Phoenix marijuana convention draws job seekers, entrepreneurs

More than 2,000 people attended the inaugural Southwest Cannabis Conference and Expo at the Phoenix Convention Center this week. (Photo by Curtis Spicer/Cronkite News)

More than 2,000 people attended the inaugural Southwest Cannabis Conference and Expo at the Phoenix Convention Center this week.

Some came to hawk their products. Some came to learn more about the future of the cannabis business. And some came to find jobs.

Culinary student Lyberty Wester said she picked up business cards from area dispensaries that make chocolate products because she’d like to become a chocolatier. But her options are limited in Arizona.

“It’s a little more difficult to think about even trying to be a cannabis chef because it’s a specific product, and that product isn’t legal (recreationally),” she said.

Arizona voters in 2010 passed the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, which allows people with certain medical conditions to use medical marijuana after obtaining a doctor’s recommendation.

In 2014, the department estimated marijuana sales generated $112 million in revenue, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

The industry will continue to grow as more people obtain medical-marijuana cards. As of September, the state had more than 82,000 qualifying patients, according to the department. And two pro-legalization groups have launched efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016.

Since the state has capped the number of dispensaries – there were 85 as of 2014 – experts have steered those interested in the industry toward ancillary businesses.

Steve Hofmann, partner at Colorado-based organic products communications firm Compass Natural, said people who want to become part of the cannabis industry should consider jobs unrelated to the handling and processing of marijuana.

“You’ve got data analyst, graphic designer, construction, installer, lawyer,” Hofmann said. “These cannabis lawyers of today will be the judges of tomorrow. You’ll have delivery drivers today, and delivery pilots tomorrow.”

Hundreds attended an issues and opportunities seminar on Monday to learn about finding jobs.

Medical marijuana by the numbers (2014):

  • Dispensaries opened: 85
  • Registered dispensary agents: 1,506
  • Total number of active medical-marijuana cardholders: 63,417
  • Total amount of marijuana sold: 9.14 metric tons
  • Total estimated revenue: $112 million
  • Source: Arizona Department of Health Services Arizona Medical Marijuana Act End of Year Report for 2014

Genifer Murray, a freelance cannabis lab consultant based in Denver, said it’s important for job seekers to set themselves apart and act professionally.

“When you apply for a job you don’t say, ‘Oh, I love pot and that’s why I want to work for you,'” she said.

The event had about 160 exhibitors, said Demitri Downing, an Arizona-based policy consultant and organizer of the event.

He said he isn’t too concerned when it comes to the high – and often controversial – hurdles of opening up dispensaries.

Instead, Downing said he wants to shift the conversation about cannabis toward enterprising and entrepreneurship opportunities. Since the industry lacks established trade schools or university classes, Downing said the convention served as a place to pitch ideas for ancillary services unrelated to the cultivation of cannabis.

State Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Mesa, toured the displays with a crowd to gather information about how cannabis is tracked. Downing said this kind of political interest signifies growing credibility of the industry.

“The consumption of marijuana exists no matter what the government does about it,” Downing said. “How are you going to handle that situation? Hundreds of thousands of Arizonans are asking themselves that.”

Some of those Arizonans stopped by the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws tent to sign ballot initiatives to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes. The two initiatives, one sponsored by the Arizonans for Mindful Regulation and one by the Marijuana Policy Project, were both available to sign.

Elaine Neumann, a volunteer who signed both initiatives, said she suffers from digestive problems. About 10 years ago, she started using cannabis to ease symptoms. She said the professional medical community is beginning to take cannabis more seriously.

“There’s been a more positive light put on it now that people know what the benefits are,” Neumann said. “There’s enough of it out there now that people are starting to believe.”

Neumann said she was excited to see a group of registered nurses attending the event.

“It means people think we’re becoming legitimate,” she said.

Cronkite News reporters Will Sowards and Yahaira Jacquez contributed to this article.