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What’s more, these figures are just for marijuana transactions. Hundreds of millions of additional dollars are being spent on professional services, ancillary products and other offerings. Like any industry, the medical cannabis sector needs everything from lawyers and accountants to human resources professionals, insurance specialists, and consultants. There are hundreds of other companies making packaging, equipment to extract cannabis oils from the plant, inventory software, you name it.

But the potential is so immense that many are flocking to cannabis. One day, I have no doubt we will see household brands develop. There will be retail marijuana chain stores a la Starbucks and cannabis-infused beverage brands like Coke. Major players in other industries – possibly Big Pharma and Big Tobacco – will most certainly enter the industry down the road. Marijuana companies will trade on the major stock exchanges, and they’ll have global businesses.

I should know: Many of my former colleagues, friends, and family members mentioned these stereotypes in 2011 when I accepted a job helping launch a new publication covering the business aspects of this emerging sector. In all honesty, I shared some of these concerns as well. As a long-time business journalist in the mainstream media, my professional and personal reputation was on the line. Moving from a daily metro newspaper to a “pot” publication caused some head-scratching among many acquaintances – even though I was entering a $1 billion-plus industry at the time.

That’s not to say everything is rosy.

U.S. medical marijuana sales hit an estimated $1.5 billion in 2013 – up about 15% from the year before, according to our 2013 Marijuana Business Factbook.

But here’s what is most surprising to many about the marijuana industry: It’s filled with straight-laced people who built careers – and started successful companies – in other fields. And more are joining every day.

Don’t forget: Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. The risks in the business are huge. Executives could face criminal prosecution, and investors could lose everything overnight if the federal government or local officials crack down. That’s why average interest rates on loans to medical marijuana businesses hover between 20% and 30%.

Plant-touching businesses are the most heavily regulated companies in an industry already characterized by immense oversight. To open a plant-touching business, entrepreneurs typically need to secure licenses through an application process, which can be lengthy and expensive, with no guarantee of success. Application processes for licensing vary from state to state, but there is typically a cap on how many licenses are available, similar to the way liquor licenses work.

Some states require what is known as vertical integration, in which the cultivation, processing and dispensary businesses are all managed by one company. Other states instead employ a system of specialization, in which licenses for each type of operation are kept separate and are often awarded to different companies.

How to start a business in the cannabis industry

There are a number of challenges facing cannabis businesses above and beyond those that startups in other industries face. Navigating these challenges in the early days of your business and building a foundation that allows you to adapt as regulations inevitably change will be key to your success in the cannabis industry.

Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey Cannabusiness Association, said how you establish your company in the beginning is critical to its long-term success.

Plant-touching cannabis businesses

"The consumer, whether a patient or adult-use consumer, is getting smarter and doing their own research," he added. "When people start asking questions, you need to have those answers."