How Legalization Changed My Budtender Job — For The Worse

Valentine’s Day marks an occasion filled with saccharine Hallmark cards and the overcapitalization of love. The dispensary I worked at opened its business to recreational cannabis consumers on Valentine’s Day of this year. The line to purchase weed was so long that it stretched out the front door and wrapped around the building. The reactions from my regulars were anything but sweet.

Jaw after jaw dropped as medical-use customers saw the 30 percent increase in their purchase total for five grams of flower. Their 50-buck vape cartridge easily turned into a $70 purchase after tax. “But I thought they only taxed recreational users,” the customers complained.

“Even with my recommendation, the tax is that much?”

“Yes,” I answered. “With the new laws, everyone is taxed. Medical users get taxed less.”

“How much is the tax?”

“It’s 35 percent for recreational users in Los Angeles County, and it’s 30 percent for medical users.”

“Thirty percent?!” The customers always asked the question as if they were singing karaoke, enunciating each syllable with a unique sing-song tone. Their voices would crack at the end of their sentence. “Then I only get a five percent tax break? Why is it so much?”

I’d tell them, in slight deflection, that every county is different. “LA County and the state are taxing the growers, manufacturers and distributors, and it’s getting passed down to us. All the companies need to change their labels and packaging to be compliant with childproofing, and it’s costly.”

I told them my canned answer to make the nonsense seem logical. Never mind the high costs of permits and licensing. I phrased the response in a way that was more relevant to the consumer, trying my best to say it in a gentle, apologetic tone.

But I too didn’t understand why sales and excise tax were so high. I felt like I had to open a history book or type “end of alcohol Prohibition” in my browser’s search engine. Did they charge this much tax for alcohol at first?

What I really couldn’t figure out was why a chunk of the tax money was going to law enforcement. What about spending some of the money to better public education or fix roads in low-income neighborhoods? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, not when the new prices were dragging people of color and the few homeless that visited our dispensary back to the black market.

These were the very people the police would target for cannabis use and possession. I had to hold back my emotions and remain calm. Nothing could get in the way of providing the best customer service to the dispensary guests.

“I wish we never legalized it,” medical consumers would say as they laughed off their guilt for ever having said it in the first place. Or were they laughing off the remorse for having voted to legalize cannabis? Even though I hated where the taxes were going, I didn’t wish that we’d voted against cannabis legislation.

I believe legalization is one step toward general acceptance of the medical benefits of cannabis and one step toward decriminalization of the people I’m honored to call my community. The fight for the freedom to medicate with medical marijuana kept me coming back to work.

In spite of my passion, my days as a wellness advisor became more stressful. Every single day turned into a challenge as we adapted to a changing clientele and even bigger workload. We also saw a more significant trend in newcomers.

Since Valentine’s Day, I saw fewer familiar faces, since they could no longer afford their meds. I’d buzz a lot of people into the establishment, and I’d know what kind of customer they were right away.

After I’d welcome first-timers into the dispensary, they’d slowly walk through the hallway and approach the lobby. But instead of nearing my desk, they would linger in the doorway. They would never say anything. They would simply stare at me.

Beckoning toward my body, with a smile I’d say, “Come on in! How may I help you today?”

“This is my first time.”

Clearly.

“OK,” I’d say, still smiling. “May I see your ID?”

Most of the new first-timers never read an article on weed-shop etiquette. Later in the day, I wouldn’t hear the end of it from my co-workers, who would complain about their lack of tips.

First-timers don’t know that their local budtender is like the neighborhood bartender or barista, the main point of difference being that, sometimes, the person we’re serving tells us they are terminally ill or living with cancer. We provide a lot of emotional diligence and cater cannabis to their needs. It truly is a labor of love.

But we also appreciate being thanked in cash for our hard work.

The other reason why we weren’t getting tipped anymore was — you guessed it — our regulars didn’t prepare themselves financially for the 30 percent tax. Bye-bye, tips. Hello, cranky wellness advisors.

I couldn’t blame my co-workers for their newly grouchy states of mind, though. After all, we were dealing with a lot of change, enraged regulars, an oblivious new crowd, and a million new rules that our management and Los Angeles County had enforced. We handled it all with a pay cut. It was a lot, but we had to bounce back.

As a consequence, we doubled our team and scheduled 6 a.m. training sessions for both new and seasoned employees. Cannabis industry educators taught us everything, from product training to budtender training to pre-roll packaging training. The management discussed renovations and brought in a new point-of-sale system.

Thank goodness for iPads! I was never so happy to have a tablet in front of me. I no longer had to work on my awful penmanship for my order tickets. My manager had often struggled to read my numbers and product names when she was calculating the total tender at the end of an 11-hour shift.

“My fingerprint got scratched off,” one co-worker complained as I entered the tiny hallway-turned-makeshift-product-storage-room that led to the manager’s office. Our childproof exit bags had sandpaper patches on one of the exterior corners of the plastic. We’d rub these patches between our thumbs and index fingers to open the zip-lock.

“Oh, from the exit bags,” I answered.

“Yeah, and now the clock-in-clock-out finger reader won’t recognize my fingerprint. It’s sensitive,” she laughed. I didn’t care. I was just glad we had a machine to track our hours now, and relieved we finally got our proper breaks.

When I first started working at my dispensary, I’d work 11 hours straight with only one 15-minute meal break. Yes, we were unionized, but the Budtenders Union didn’t know anything about our illegal lack of breaks, because no one had ever mentioned it. It’s difficult for a union to fight for their members’ rights when their members don’t even know what their rights are.

But who could blame a mom-and-pop operation for not having all their business systems in place? That’s why, I assumed, my shop waited until the very last day of our grace period to become fully compliant with our products and our packaging. Why start pre-packaging all the flower now, when we can just upset our old client base later?

Aside from my passion for fighting for the federal legalization of cannabis and the humbling honor of helping the neighborhood population heal itself with plants, my co-workers were the reason I loved working as a budtender. Smart and compassionate young women gave their best customer service to people who wanted to get better or have fun. They encouraged each other and themselves to be the best versions of themselves they could be.

It was a privilege to work with people who care about the wellbeing of everyone around them. We encouraged each other to do a good job, and we looked out for the team’s best interest. If one of us were hungry, then we’d give them our food. After work, we’d share pre-rolled flower and concentrates without asking for any in return.

“What kind of flower is this?” one of my co-workers would ask.

“It’s a sativa.”

“Oh, no thanks. I can’t smoke sativa at night.”

“I got you,” another co-worker would pipe up. “This one is an indica,” she would inform as she lit another joint.

If it weren’t for the love of this beautiful plant, then I would have probably quit the day I read on a government website that as a budtender, I was entitled to overtime and proper rest and meal breaks, something my employment wasn’t providing. Instead of resigning, I brought up my outrage with my union. I forgave and let go, so I could stay connected to the many forms of cannabis my dispensary was selling.

It was so much fun to learn about different strains of flower and how we can consume the herb and its byproducts. I never thought I would grow to adore vaping after being an avid smoker for a decade. Despite swearing off these activities, I started dabbing and consuming edibles, even after horrible first experiences.

Hearing about how this medicine has helped so many different people and how it gave them pleasure inspires me daily. It’s given me a greater appreciation for premium bud than in the 10 years I’d been consuming it. Many people have thanked me for helping them find their medicine, but as clichéd as a Hallmark card as it may sound, it’s them who’ve helped me, more than they could ever know.

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