’s been in your pocket. Still, the people that I know who are local and have been here for a long time in Colorado say the store prices can’t ever compete with the underground.”

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