What The Legalization Of Marijuana Means For GIS Specialists

Job Opportunities in the Cannabis Space

Posted by Richardson Dackam on March 31, 2021 · 10 mins read

The legalization of marijuana means the removal of restrictions limiting the cultivation, distribution, and use of cannabis by the general population. About 34 states have either allowed the use of recreational or medical marijuana. The Biden Administration had plans to spearhead the legalization of marijuana, but this remains a hot-button issue. The previous administration made strides bypassing the Farm Bill Act in 2018, essentially permitting the cultivation and distribution of hemp-based products. 
What does legalization mean for the GIS specialist? Marijuana is a big business. Consider that since legalizing marijuana in 2014, Colorado has collected over $1.6 billion in taxes and revenues.  The new industry has resulted in direct demand for professionals working in the cannabis industry, either in dispensaries, farms, processing centers, or transporters. The Michigan marijuana industry employs about 18,000 workers. Many more people indirectly work in the cannabis industry, including real estate agents, graphic designers, content producers, accountants, marketers, and lawyers. 
GIS specialists have also found work in this booming industry. They mostly work as part of compliance teams, tasked with several duties, including selecting suitable sites for cannabis businesses in light of strict zoning regulations. For instance, cannabis facilities are not allowed in residential zoning districts. They must be at a certain distance from any school to conform with the Federal Drug-Free School Zone Act’s stipulations. 

For the GI specialist taking on roles in the cannabis industry, it’s not going to be a walk in the park. There are several mapping and analysis problems that need creative problem-solving through the use of tools or unique approaches to querying and presenting data.
One particular challenge has to do with the current state of zoning maps across states and municipalities. Fundamentally, a municipality should attempt to make its zoning data open and usable. Some towns do this by publishing their maps online and distributing them as PDFs, which are not fully interactive and cannot serve as input layers for GIS analysis software.
Some municipalities don’t even make this data available online, which means a trip to their planning offices to obtain data about land use and parcels. In certain instances, a small town may have published minutes of meetings on zoning ordinances but nothing concrete in the form of GIS data. It becomes a challenge, for instance, when the GIS specialist needs to analyze and identify the best places for cannabis businesses to set up shop. The ideal situation is having a zoning map available in a downloadable format, for instance, JSON. It can be used for further analysis using GIS software. 

A city may have attempted to organize its zoning ordinances into interactive and online maps using web GIS applications. If they permit marijuana, they may have gone a step further and released maps that highlight cannabis business locations, for instance, the Denver cannabis regulatory map. 

While this mapping tool will be open and available for use, it certainly has various restrictions. For instance, it may not answer various questions a GIS specialist may have when analyzing the suitability of a particular area for cannabis businesses, such as:  How far away is a particular property from a school? Which properties suitable for cannabis use are currently on sale? Currently, there is a scarcity of properties that meet local cannabis facility regulations. 

All these problems point to the need for better tools focused on helping professionals evaluate particular properties for suitability for cannabis businesses in view of existing zoning ordinances and cannabis regulations.

Current roles of GIS specialist in the cannabis industry 

GI specialists will have a wide range of roles in the growing cannabis industry. They may include: 

  • Working with cannabis advocacy groups - The GI specialist may be required to use their extensive knowledge of mapping and local regulations to create maps or generate reports to help advocacy efforts pushing for cannabis legalization. 
  • Developing cannabis maps for local governments -  As with the example of Long Beach, the city commissioned a cannabis map displaying locations of cannabis businesses along with sensitive buffers and use restrictions around schools, parks, libraries, beaches, and other sensitive locations. 

  • As part of cannabis compliance & consulting teams - Businesses hoping to set up cannabis facilities will be subject to a myriad of regulations. GIS specialists who have experience with local zoning laws from prior roles in local government may find their skills increasingly needed by compliance teams. They will work alongside other professionals, including lawyers. 
  • Cannabis construction firms - Various full-service cannabis construction firms have emerged. They help businesses set up new standard cannabis facilities by designing and building them. GIS specialists may find roles in these companies working in compliance support, developing site layouts & maps. Since location is key in real estate, the cannabis GIS specialist’s role may entail more than finding suitable locations. They also provide solutions to complex location problems, for instance, generating composite maps showcasing how suitable a site is for particular uses. 
  • Working with cannabis attorneys and real estate agents - Attorneys and real estate firms may also demand GIS input when facilitating cannabis commercial property purchases and leases. GIS specialists may contribute during the site feasibility analysis and standard due diligence process. They may work with real estate agents to discover the best sites for cannabis operations by performing analysis on local maps. They may have to design and modify GIS programs to accommodate the needs of non-GIS users such as real estate agents.  
  • Analyzing the impact of new zoning regulation laws - GIS specialists are also best suited to analyzing how proposed cannabis zoning regulations affect the geographic distribution of cannabis businesses, for instance, when a new city adopts measures to legalized cannabis facilities. Their work may help cannabis real estate agents or cannabis development companies. 

It’s clear that GIS specialists will find increased demand for their skills as new states continue to adopt measures to legalize marijuana. Working in local government and the public sector may be substituted by working in compliance teams, real estate companies, or as independent contractors in different projects. 

New Tools GIS Specialists Can Use in Cannabis Roles

Various companies have emerged to fill the technology gaps in the cannabis industry. While many systems have been developed for POS operations, sales, marketing, or advertising, there is more to be done in terms of creating tools to help find compliant properties subject to local regulations that often differ from municipality to municipality.  

HerbFront emerged earlier on and focused on helping real estate agents and professionals find compliant properties, but the company is no longer operational. 

More recently, Zonegoat has emerged as a reliable solution. It primarily helps real estate agents aggregate properties that meet specific search criteria that include property features and regulatory filters like separation distances.

Is the tool also useful for GIS specialists? Yes, because it can determine from user-defined search criteria if a particular building meets separation distance buffers. For instance, you can specify that for any property the platform aggregates, it must be 1000ft away from any schools or 500ft away from churches.  

The AI-powered platform generates a spatial map for each aggregated property showing nearby buffers. It’s meant as a quick estimate of where potential buffers may be as it’s typically generated in mere seconds. The GIS specialist may download this map in a usable format such as JSON and use it as a starting point for further GIS analysis. Note the buffers are generated from the center of the building and may not take into account the actual footprint. Therefore, buffers appear as circles on the map. 

Despite this limitation, it may reduce the time taken to analyze the suitability of certain sites for cannabis use. Using regular GIS software to generate buffers manually around sensitive locations such as schools may take considerable time. Zonegoat also promotes better collaborations between teams tasked with finding cannabis properties as it may be used by real estate agents and other professionals. 

Bottom Line -  Finding Cannabis Opportunities 

All in all, the future is bright for GIS specialists. They can expect more opportunities even working on innovative tools like Zonegoat that will make it easier to perform cannabis GIS analysis and create maps. 

Not all opportunities will come from job advertisements. GIS specialists may need to identify potential clients who may need their services to improve their workflow and meet organizational needs. Pitching directly to individuals or organizations may lead to more projects.

More gigs can be found on freelancing websites. To build experience, GIS specialists may also turn to non-profit cannabis advocacy groups and volunteer their services.

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