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Point and Counter-point: Putting our people to work – Cannabis science jobs

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Posted: Tuesday, July 20, 2021. 4:08 pm CST.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.

By Dorian A. Barrow, Ph.D., Florida State University: At the height of the COVID Pandemic in Belize in 2020 not only was our fragile health system under serious threat, our economy was also in dire straits, with the unemployment rate in Belize reaching nearly 45%. This meant that, at that time, about one in every two Belizeans looking for work could not find work! In addition to the Country’s unprecedented high unemployment rate, the international syndicators and vultures were circling the Country’s debt to GDP-ratio economic dome. According to the last IMF country report (April, 2021), if we continue with only the Hon. Chris Coye’s and the Briceno’s Government Home-Grown Economic Recovery Plan, it will take us ten (10) years to reach the level of economic activity the Country was enjoying in 2019, that is, with its 11% unemployment rate. Therefore, if we are going to accelerate our pace of economic recovery the country desperately needs some new industries. The question that is being posed by many of the people I have been talking to is: Is the Cannabis Industry a viable option for Belize to help speed up the country’s economic recovery?

Given that the Cannabis Industry has the potential of generating thousands of new jobs, including some very high-paying ones, in three main areas namely, Cannabis Cultivation, Cannabis Processing, and Cannabis Science, the Cannabis Industry seems to me to be one of the viable needed industries for Belize if our people are going to be experiencing any form of meaningful economic recovery anytime soon! Its introduction, however, must be well thought out and all the known elements must be put in place, first and foremost a Legal and Regulatory Framework. I have looked at the draft Legal and Regulatory Framework that Hon. Kareem Musa is proposing and I think it is an excellent beginning.

One of the things that the last Dean Barrow’s UDP Administration did for us in this regard, was to start the ball rolling by decriminalizing the recreational use of marijuana. At the time there was strong and vocal opposition to this move coming from certain sectors of the society, including the powerful Council of Churches. The Council and their congregations feared that the act of decriminalizing the recreational use of marijuana would lead to the moral and ethical collapse of the society that would accelerate the country towards it becoming a failed state. That did not happen! My view is that we need now to learn from our experience with that experiment and build on it by now rolling out some new sets of legislation and regulations that would formally establish a legal Cannabis Industry in Belize, since such a new industry can create more jobs and business opportunities for thousands of Belizeans. These include lots of new high-end jobs in Cannabis Science.

These jobs range from Cannabis Laboratory Scientists, to Cannabis laboratory Technicians; from Program and Policy Analysts to thousands of Budtenders. The Cannabis Laboratory Scientists are the people who will provide analytical chemistry and microbiology testing services to cannabis cultivators and processors as is being mandated by the newly proposed laws of Belize. These types of jobs would offer long-term growth opportunities in what is projected to be an expanding market and would be for people who want to use their technical skills in this rapidly expanding laboratory sector. The University of Belize (UB), for example, has been training laboratory technologists for years beginning in 1982 with BELCAST, so, we already have people on the ground with the required technical skills to do extraction and testing work on cannabis products. Associated with this at the support level are laboratory assistants, and research scientists. In the USA today, there is a very high demand for these category of workers and they earn anything from $34,000 – $100,000 US per year.

But the Cannabis industry needs a lot more people than just cultivators, processors and science laboratory support. The industry has to be regulated and so there will be need for Policy and Program Analysts and for Equity Research Associates who will work directly with Senior Research Analysts and their teams in many aspects of the research process to support the consumer and in conducting proprietary research. These will be the people who will be supporting the country’s Cannabis Program including tax collection, annual licensing renewals, new policy implementation and staff support.

But the various products from the industry will have to be sold in stores that are licensed to sell the products, so there will be the need for thousands of sales personnel, who in the Cannabis Industry are referred to a Budtenders. Budtenders, or sales associates, are people who engage customers, educate them on your store’s cannabis products and ultimately make sales. Most if not all of the current weed sellers in the country could be trained in a relatively short time to become Budtenders, since the Budtender not only have to be welcoming, but well versed in the cannabis industry, be an expert on the product catalogue and capable of handling whatever the day may throw at them. Currently, there are literally thousands of potential Budtenders just waiting around for an opportunity like this to materialize so that they can become gainfully and legally employed.

So, as you can see, the people who will be getting the Cannabis Industry jobs comes from high and low places – from university graduates with PhDs that will be leading the policy, research and extraction processes, through degree holders with the technical skills to man the quality control laboratories, to the high school and junior college graduates who can function as laboratory and research associates. But the largest pool of workers, the Budtenders, will come from all the corners of the society including those young men and women who may have dropped out of high school early, or who may not have made it to high school at all.

But it’s not all just a walk in the park, and we have to be mindful that no industry is without its risks. Therefore, the level of risks associated with the Cannabis industry has to be looked at carefully and examined before we jump in what may turn out to be the deep end! Among the industry’s biggest risk is the current stigmatization associated with the Cannabis Industry. “Decent people” in our society do not want to be publicly associated with the industry, even though marijuana may have been decriminalized for recreational use. Secondly, there has been some on-going inertia and resistance from the Banking System to provide financial services to the industry. But most importantly one of the big fears is about how will a society like ours deal with the actual monitoring and enforcement of any regulatory framework that might be on the books. These risks have to be considered very carefully and weighed against the many and varied potential benefits that the Cannabis Industry can bring to Belize. From where I stand the benefits far out weigh the risks, and my advice to Mr Kareem Musa if he was ever to ask it, would be “Go Deh Strong”!

Please feel free to challenge any or all of the issues raised in this piece above and let’s get this discussion on the national sustainable development of the country going.

Dr. Dorian Barrow is an educator with a long history of involvement in education in Belize, having served as a Lecturer at the University of Belize, and as Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Education. Dr. Barrow is an eminent professional who is well respected both locally and abroad. He is serving as an editorial member and reviewer of several international reputed journals and has authored many research articles/books related to education. Apart from education, he is also a sports enthusiast.

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