Medical marijuana industry creates new job categories, passionate advocates
Here's a job title that didn't exist around here a couple of years ago: budtender.
That would be the person helping a medical marijuana patient select the proper strain to treat his or her ailment. It's a job that requires a mix of mundane skills such using a cash register and making change, a little science nerdism to talk about the brain's cannabinoid receptors and the like, a familiarity with terms such as "couch lock" (since stoner descriptives can creep into a serious medical discussion), a passing knowledge of agronomy to explain hybrid strains, empathy, good communications skills, and generally -- assuming the budtender has a medical marijuana card -- some firsthand knowledge.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the latter continuing education aspect, it's a job much in demand.
"Hundreds of people come in here and want a job," says Jan Cole, owner of GreenLeaf Farm, a dispensary in downtown Boulder, she says, and then amends it to about a hundred. Cole budtends herself and has hired five or six budtenders, often former patients, whose knowledge on the subject impressed her.
Industry of the future
Currently, there's no systematic way to learn about which types of marijuana work best for various disorders, so budtenders read books including the "Cannabible," search Web sites, talk to others in the business and monitor customer feedback about the effectiveness of certain strains.
Cole, who pays her budtenders between $10 and $20 an hour, says some of her best budtenders are University of Colorado students, who became patients to deal with pain from skiing or snowboarding injuries.
"They work hard. They study it," she says. "They actually do homework and write things about the strains. They're very much into it. They're people who plan on making this their lifelong career."
Cole says she knows of an architecture student who hopes to design greenhouses if marijuana becomes strictly regulated by the federal government.
A helping profession
Sarah Reidy, a budtender at GreenLeaf Farm, isn't yet sure whether medical marijuana will be a part of her career future, but it's a possibility. She's junior at CU, majoring in English and political science, and planning a law career. She has already done an internship with Robert Corry, a Denver lawyer specializing in medical marijuana, and she's also development director for the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws at CU. After having seen the legal side of medical marijuana, Reidy, 20, decided she wanted to get a look at the industry at the dispensary level.
"I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago and went to Catholic schools," she says. "I grew up with a community service background, but I haven't really been able to find much of that in Colorado. Surprisingly, this industry really feels that way to me. It helps a lot of very sick people."
Reidy says there is a stigma about medical marijuana that people just use it to get high. Before she became involved with the industry, she believed that, too, to some extent.
"My opinion has done a 180," she says.
While a glance at dispensary review Web sites shows seems to indicate that some people are recreational users, Reidy and others say the most important thing about medical marijuana is that it can offer benefits similar to some pharmaceuticals with fewer side effects.
Reidy particularly remembers a woman who came in as a new patient.
"She just looked sick," Reidy says. "While I was explaining to her how the caregiver process works, she had to excuse herself (to the bathroom). She was afraid she was going to be sick. After we talked about the caregiver process, she was able to purchase her medicine."
A week later, the same patient came back.
"She was smiling, energetic. She was so happy I remembered her name. I was able to help her get medicine to keep her feeling like that."
The art of budtending
Cole says when growers bring in marijuana, they are asked to fill out a questionnaire that explains the strain, and its genetics, the percentage of indica and sativa -- the two types of marijuana have different effects, but are often hybridized together in varying percentages by growers to treat different problems. Staff then researches the strain and sometimes tries it. Reidy says that direct experience of the strain helps her understand its properties better and feel more confident recommending it. Staff members chart what their online and book research says about a strain and then record their own reactions to it.
Budtenders at other dispensaries often do similar reading and personal research.
Ryan Hartman, co-owner of the Boulder Wellness Center, says some of his budtenders are friends who are quite knowledgeable about marijuana. One picked up expertise working at a hydroponics store. Hartman says knowledge is a key aspect of the budtending job.
"We get a lot of older (patients) who come in, maybe tried (marijuana) in college 30 years ago. (Now) their doctor recommended it for them," Hartman says. "That's why we train (our budtenders)."
Working with a new patient with no experience of medical marijuana first requires some tutelage in the basics -- the difference between indica and sativa, the two general types of marijuana plants.
"Sativa is more of a cerebral kind of high," Hartman explains. "During the day, you have to be at work. You're in a little pain, but you can function and think. Indica is more of a stronger pain killer, more of a body high. It can put you to sleep. Typically you want to smoke sativa in the day and indica at night."
Most strains mix sativa and indica in different proportions and then have varietal differences as well. The budtender has to find the right blend for the patient.
"Someone might come in and say, 'I have cancer. I don't want to be smoking things that make me hyper," Hartman says.
His budtenders ask people to write down how well a strain worked, which can help to narrow down the right strain.
Cole says some of the choice also comes down to customer preference.
"For some, it comes down to the flavor. Is it earthy, fruity, spicy or you know -- skunky? In a lot of ways it's like wine tasting. Some people like to choose a medicine based on how it smells. Budtenders have to ask a lot of questions. They have to be people people to extract the information they need," Cole says.
Some people prefer tinctures or marijuana in food -- edibles -- as they are called, and the budtender has to know the proper dose.
As with much of the industry, budtending is so new that people are still defining the way the job should be done, just as growers and patients are experimenting with different strains in an attempt to find out what the potential of medical marijuana really is.
New services are springing up in those areas, as well.
Greenway University holds workshops to help potential dispensary owners understand legal requirements, known in the industry as compliance. Gus Escamilla, founder and CEO, says Greenway began teaching students in Colorado late last year, after expanding operations from California.
The school -- Escamilla can't resist calling it higher education -- plans to offer classes that lead to a certification in budtending starting next month. The five-class certification course will involve testing, he says, on various strains and also on legal rules. The certification will cost about $200, he says.
"When you come to our course, you'll get schooled on the knowledge of the medicinal effect -- whether is causes a heady high or couch lock."
For those not planning budtending certification or an immersion in marijuana's rich language, Escamilla says couch lock is "you receive a potentially higher dosage or maybe your body isn't as ready to receive that. You just sit."
The school also plans to offer a $1,000 course in master grower certification, which will be a 13- to 18-week course on growing techniques and various strains.
"It's so much more than how much does my plant grow and how big can I get it," he says, adding that about 2,800 strains are on the market today, the result of hybridizing about 25 to 30 pure varieties.
He'd like to see widespread lab testing, so patients will know exactly what they're getting.
Cole of GreenLeaf Farm plans to begin having her product tested. She believes marijuana eventually will be tested and regulated.
"You'll know what ailments to use it for exactly," she says. "You won't have to sit on the Internet for hours researching the medicine."
That may make budtending as it is currently practiced obsolete. In the meantime, however, it's a job a lot of people want.
March 1, 2010
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Budtenders help medical marijuana patients choose strains that fit their needs