Published April 3rd, 2023 at 11:30 AM
Marcus Kerr was running his own food truck in California in 2018, when he parked by a marijuana dispensary one day.
“I just ended up meeting the owner of this company, and they had my food,” he said. “They said, ‘Hey, can you infuse this?’ Then I started working for the big guys.”
Kerr began creating edible recipes in a California lab, and he’s been in the cannabis industry since. Now he’s excited to be part of Missouri’s new journey into the recreational marijuana space.
Kerr moved to St. Louis about a month ago and joined the Luxury Leaf Cannabis Dispensary team as a specialist. Beyond a career opportunity, cannabis science is something passed down within his family.
“I’m from Jamaica, where it’s growing on the side of the mountains, so it’s in my DNA,” he laughed. “Literally it is, like in my chromosomes.”
Kerr is among thousands of people who have landed cannabis jobs in Missouri since voters approved recreational marijuana use through a constitutional amendment, which appeared on the November ballot as Amendment 3.
The job surge is best seen through the number of licenses the state approves for new employees each month — it’s quadrupled since November.
Anyone who wants to work in the industry — including owners — must get an “agent ID badge” through the state, which includes a background check.
In November, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which is charged with overseeing the state’s cannabis program, approved 264 badges. It doubled in December to more than 500 badges – and then doubled again to more than 1,100 in both January and February.
Christy Essex runs the largest Missouri-based cannabis staffing company, Se7en Staffing & Employment Solutions, and foresees the job growth continuing to shoot up throughout this year.
“Just across the board, you’re seeing an increase in need,” she said. “In the manufacturing and the laboratories even, we’ve actually been staffing for all the entities right now.”
Dispensaries statewide are struggling to keep the shelves stocked, Essex said, so some companies are also hiring temporary “project” employees to get through the “short-term crunches.”
According to DHSS, at the end of February, there were 12,970 individuals with marijuana agent IDs, up from 10,100 at the end of November.
Missouri is seen as the “darling” of the cannabis industry after reaching $102.9 million in sales — $72 million for recreational marijuana — in the first month, said Sloane Barbour, the CEO of engin, a technology platform that helps cannabis companies hire hourly workers.
And Missouri is on pace to become a billion-dollar market.
“Billion-dollar markets like Michigan, Illinois and Massachusetts employ anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000 workers in the cannabis industry,” Barbour said. “It’s enormous job growth, and it really happens quite quickly. So we are seeing customers and partners in Missouri aggressively and actively hiring.”
One potential snag in getting those positions filled quickly is a bill making its way through the state legislature that would require fingerprinting as part of the background checks for all employees.
The bill has already passed the state Senate and is expected to have an easy path in the House as well.
Essex has been in workforce development in Missouri since 2014. Around the same time, she began researching the benefits of medical use for one of her family members.
When Illinois and Missouri began embracing medical marijuana, she saw an opportunity to combine her passion for workforce development and educating people about the benefits of cannabis.
“And here I am,” she said. “So my heart’s all in it, all the way around.”
Essex helps train employees at all levels, so they know what to expect when entering the constantly evolving industry, she said.
“You can be a chemist, but what’s it’s like to be a chemist in a cannabis laboratory?” she said.
Her company spends a “tremendous” amount of time educating people about the background checks. Many people, especially minorities, she said, automatically assume if there is a background check that they won’t qualify if they have a misdemeanor on their record.
“It puts a level of fear in individuals,” she said.
The constitution states that people with a “disqualifying felony” can’t work in the industry, but it doesn’t specify what types of felony offenses. It exempts marijuana offenses that are eligible for expungement. It also says that if it’s a nonviolent felony offense, employees are in the clear if it has been more than five years since the charge.
For other felonies, “more than five years have passed since the person was released from parole or probation, and he or she has not been convicted of any subsequent felony criminal offenses,” it states.
According to DHSS, a lot of their review is subjective.
“What is written into law is then applied to each individual record, so it is a case-by-case analysis and can’t simply be determined by a checklist of potential offenses,” said Lisa Cox, a spokeswoman for DHSS, in an email to The Independent.
The recreational or adult-use of cannabis has been approved in Washington, D.C., and 21 states, and the medical use has been legalized in 39 states.
Every state handles background checks differently. In California, only owners are required to go through fingerprint-based criminal background checks, not employees. But Arizona requires fingerprint-based background checks for all employees, board members, owners and volunteers.
John Payne, founder and managing member of Amendment 2 Consultants, said lawmakers often refer to what’s known as the “Cole Memo” as the basis for how they go about this process.
In 2013, then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memo to address the rise in states legalizing medical marijuana. Payne says it essentially was an agreement that the federal government was going to leave state marijuana programs alone, as long as they meet certain conditions.
“One of those conditions was basically preventing people from organized crime from getting into the marijuana business,” Payne said. “It depends on what the background check is for, right? If it’s for people that have that sort of background, that would be reasonable.”
Since Dec. 8, when Amendment 3 went into effect, DHSS stopped requiring fingerprinting for the ID badge applications of employees.
“You have to attest to not committing disqualifying offenses,” Essex said. “Right now, we’re able to get people to work within a 48-hour time period.”
Adding in the fingerprinting process, she said, takes that up to 14 days to get an employee to work.
Like California, Missouri’s adult-use law through Amendment 3 only requires owners to go fingerprint-based background checks, according to DHSS.
However, the 2018 constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana — which was on the ballot as Amendment 2 — still requires all owners, employees and contractors to go through this process for medical marijuana, Cox said.
A measure, sponsored by Republican Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer of Parkville, would revert back to the original fingerprinting process before Amendment 3 went into effect. The language was added as an amendment to a bill regarding background checks for school employees, which will be heard in a House committee on Tuesday.
The measure has the support of the Missouri Cannabis Trade Association, which represents cannabis professionals and business owners.
“The bill proposes the same level of background check requirements for all facility owners, employees and contractors regardless of the type of facility licensure,” Cox said.
Essex said the challenge she sees is that there weren’t enough vendors that take the fingerprints to keep pace with the employees for medical marijuana, particularly in the larger cities like Kansas City and St. Louis.
“Hopefully if they do implement the fingerprinting again,” Essex said, “there’ll be more providers in the state of Missouri that will be able to deal with a large quantity of candidates.”
Columbia-based attorney Dan Viets, who helped write the language for Amendment 3, said he doesn’t remember anyone intentionally removing the fingerprint requirements for employees from the recreational marijuana program.
But he believes it should be left out.
“The motivation, frankly, was to draft something that would meet the concerns that some voters might have about people with criminal history being involved in the industry,” he said of the 2018 constitutional amendment. “If we had to do it over, we might not have required it for medical employees either.”
During a Senate floor debate, Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, said the fingerprinting measure was “a federal requirement.”
“So it’s putting us in line with federal regulations,” she said, regarding the amendment on her background checks bill.
She was likely referencing the Cole Memo, Payne said, because the federal government doesn’t regulate marijuana at all.
“There’s $32 billion worth of commerce happening … right now in the U.S. that is all technically federally illegal — racketeering of the broadest scale,” Barbour said. “So what that means is that state legislatures … are trying to figure it out as they go. This is pretty uncharted territory.”
This story first appeared on Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration.