When she was 14, Sandra Andrade first learned about marijuana from her brother who had an outdoor garden. Today, the 36-year-old works at downtown L.A. dispensary Kushmart, where she helms the point-of-sale contact for those who want to purchase cannabis products. In weed industry terms, she's a budtender.

Sitting in a cramped space behind the showroom of downtown dispensary Kushmart, Andrade shares her experience of working in the relatively new industry. She said it’s essential to her job to “relate to what a patient needs.” Andrade has a great deal of influence over the patients’ purchase, whether a patient asks for something that will help with sleep or deal with pain. Or maybe they're looking to simply have more fun at parties.. 

The incipient industry offers opportunities to enter the legit marijuana economy, but like many budtenders, Andrade and her colleagues began work while dispensaries were in a legal “gray area.” “The way we’ve learned has been a hustle,” Kushmart budtender Michelle de la Cruz said. “The next generation will have to go to school.”

“There is a career in this,” Cruz, who has “Ambition” tattooed in script down her right forearm said. “We’re going to take over alcohol and cigarettes. We’re already doing it.”

Budtending is a new job that arose with marijuana legalization and as with many aspects of this new industry, the role is not well studied. Few know, for example, how many people work as budtenders. Existing research suggests that there are roughly 30,000 Americans who work in pot shops, about a quarter of the industry’s total employment. A substantial portion of those retail employees are budtenders. 

Kushmart budtenders Sandra Andrade and Stacy Carcereny; Credit: Alex Halperin

Kushmart budtenders Sandra Andrade and Stacy Carcereny; Credit: Alex Halperin

Working around weed all day has its allure for some, but budtending is not glamorous or lucrative. With their union contract, Kushmart’s budtenders receive benefits and said they are earning more
than the California minimum wage. (Dispensaries normally allow budtenders to accept tips.)

Kushmart is one of about 130 L.A. dispensaries recognized by 2013's Proposition D. About 10 percent of these shops have unionized workers, but the union, United Food & Commercial Workers Local 770, won’t consider working with the hundreds of L.A. shops and delivery services that are not recognized under Proposition D.

Those shops don’t necessarily pay budtenders minimum wage or offer benefits, the Kushmart budtenders said. In March, voters passed Proposition D’s replacement, Measure M, which is supposed to allow dispensaries to obtain licenses and squeeze rogue shops out of the market but it has not yet taken effect.

In addition, to better pay and benefits, being in a union lends respectability to budtending, a job that's still part of a widely stigmatized and federally illegal industry. Looking ahead, the union is considering employee training programs that could protect budtender jobs or foster career advancement, organizer Jean Tong said.

In many respects, budtending resembles entry-level retail jobs anywhere. But in this new industry where brands struggle to make themselves known, budtenders are a valuable channel for companies to create loyal customers.

At its core, budtending is a sales job. At Kushmart, someone had scribbled on the wall that they should aim for average tickets of $80, but they also see themselves as lending customers their expertise. “It’s
like a pharmacy,” Cruz said.

When a customer enters a pot shop they don’t pick their order off a shelf and take it to the cashier. Instead, they approach a counter and speak to a budtender. Some customers know their order, but others want to chat or ask about the house specialty.

Within the marijuana world, it’s widely believed that different marijuana products produce different effects. To the extent this is accurate, a good budtender will have a nuanced understanding of the inventory available at a given time and help steer patients to something they’ll like. “I’ve tried it before,” Andrade said she might explain to a customer. “This is how it works for me.”

This guiding role is helpful since dispensaries have drawn criticism for inconsistent product offerings. “No dispensary will ever be consistent with their strains,” Kushmart budtender Stacy Carcereny said.

When patients who want to relieve specific medical conditions, the stakes of their product selection are higher. Few budtenders have medical training, but Andrade said patients with conditions like HIV, cancer and ADHD routinely ask for advice. “Once they talk about their situation, we can relate to what they need,” she said. (Kushmart only serves those who have a California medical recommendation and refers to customers as patients.)

Based on their wages, it may seem that dispensaries generally do not consider budtenders highly valued employees. But to marijuana product brands, the faith patients have in their budtenders’ judgement is a way to create brand loyalty. When a customer comes into a dispensary for the first, second or third time, the product a budtender recommends can lead to a lifetime of purchases.

A budtender explains the products at the opening of the MedMen flagship store in West Hollywood.; Credit: Gustavo Turner

A budtender explains the products at the opening of the MedMen flagship store in West Hollywood.; Credit: Gustavo Turner

Since opportunities for weed marketing and product placement remain limited, a budtender’s recommendation can have that much more resonance with customers. While exact numbers aren’t available, it’s become common for edibles makers and other brands try to benefit from the professional intimacy budtenders can develop with their customers.

Peter Barsoom is CEO of 1906, a brand of high-end chocolate edibles available in Colorado. His efforts to woo budtenders have included a tasting event at an art museum and tours of the company’s factory. He said the company is about to launch a program that offers budtenders cash incentives “for becoming educated on 1906 (through quizzes)” and meeting sales goals.

Barsoom's products have only been available in Colorado for a few months but Barsoom says its budtender outreach raises sales between 100 percent and 500 percent at a dispensary. “Given the dizzying array of choices a consumer faces, the budtenders are the trusted guides to help consumers navigate,” he wrote in an email. “And with limited advertising opportunities, consumers rely on the budtender for education.”

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