Many people who work in the emerald triangle’s underground economy think of it as just a job. However, for the majority of people outside the cannabis industry there is a lot of mystery. It makes sense, a black market is by definition veiled, secretive, and hidden in the shadows. We all know there is a lot of money to be made growing cannabis, but for outsiders that’s usually the limit of their economic understanding. There is a lot of resentment, because people feel that the rule breakers and outlaws are getting rich easily while the rest of us work hard for much less.
So how much are people making? Who’s getting rich? and how rich? To answer these questions I have spoken with dozens of people working in the industry. It’s time to bring some transparency to the black market economy that so many benefit from, yet so few understand. Given the nature of the business, hard data will probably never be available, so consider this more of a sketch than an exact measurement.
The things to understand when talking about the black market economy are scale and division of labor. For the purpose of this analysis there are basically two categories to consider when talking about size. There are the true “mom and pop” grows and there is everyone else. Think of these small growers like a sole proprietor business. They are small and one person (or family) basically does everything. These growers may contract out occasional labor for large jobs that need to be done quickly, such as trimming and planting, but for the most part they do all the work themselves. They plant it, water it, harvest it, process it and sell it all themselves. These guys work hard and make anywhere from less than $10,000 a year to upwards of $100,000 after expenses.
When it comes to larger grows people specialize, so pay varies greatly based on skill, experience and risk. In this analysis, for the purpose of simplicity, larger grows are any grow where there are employees. Understanding division of labor is crucial to understanding what people actually make in the black market cannabis economy. Positions include: Owner/financiers, managers, laborers, and specialists such as trimmers, clone makers, sales people and middlemen.
At the top of the chain are owners and investors. These are the people that own the means of production and reap the majority of the profits. These are the people getting rich. Owners or financiers might make $100,000+ per year with some people reportedly making millions. Next are the managers. These guys run the day to day operations and oversee laborers and specialists. At smaller grows they might also do some of the labor. Managers usually contract for a percentage of the final profit to be paid in cash or processed bud after harvest. Managers might make between $50,000 and $100,000 in a season.
Next are laborers. These are the guys doing the majority of the physical work: planting, big leafing, harvesting, watering, etc. Experienced laborers may get a percentage deal worth between $18,000 and $70,000 a season. Most labors work for an hourly wage. For many years $20 an hour was the standard entry level wage although some claim to work for as little as $10-$15 an hour. From there it goes up with experienced laborers earning $25-$35 an hour and some reporting hourly rates as high as $40 or $50.
Last there are the specialists who are paid based on their output. This category includes trimmers, clone makers and people who move/sell weed. Trimmers, the workers who process buds for consumption and sale, are typically paid per pound trimmed. Rates vary but a $150-$200 per pound is standard, with higher rates occasionally offered for more difficult work involving smaller buds, mold problems or remote and difficult working conditions. A good trimmer can do 1-2 pounds a day, the best report doing upwards of 5 and the worst as little as a ½ pound. That’s anywhere from $75 a day up to $1000. Clone makers, people who produce marijuana seedlings, a process that typically takes about a month, usually sell clones for $5 -$10 apiece. Again, output is really the key, some report producing as little 20 or 30 at a time while top producers may make 100s or even 1000s.
Finally, there are the people who sell or drive weed. This is probably one of the riskiest jobs in the business and it is compensated accordingly. These specialists risk imprisonment, robbery and even death in a deal gone wrong. Usually someone who can sell weed is paid a flat rate per pound sold, typically about a hundred dollars. These people can make up to a few thousand dollars in a very short period of time (sometimes less than an hour) with the right legwork and contacts. When driving weed the pay is typically dependent on the risk which itself usually depends on the final destination. A driver bringing a pound to a San Francisco club might only get their gas covered while someone moving product to the more lucrative markets on the east coast might make between $3,000 and $10,000 in a few days.
Again these numbers are more of a sketch based on a snowball sample than a hard data set and likely do not reflect everyone’s experiences or incomes. Also this analysis only looks at the beneficiaries who are directly in the black market while there is plenty of money to be made catering to it in businesses like grow shops and high end restaurants and boutiques. Finally with legalization coming the black market is quickly disappearing and this will likely continue to drive down earning power.
Some final thoughts to consider: Many people in the business work more than one type of job. For example a laborer might also trim seasonally or sell pounds occasionally. Size also has a lot to do with how much people make and what kind of work they do. Some owners might also serve in a manager or even laborer capacity. Sometimes a single worker may be given a percentage to basically do everything at a “scene” for a season. In the black market cannabis industry reward is usually closely associated with effort and risk. Like most businesses the people at the top and the ones operating at a larger scale tend to make the most and get wealthy while the majority of the workers do not.
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