A push to prepare a new cannabis workforce despite the industry’s slow start in New York State

A push to prepare a new cannabis workforce despite the industry’s slow start in New York State

Shelly Wolanske and Chris Van Dusen, founders of Empire Hemp Company, which is a New York State licensed cannabis processing facility, talk about what they look for when hiring employees and the types of jobs that the growing industry will need.

Creating a brand-new industry from the ground up is no small task. Yet that is what New York State is doing with the cannabis industry.

It hasn’t always been a smooth ride. Late last year, litigation temporarily derailed Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary licenses in Western New York and four other counties, preventing the first legal cannabis stores from opening there.

Growing workforce

Carson Daley thanks cannabis flower buds as workers prepare a batch for packaging at Empire Hemp Co. in Batavia.

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That means local cannabis growers’ excitement about harvesting their first legal crops was tempered by their inability to sell their product to anyone in Western New York. It sent them scrambling for ways to preserve and process their plants, and looking to make new relationships with potential customers elsewhere in the state.

But New York also had the benefit of watching how other states and countries have handled the job of legalizing cannabis. It has been able to study which approaches have been most effective and which pitfalls should be avoided.

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“Having studied the emergence of global cannabis markets over the past decade, it is deeply exciting to see New York truly breaking new ground,” said John Kagia, director of policy at the state’s Office of Cannabis Management.

ECC Cannabis Science program

Adjunct professor Amy Glaser gives a lesson on chromatography during “Biotechnological Techniques,” one of the courses in the new Cannabis Science program at Erie Community College.

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To seed the industry with the necessary expertise, several colleges have begun offering cannabis education programs catering to the cannabis business. Erie Community College and Niagara Community College each received a portion of a $5 million grant from the state to help create credentialed courses that provide pathways to employment in the cannabis industry.

Even though the state has had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes and successes of those that have come before it, it has also gone out on a limb to prioritize social justice and make it a pillar of its comprehensive framework, and a North Star guiding its policy actions.

Training for the future

Becca Lopez, of Clarence, records data on an experiment during a lab for “Biotechnological Techniques,” one of the courses in the new Cannabis Science program at Erie Community College.

Derek Gee/Buffalo News

Damian Fagon, chief equity officer of the state’s Office of Cannabis Management, said the agency has kept marginalized citizens top of mind from the beginning and will continue to do so as the industry develops. That’s how it has managed to launch the legal market with small farmers and dispensaries owned and operated by those most harmed by the war on drugs.

“New York has a lot to be proud of. This is incredible progress and stands miles apart from all other adult-use markets in the nation,” Fagon said.


A budtender picks up cannabis flower buds and places them on a scale with large tweezers while preparing an order for a customer at the Lab dispensary on the Seneca Nation’s Cattaraugus Reservation. Budtenders here take an online certification through Leafly to learn how to match their customers’ preferences with the different strains of cannabis.

Derek Gee/Buffalo News

That New York’s industry had such a unique result, Fagon said, is because it was guided by social justice tenets every step of the way.

“The modern cannabis industry that has emerged in the wake of prohibition is one characterized by steep barriers to entry that reward privileges and stifle opportunities,” he said. “Simply put, it’s not easy to jump in, to get the necessary capital to start a business to launch a dispensary and generate widespread generational wealth. New York is bucking that trend.”

Ready for labelling

Carson Daley places a tray of freshly sealed containers of cannabis flower onto a rack for labeling at Empire Hemp Co. in Batavia.

Derek Gee/Buffalo News

Legal cannabis industries across the country are dominated not by small local businesses, but by multi-state corporations. It’s something New York is trying not to duplicate. It changed course by expunging criminal cannabis records and prioritizing New York-based applicants with past convictions for CAURD licenses. It will also give New Yorkers a two-year head start in the cannabis business before opening the market to businesses from outside the state.

“We’re making sure our cannabis industry reflects the strength and resolve of the people of this state,” he said. “We aren’t hiding from the dark history this plant has played in our state. We’re shining a light on it and moving forward together.”

Learning as they go

Founders and co-owners Shelly Wolanske and Chris Van Dusen discuss the consistency of their terpene extract as they fine tune their process with technicians installing equipment in their extraction lab at Empire Hemp Co. in Batavia.

Derek Gee/Buffalo News