September 13, 2017 8:00 am
Updated: September 13, 2017 3:37 pm

Want a job selling legal marijuana? You face an awkward dilemma

The LCBO will run new standalone pot shops and marijuana and alcohol will not be sold together. Alan Carter has more.

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It would make for a seriously awkward job interview.

Ontario plans to have 150 publicly owned marijuana stores open across the province by 2020. They’ll be staffed by people with what provincial employees’ union chief Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas calls “good union jobs.” (Hourly wages for Ontario liquor store workers top out at over $27 an hour.)

And, as chance would have it, part of the province’s work force with years of experience in selling marijuana is about to come on the job market, as a promised shutdown of semi-tolerated dispensaries takes place.

WATCH: As marijuana legalization looms, Bill Blair backs police on recent marijuana dispensary raids

The problem, of course, is that dispensary workers’ experience with pot wasn’t acquired legally, which places them in a strange dilemma.

The more law-abiding you’ve been with marijuana, the less you’re likely to know about the product you’re hoping to be hired to sell, and the more you know about it, the less law-abiding you’re likely to have been.

“They are going to say ‘Why do you know this product so well?,'” says Toronto lawyer Paul Lewin, who specializes in marijuana cases. “Because it’s only being legalized now, it’s very difficult to discuss this product without admitting criminal activity.”

To complicate things further, many dispensary workers have been arrested in police raids since a crackdown began in mid-2016.

READ MORE: 80 Canna Clinic marijuana dispensary employees charged after raids in Toronto, Vancouver

“When you consider that there have been over 250 raids that have happened since last May, since Project Claudia, there have been a lot of these young people with criminal records,” says Jenna Valleriani, a University of Toronto graduate student who studies dispensaries.

Much depends, then, on how tolerant Ontario’s liquor store bureaucracy decides to be about the fact that many people who will want to sell marijuana legally in the future have experience selling it illegally in the past, and that in some cases that’s led to entanglement with the criminal justice system. (Dispensary workers have found themselves facing charges including possession for the purpose of trafficking and possession of property obtained by crime.)

In most fields, if your job interview starts spending time on your plea deal for possession of property obtained by crime, things aren’t going well.

WATCH: Lama Nicolas has more on Ontario’s decision to allow the LCBO to run marijuana retail shops. 

“It’s interesting to think about who, exactly, they are going to be hiring,” Valleriani says. “Are they going to have the skills that folks are used to? Some dispensaries really do know the product, and are able to talk about it in really sophisticated ways.”

“If they start putting people behind the counter that don’t know anything, or are just kind of learning but have never used cannabis, but aren’t familiar with the cannabis plant, I think that’s going to be pretty problematic.”

The LCBO runs criminal background checks on applicants, but a spokesperson would not explain how it uses the information to guide hiring decisions.

READ MORE: If RCMP can’t say how many Canadians have minor pot convictions, how will amnesty erase records?

“One really huge barrier is the fact that you need to get a criminal record check when you apply to the LCBO,” Valleriani says. “If you have a possession charge, and lots of otherwise law-abiding Ontario folks do, does that bar you from getting a job in these places where you might actually be one of the most qualified?”

Lewin isn’t optimistic.

“People who have done something for a long time know it well and have knowledge and expertise that would be useful to everybody,” he says. “Instead, we’re going to have, presumably, someone who’s in good standing at the union, who’s handed a pamphlet about cannabis and reads from the pamphlet.”

WATCH: Will B.C. follow Ontario’s lead when it comes to distributing marijuana?

Ontario finance ministry spokesperson Scott Blodgett wrote in an email that “no decisions related to hiring have been made at this time.” The finance ministry will oversee the province’s legal marijuana retail system.

“It’s still a risky thing for somebody to go in and say ‘I worked in an illegal cannabis shop, so I’m more qualified for this job,’” Valleriani says. “They’re still a government-controlled body. They could be pretty old-school in the way that they think about dispensaries, and I’m not sure that putting that on one’s resume is going to get them ahead.”

READ MORE: As marijuana legalization looms, Trudeau hints at amnesty for possession convictions

In a few cases, people with legally acquired experience with medical cannabis could possibly use it in a job application, Lewin says — medical marijuana patients, people who have worked for a licenced producer, or designated growers, people who are licenced to grow pot for a medical marijuana user.

The federal government’s main goal in legalizing recreational marijuana, the Liberals say, is to shut down illegal markets. With that in mind, Lewin says it’s just pragmatic to let some dispensary workers come in from the cold.

“People who have worked in a certain industry all their life are probably going to continue in that industry. The effect is going to be to drive the people who have worked in this industry all their lives further underground and make it less safe for those people, and those who deal with those people. It makes it less safe for everybody.”

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