What I Learned In My Year As A Budtender

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I felt somewhat embarrassed that my first job out of college was as a budtender. Not that I wasn’t grateful for such a cool job, but I held a grudge about graduating college into a global pandemic with a degree in journalism that I wouldn’t be using (shocker). I felt I was disappointing my parents by not doing something more meaningful.

A year later, having recently left my full-time job as a budtender for one in journalism, I have bittersweetly accepted that it was probably the most meaningful thing I will ever do. Though I am excited to use the degree that I went into debt for, I will desperately miss budtending and the responsibility that came with it. 

Budtending taught me a lot about not only cannabis itself, but the complexities of the industry. What I thought was going to be an easy, relatively thoughtless job was anything but. 

I thought my career as a stoner in college equipped me with the knowledge I needed to sell weed in a medical cannabis dispensary, but I was so laughably wrong. 

If you, like me, didn’t know this already—cannabis is a wildly complex plant containing different compounds that each contribute to its medicinal benefits in different ways. There are about a million (and counting) different ways to consume cannabis and countless strains to pick from, each eliciting different effects on its user. 

Good budtenders (like the incredible coworkers who trained me, shoutout to Harvest in Towson) will learn the nuances of each cannabinoid and terpene found in the plant and the best method of administration to achieve a desired effect. The job I minimized as “selling weed” had me studying after shifts, taking notes and memorizing the names of terpenes: limonene, caryophyllene, pinene, myrcene, terpinolene… 

I quickly realized the immense responsibility that comes with helping people find the right cannabis product that they can use as medication for whatever they are seeking relief from in their lives. Because Maryland is a medical cannabis market, those wishing to purchase cannabis need to receive a certification from a doctor. For that reason, we called our customers “patients,” and were expected to treat them as such. 

Because most of the people coming into the dispensary were using cannabis for a specific reason, budtenders considered ourselves unofficial pharmacists. However, unlike the pharmacists we compared ourselves to, we play a big role in deciding what “medication” to prescribe. 

And because cannabis treats everyone differently (and everyone treats cannabis differently), a budtender’s recommendations must vary based on the customer.

Of course, there were your textbook stoners. 

However, most of our patients were older than 60 who were recommended cannabis by their doctors as treatment for a variety of different ailments. A lot of your job as a budtender in a medical market is teaching cannabis newbies about their options, the corresponding benefits and most importantly—how to dose properly. You do not want to get a 75-year-old too high. That can be a legitimately terrifying experience for a rookie and they will be discouraged from trying new cannabis products that could provide them incredible relief. 

But besides the stoners and old folks, the rest of the customer pool was wildly diverse. There is not a single type of person that I did not encounter working in a dispensary. This included: 

  • Cancer patients using cannabis to mitigate symptoms of their treatment—or even using cannabis as treatment itself. 

  • Moms and dads that were visibly disheveled while trying to survive virtual learning who found cannabis made them a more patient, empathetic parent. 

  • Veterans struggling with PTSD who have to pay for expensive cannabis out of pocket since the V.A. won’t cover it. 

  • Individuals who were at one point incarcerated for cannabis that struggled to find employment as a result, despite now being able to purchase it legally. 

  • Everyday human beings who struggled with everyday human problems like anxiety, depression, general work stress, etc..

Everyone had different reasons for using cannabis and in my book, every reason is valid. 

Because truthfully, It is very difficult to distinguish between “recreational” and “medical” use of cannabis.

Even if someone was recommended cannabis by their doctor for some medical ailment, a lot of strictly medical patients end up truly enjoying the process of finding the right product and quite frankly, enjoy getting high. 

On the flip side, hardcore stoners who come into the dispensary seeking the most potent products will learn about the medicinal applications of different strains and end up changing the way they use cannabis. The same people who were initially just trying to get as high as possible are now asking for strains that aid with pain, focus, anxiety, insomnia or whatever specific relief they require. 

Like me, for example. I will declare, unashamed, I love smoking weed. I think it is super fun, for lack of a better word, and find true enjoyment in both the selection and consumption process. I also use it to treat OCD, anxiety and the chronic inability to focus or relax—things I have struggled with my entire life—and found relief from in cannabis. I’m someone whose cannabis use falls in both the recreational and medicinal categories. 

And the medical applications of cannabis are truly difficult to understate. At the risk of sounding incredibly corny, cannabis really is a miracle drug. 

I served countless patients who were using cannabis as an alternative to opioids for whatever surgery/injury/chronic pain they struggled with. One of my patients had a severe spine condition and transitioned from a ridiculously high daily dose of oxycodone to exclusively cannabis, which provided the same pain relief without the groggy, disorienting, and potentially addictive properties of opioids. 

Not to mention, cannabis actually has the ability to fight cancer. I struggled to believe this was true at first and never would have considered this a possibility if I didn’t meet multiple people who would not have survived cancer if it wasn’t for cannabis. 

My own manager used Rick Simpson Oil (RSO)—the most potent, purest form of cannabis oil you can buy at the dispensary, most commonly used for cancer treatment—to put herself into remission for stomach cancer. She was in her early 20s in hospice care, dying, despite a full round of chemo and radiation. In a last ditch, nothing to lose effort—she tried the RSO regimen, and it worked. She has been cancer-free ever since. 

Indeed, RSO was originated and named after Rick Simpson who was said to have used homemade cannabis oil to heal skin cancer spots on his arm in 2003. Anecdotal evidence suggests RSO is most effective in killing cancer cells with which it can come in direct contact with, such as skin cancer (through topical application) or stomach cancer (through ingestion). 

I will spare you a lengthier explanation about cannabinoids and their anti-cancer and tumor-shrinking properties because I don’t have any human studies to cite for you, not because there are no human cases—but because human-centered cannabis research is prohibited so long as cannabis is illegal at the federal level.

Federal criminalization prevents potentially groundbreaking research from happening that could be utilized to treat countless conditions in a medical setting. This brings me to my main point…

Cannabis laws and their enforcement have been more damaging to the general public, specifically Black and other non-white communities, than sale and use of the drug itself ever was. 

And now that it is legal (or semi-legal) in some states, cannabis is being gentrified. When Maryland licensed its first companies to grow, process and sell weed in Maryland—every single company was run by white people. The first players in the industry were so embarrassingly monochromatic that the Maryland General Assembly had to pass a separate bill allocating more licenses for minority-owned businesses in response to what was extremely valid public outrage. 

However, because the application process for acquiring one of these licenses can cost millions on its own, applicants require access to huge pools of money in order to simply apply for a cannabis business license. And because banks are prohibited from working with cannabis businesses per federal regulation, small business owners can’t apply for loans to start their operation. 

This has allowed large, multistate operators backed by hedge funds and special purpose acquisition companies to dominate an industry that should be most accessible to the same communities that were most impacted by the racist prohibition of cannabis. 

Even now as Maryland prepares to legalize cannabis for all adults, the legislative process is being influenced by wealthy players in the medical industry to ensure Maryland’s cannabis market remains small, exclusive, and inaccessible. 

If cannabis legalization is not geared towards providing reparations for the harm caused to communities by the racist enforcement of cannabis laws, its legal sales will serve only to make wealthy people even wealthier, as it has done  in Maryland’s medical industry. 

And until cannabis is legalized at the federal level and state laws are adjusted to ensure ample, diverse competition in the industry, the people utilizing cannabis to improve their quality of life will be the ones who suffer. As will the people still being arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for cannabis possession and sales nationwide. 

I recently left my job at a dispensary for a position in journalism, but I will so desperately miss budtending. Carrying around pounds of weed in bags as tall as I am never did get old. 

All jokes aside, I say that budtending was the most meaningful job I will ever have because of the perspective it gave me on the birth of the cannabis industry, which I naively assumed would be designed in a way that rights the wrongs of its troubled past. 

But also, more importantly, because I had the privilege to help people find relief through cannabis from the ailments or stress holding them back from living full, happy lives. I once helped an elderly woman who was recommended cannabis for chronic pain by her doctor and was visiting a legal dispensary for the first time. As an avid user of cannabis in the 70s, as she walked in she said, “I am so glad this happened before I died.” 

My former coworkers and I noticed an extremely common response from patients when we asked them “how are you?” after walking into the dispensary: 

They’d say “about to be a whole lot better.”

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