“I could see the till: I was making more money than the owners of the shop.”

Last year James was working at a mom-and-pop cannabis dispensary in Hamilton as a “budtender”—a customer service worker responsible for educating customers about a plethora of strains and products and keeping the shop running.

“A mixture of being a pharmacist and a sommelier,” was how one worker described the job. “You need to have this incredible understanding—we’re giving technically unofficial, psychoactive health advice.” 

James’ employers knew almost nothing about cannabis—or retail. Nor did it seem they wanted to learn.

Budtenders help customers navigate a dizzying variety of psychoactive products. Pictured here, a dispensary in Bend, Oregon.

The dispensary’s owners were part of a rush that attracted billions in investment following the passage of the 2018 Cannabis Act, which legalized recreational marijuana use in Canada. 

But the collapse James foresaw in his cannabis shop’s cash register became undeniable even to the owners by the winter. He was laid off a week before Christmas, by email.

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“I can’t say I was surprised,” James told The Breach. “In a way I was relieved.” After only two months selling strains, the stress of working for a failing business had already begun to wear on him.

Like thousands of cannabis workers across Canada, James was rattled by cannabis’s drastic boom-and-bust cycle: years of blinding growth and optimism, regardless of business fundamentals or owner experience—followed by stunning collapse. 

Adding to pressure on budtenders is consistently low pay, often only a dollar or two more than minimum wage. 

In response to the poor pay and rollercoaster economics, retail weed workers have started organizing—and over the past two years, they’ve led successful union drives that have the potential to reshape how the industry is run and who benefits.

“CEOs and executives get golden parachutes as we struggle on the front lines working for less than a living wage,” said Thomas, a budtender who helped unionize his Victoria-based dispensary last fall with a 100 per cent “yes” vote.

The Breach talked to unionized budtenders across the country about their experiences organizing retail cannabis workers in times of market turbulence. To avoid potential reprisals, they’ve asked that we not use their full names, and in some cases, their names have been changed entirely. 

Budtenders at several locations of Tokyo Smoke have voted to unionize.

Blazing hot union drives

Thomas says that the day his store voted to unionize was the first time the owners showed appreciation towards staff. “They sent out a mass email inviting us to a pizza party where they proceeded to tell us that they couldn’t afford higher wages for us.” 

But managers proceeded to tell the workers about their plans to open many new stores.

“So they’re trying to expand and get a hold on the industry without even having one operation that actually works,” Thomas said. ”I guess that kind of appeases their shareholders.” 

Union drives and workplace organizing like Thomas’s first emerged after the birth of recreational dispensaries in 2020. 

Budtenders in BC formed the first dispensary union in February 2020, assisted by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Unions quickly formed throughout BC and in Ontario. Led by organizations like the United Weed Workers and the UFCW, workers in stores like Tokyo Smoke, Superette, Clarity Cannabis, began to get organized.  

As members of UFCW 1518 and organizers with Budtenders for a Living Wage, Thomas and Kate saw major wins after bargaining their first collective agreement. Workers saw a raise in starting wages for budtenders to $19.01 per hour, medical benefits, eight paid sick days, educational opportunities, and more. Three quarters of dispensaries in Victoria are unionized. 

In Quebec, where recreational cannabis is publicly-owned, the Canadian Union of Public Employees represents over 300 workers. Those workers are currently on a general strike in response to the suspension of the union’s president and vice president, as well as 75 workers, over dress code violations.

Organizing doesn’t just offer an answer to precarious work conditions. It can also help stop or soften the impact of layoffs. Collective bargaining agreements solidify labour standards and often directly address issues like wages, benefits, and layoffs. This can act as a countervailing force against employers’ tendency to treat workers as disposable—especially as an industry turns from boom to bust.

That could mean more substantial severance packages, for example, or recall rights if jobs become available again.

Anya, an organizer with the United Weed Workers, actively helps workers organize unions and connect them with legal help.   

When fighting what she calls “cannabis cowboys”—cash-rich, knowledge-poor investors and business owners—her outlook is straightforward. “I don’t know what people are supposed to do other than organize.”

Boom-and-bust deja-vu

As dispensaries began to rapidly fill up streets in cities across Canada, the alarm bell is sounding on a speculative bubble at the retail end of the supply chain. 

In June of 2020, Ontario had only issued authorizations for 100 dispensaries. Two years later, that number is close to 1,400—with 500 more applications pending approval—with many of them in downtown Toronto. 

Applications in Ontario have begun to slow, but commentators are already warning closures are around the corner

Although retail layoffs and closures have happened intermittently throughout the dispensary boom, there hasn’t yet been a round of mass layoffs, at least not like the one seen on the production side. 

In the wake of Legalization Day in 2018, cannabis production grew at a breakneck speed, powered by venture capital and outsize investor optimism. A bubble soon formed as new players rushed to grow plants and profits as quickly as possible. 

The result was such a staggering oversupply that producers even began destroying their own weed. 

At least 500 tonnes was destroyed between 2018 and 2020—about the weight of 166 pickup trucks—in addition to six million packages of dried cannabis, extracts, and edibles. 

Earnings began to crater early on, and by 2019 investors disappeared, stock prices tumbled, jobs dried up, and accusations of inexperience and incompetence swirled. 

Between 2019 and 2021, an MJBiz Daily analysis found the cannabis industry shed 6,000 jobs, about a third of the industry’s 20,000. Most were in production, and the big five cannabis growers— Canopy Growth, Aurora, Tilray, Hexo, and Sundial—took over 70 per cent of the losses. 

With the exception of Hexo, these “big dogs” drew a total of $111.7 million from the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, while executives pocketed eye-popping compensation. 

To say the cannabis market is in flux is an understatement. Some mid-to-small producers saw double-digit layoffs, while others expanded. And though the influence of Big Cannabis remains significant, continuous losses have left them limping. Now, executives are spending on mergers and acquisitions or efforts to integrate business vertically, including by expanding retail operations.

Meanwhile, some smaller producers have, since 2020, capitalized on the mistakes of bigger firms and carved out market share, seeing some job growth as a result. 

But when a speculative bubble pops, it still stings—most of all for workers kicked to the curb. 

A retail bubble?

Some are predicting that retail cannabis will be the next bubble to pop. But how severe a reckoning depends on who you ask. 

The CEO of Sundial, for instance, says “massive” closures will threaten Canada’s dispensaries. 

Some, like Brock University business professor Michael Armstrong, paint a marginally less apocalyptic picture. He says the retail cannabis market is seeing definite saturation in specific places like Alberta, which has more than enough stores to satisfy demand. Certain neighbourhoods in Toronto, Hamilton, and other city centers are due for a shakeout, too. 

“If you’re a retailer, you should be thinking that what you have now is your reality,” Armstrong told The Breach. “And if that’s not good enough you probably want to start looking to get out.” 

Armstrong notes that we’re presently not seeing closures so much as consolidation, namely in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, the latter of which has no limit on the amount of licenses one corporation can hold. Facing tighter competition, many entrepreneurs are getting out. And those entrepreneurs are often able to find a buyer among the larger cannabis firms. 

“Over time, you’re probably going to see fewer independents and a small number of larger chains,” he said.

Companies like Fire & Flower and High Tide will likely be leading the way. The two retailers “have already established themselves as consolidators,” the Globe and Mail recently reported, and are actively buying out independent stores. 

Currently, no single firm has more than five per cent market share in Canada’s retail cannabis market. Corporations like Tokyo Smoke have an important presence, owning about 20 per cent of brick-and-mortar stores. Smaller chains and a flurry of mom-and-pop shops currently represent most of the rest of the fractionalized market.

In this diverse business landscape, retail stores vary from single shops to towering vertically-integrated corporations, like Canopy-owned Tokyo Smoke or Sundial-owned Spiritleaf. While independents hold a significant presence, the horizontal expansion of companies like Fire & Flower threaten to encroach on their market share. 

As competition drastically drives down cannabis prices, it is likely smaller, independent retailers will be squeezed not just by increased competition but by reduced revenues. 

Chains like Fire & Flower are leading the consolidation push by buying out independent stores.

Day-to-day challenges amidst the green rush

In high-saturation areas, retail workers are on the frontlines of a speculative frenzy. “We’re noticing a huge amount of people being laid off despite these companies getting money,” says Anya. “It’s pretty disgusting and staggering.”

United Weed Workers was formed during the pandemic to function as a workers’ action centre. Since 2021, they’ve offered workers support in labour board disputes, toolkits for union organizing, assistance for understanding rights at work, and a suite of other resources. They also assist with unionizing. Since launching in 2021, according to Anya, they’ve helped organize nine stores.

“We’ve had workers come to us who have shown up to work, and they no longer have a job—the owners chained up the outside and no one told them,” said Anya. “We’ve had stores that have been open for two months then close.”

James, who now works at a unionized corporate dispensary, thinks a lot of hype brought a flood of entrants into the retail space, regardless of their expertise. Some simply wanted a retirement plan, he says, or an easy payday.

“I think the media has a lot to do with it,” he said. “They gave this idea that opening up a cannabis store was going to be a license to print money. It’s not.” 

“The margins are incredibly slim and a lot of smart money saw that and stayed away.” 

As in Toronto, Victoria, B.C. has also experienced a dispensary boom. Budtenders like Thomas and Kate, with UFCW, have seen the seemingly incomprehensible growth first hand. 

“My company is planning on opening all these new stores,” Thomas told The Breach. “But I still don’t see the traction in the single store that I work at to justify opening more stores. We have two stores literally 200 meters away from each other. That was a big bet on tourist season and new customers, which again points to the fact that they don’t understand our industry: the people who buy weed the most are our daily, consistent customers.”

Kate agrees. “Instead of being like, ‘Okay, what can we do to make this one store the best store we have, they are like, ‘Okay, we open the store, we’re gonna set it and forget it, and try to open up the next one,’” she said by phone from Victoria.

“We have this idea that capitalism is healthy if you’re opening new stores,” said Thomas. “Obviously a business must be succeeding if you’re opening up new stores. I think that’s the logic. I think they all want to get as many stores open as they can before the government says stop.” 

Brock University’s Armstrong notes that corporate chains might have a higher tolerance “for having one or two locations that will take a loss, if you think that in a year from now they’ll make a profit. Some of those chains will tough it out.” Working with less capital, independents don’t have the same ability to wait it out.

On one hand, oversaturation and horizontal integration will naturally lead to some business closures and layoffs. But workers that spoke with The Breach all said that managerial inexperience and disregard have worsened already-precarious situations. 

Commentators predict the next year will be definitive for retailers, given rapid expansion and pending licenses that will soon be approved. Aside from a wave of closures, one analyst predicts up to a third of Canada’s 3,162 stores could be consolidated into bigger firms vying for market share. 

When closing, acquiring or selling, investors and business owners will pursue their immediate financial interests. Whether the next wave of closures vaporizes jobs or is more of a grind, weed workers are counting on organizing momentum to protect their livelihoods and each other. 

The future of retail cannabis remains unwritten, but a growing number of workers are clear that solidarity is their best hedge against speculation-driven instability and the trimming to come.

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