When Getting High Is in Your Job Description

Cannabis budtenders are the new bartenders. Inside the career where smoking weed is required.

October 27, 2015
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veryone who worked at the cannabis dispensary was excited to tell me about their toilets.

And the weed too, obviously, but the enthusiasm about their restrooms really stood out.

So I checked them out.

I’m at the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center (Sparc), a cannabis collective that’s been around since 2001. They opened their dispensary in 2010.

And their toilets were very nice.

Shiny.

Frosted glass on the doors, modern sink fittings, a monochrome soap dispenser.

See, that’s me in the mirror taking a selfie.

As toilets go, they get a solid eight out of ten.

If you want to see a two out of ten bathroom, visit any pizza chain. McDonald’s are a solid one. Starbucks that require you a code to enter and smell of bleach… they get a two.

So an eight for a cannabis dispensary is pretty damn impressive.

And a good indicator that the cannabis industry is gaining reputability — and more.

It was valued at $2.7 billion in 2014, and predicted to be worth $35 billion by 2020.


There’s big business in the green dollar

Budtenders who work in dispensaries are every bit as desired as high-end bartenders. Their job might be minimum wage and above (starting at $12.25 in San Francisco), but the lifestyle and perks make it a hotly contested career.

Michael Caruso, 26, is one of Sparc’s most promising budtenders. He’s the kind of guy you’d hate if you didn’t like him so much. He’s tall, at least six foot, with a white even smile, and the type of posture that makes your back seize up in jealousy. He looks like he’s stepped out of a J.Crew catalogue, with a checkered shirt rolled up to his elbows, and Justin Bieber hair.

Michael – or Mike, (according to his name tag) – has been at Sparc for 15 months. He moved from Michigan, where he’d been working at the Ann Arbor Health Collective dispensary. In 2012, the minimum wage there was $7.25 an hour. And Mike took a paycut to work there, leaving his well-paid job at a bookstore to follow his dreams of a green lifestyle.

Yes, that’s getting paid to be high, and help other people get the best high for their needs. And reinventing the perception of a stoner from couch potato to modern man – man bun optional.

Mike moved to California so he could participate in what a progressive “green” state was doing, and to get more involved. And Sparc was his top choice of dispensary — it’s often called “The Apple store of pot.”

In terms of progressiveness, Sparc has the most diverse work place I’ve seen in San Francisco. A female security guard is on the door, and an African American women sits at the member’s desk. There’s an Asian dude helping customers with cannabis referrals, and a black guy taking orders at one of the register. Plus, the obligatory white guys — who looked a mix of Warby Parker models and Beard of the Month club members — stocking shelves and serving customers.

The staff suits the store’s design. The layout is sleek, with wooden panelling and large hipster-style boxes loaded with marijuana behind the counters. They have a free tea shelf (over ten types) for members, and free vaporizers to use in their lounge.

There’s also a merchandise section, where they sell store branded hoodies and tees.

And, unusually for a dispensary, Sparc holds regular events for stoned connoisseurs. These include jazz nights, magic nights, and open mic nights. And there’s free acupuncture and healing sessions.

Welcome to the stoner 2.0

Mike loves it here. He thrives on the energy, and the way cannabis is being viewed as a medicinal and recreational substance.

“We have organic, gluten free granola, caramels and brownies,” he says, standing next to the cannabis edible section. Something for everyone. Auntie Dolores’ chili lime peanuts are the most popular.

THE TYPICAL BUDTENDER DAY

Mike tells me his typical day is based around his shift pattern. Sparc is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., so sometimes he works from 7:00 a.m. to 4:30, other times from 1:00 to 9:00; it varies.

He starts his day with a shower, coffee, and then takes some time to do some yoga. Then he gets on his bike and pedals to work — a cost effective way to keep fit that also saves on transport money.

San Francisco’s high cost of living means Mike can’t be complacent.

At work he checks in with the team – there’s always at least five people working – and then goes through the stock they have that day. He’s on his feet a lot, checking inventory, fetching stuff from the shelves, helping customers.

And they get a LOT of customers.

They had a rope barricade by the registers that I thought was for show; I quickly realized it was a necessity when people started lining up.

“What kind of effects are you seeking?” Mike asks clients. “Relaxed? Energizing? Pain relief?” Then he drills down how they want to consume in: Edibles? Wax? Hash? Concentrate? Weed? He expertly helps them find the right strain for their choice.

The most expensive one Sparc currently offers is Gelato, at $420 an ounce. But it’s not about the price, Mike explains. Different strains have different qualities.

After work, Mike’s perfect night is bingeing on Netflix. He’s a big Leslie Knope fan, and likes to relax with Parks and Recreation — or South Park, then take some hits on his bong. The lavender bud is currently his favorite, he says, a perfect mix to bliss out too. When he gets the munchies, he uses his new waffle maker to make waffle ice cream sandwiches.

Yes, I’m feeling hungry already.

Mike’s background in weed is personal; he “worked on the black market side of things,” waaay back in the day. But he started seeing how beneficial it was to people with health problems and looked into the medical side of things.

This translates into a cannabis worker who was extremely eager to learn, and when you’re excited by what you do, that shows in your work.

So how do you get into the industry?

There’s more to the job than smoking and standing behind a counter. Mike tells me that Sparc’s standard interview process involves two rounds of talks, with a customer service test in between. Then there’s a 90-day probation period, during which staff members are constantly required to take quizzes and get more training.

And once you’re in, you can enjoy full health insurance coverage (extra for dental).

It’s an open industry, as there’s no qualifications needed to be a budtender. Sure, some places peddle “budtender training courses” but these aren’t necessary for work, and Mike says they’re not something he looks for in a hire.

The main requirements (here) are having a California’ drivers license and medical marijuana card. The rest is about how good you are at customer service, and how passionate you are about marijuana.

You won’t make big bucks as a budtender – it’s a salaried job with no commission, but you do get to be on the frontline of the cannabis explosion.

And you’ll be a talking point at parties. Basically, all budtenders – male and female – become professional cannabis advocates. And that means instant sex appeal.

Sparc has other weed-related roles available, such as HR Coordinator ($50-75,000) and Executive Administrator ($60-$80,000 a year), but the frontline of cannabis is sales, and Mike has no desire to transition roles right now.

In the long term he says he likes the idea of opening his own store; an Amsterdam-style weed cafe perhaps, or to become more involved with Sparc’s management.

Mike’s also planning to get on San Francisco’s Cannabis Task Force (which makes his mum proud, he says), and he’s pro-weed for social activities.

Mike doesn’t smoke at work anymore, as he likes to be clear headed for customers. But if the pain from an old hip injury flares up, well, he has a medicine counter on hand. All employees get 20% off products and regularly get free samples; it’s good business for staff to know their stock.

“It’s a dream come true,” he tells me, and I have no doubt at all that he means it.

He’s living the high life.


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