Before he became a professional “budtender,” selling legal pot in a cannabis dispensary, Elan Mu (an alias to protect his identity) had tried marijuana a few times with “hardcore stoners” in New York City. They were people who liked to get as high as humanly possible, but he didn’t like how it made him feel, so he mostly avoided pot from then on.
But after moving to Portland, Oregon, and working in a sex shop for a while, Elan had heard about the state’s legal pot dispensaries and thought his customer service background as a former flight attendant might do well in that environment. So he sent out résumés, and now, two years later, he’s a budtender and assistant manager at a dispensary called Serra.
Now he often attends parties with a small bag of goodies for his friends. Often they’re product samples this budtender has to test and describe on his company’s website. After all, if he doesn’t know what the products do, how can he sell them?
The medical aspect is what differentiates a budtender from a bartender
A budtender differs from a bartender in that people often enter dispensaries not just looking for a good time but explicitly seeking cannabis as a way to treat medical issues like chronic pain, post-traumatic stress or glaucoma.
While budtenders aren’t licensed and regulated in the same way pharmaceutical techs are, customers will sometimes admit rather personal things about the physical pain they’re dealing with or the emotional conditions that make them weary of certain marijuana strains they’ve tried in the past.
“The thing about retail cannabis is it comes in so many different forms, and there are 8 million ways to use cannabis, and not everybody wants to or cares to use all of those 8 million ways,” Elan says, “but you still have to converse with the customer if you want to sell it.”
If somebody comes in and says they have herniated discs in their spine, they might request a cannabis-infused topical ointment because they don’t want to get stoned or take opiates. But a topical ointment actually wouldn’t be a good option for them because the tissues they’re trying to treat lay too deep within the body.
Instead, a knowledgable budtender would suggest an edible that will treat pain across the entire body and last a lot longer than an ointment would. A good budtender would also likely suggest an edible high in CBD, the non-intoxicating chemical property in cannabis that reduces bodily inflammation without giving users an intoxicating mental high.
The black market created by not having federal legalization of marijuana in the United States forces consumers who aren’t buying legal pot to “trust the dealer”: They have no idea what they’re buying, nor do they know the physical or mental effects it will have. Some people end up buying synthetic marijuana or weed laced with other drugs, which can cause adverse reactions and long-lasting harm.
Discrimination and intimidation in cannabis dispensary culture
Elan says that marijuana and dispensaries can seem intimidating to some people because, as with craft beer brewing, there’s a lot of technical jargon to geek out over when it comes to cannabis growing, processing, ingesting and its chemical properties. A budtender therefore needs to listen closely to the words a customer uses to judge their level of knowledge and respond in kind.
He says he hasn’t personally encountered homophobia during his time in the industry, because a lot of the growers, farm owners and shop managers are women.
“It’s not an established boys club,” he says, “and once you eliminate a good chunk of misogyny, you’re also kind of eliminating a lot of that homophobia, which has its roots in misogyny.”
But this budtender says visiting a dispensary can be stressful for trans people because visitors are required to hand over their ID, causing some dispensaries to question their gender or misgender them if they’re not savvy or sensitive to trans issues.
But with the proliferation of legal pot dispensaries in his city and state, Elan says, “You never have to deal with a budtender who is going to be shitty about how you live your life,” because you can always find a better place and make others aware of unfriendly stores.”
The cannabis closet can be the difference between life and death
Back when he was occasionally smoking pot as a flight attendant, the FAA had (and still has) strict policies on illicit drugs. Those working on a plane aren’t able to use cannabis because the FAA tests at random, especially if you’re aboard a plane flying to a country with legalized marijuana.
“So it was one of those things,” Elan says. “You didn’t get too public about it, because if it got back to the wrong person, you’d be called in for a drug test.”
While Elan is currently open about his job as a budtender and his use of legal pot to his friends and family, he’s aware that his job is built on the backs of imprisoned black and brown people who helped establish the marijuana industry’s customer base.
“It’s something that on an individual level, we’re all kind of working on, especially shops like mine,” he says. “We make sure to hire as many people from different ‘disfranchised groups’ as we can. Portland being such a white city, it’s easy to think there are no brown people in cannabis, but there are quite a lot.”
“From the political side of it,” he continues, “everyone needs to get involved with making sure there’s traction for business owners of color, and on expunging criminal records and legal records.”
He adds there are people who are still trying to fight marijuana charges, even in states that currently allow legalized cannabis. But he also says that individual shops should be aware of this and do what they can to equalize the playing field.
“If you walk into a shop and there are no women or brown people in sight,” Mu says, “I think you’re generally justified in turning around and walking out of that shop.”