Behind every counter at L.A.’s medical marijuana dispensaries is an expert who knows what strains are best for pain relief and which brownies best quell nausea caused by chemotherapy.

These experts are called “budtenders,” and their profession is a new career choice, whether they’re stocking the shelves and studying labels or learning medicinal properties and caring for the afflicted.

They’re often a quirky group, each one with an interesting tale about his or her initiation into the pot business. But beyond their sometimes funny stories, they offer unique insights into California’s blossoming marijuana industry and provide useful tips on the various kinds of medicinal and recreational cannabis.

At Sticky Medz in Mid-City, Jason McDaniel calls himself a “patient consultant.” The Rastafarian, with six-foot-long dreadlocks under his multi-colored Jamaican tam, was living in Chicago in 2007 when his friend in Mendocino County reached out. McDaniel’s friend had 100 acres of pot planted in Northern California and not enough hands to pick it.

“[He] was in over his head, and got more than he thought he was going to get,” McDaniel says. “We got in a van and drove from Chicago. A year later, I was working in a dispensary.”

McDaniel makes it clear that he’s not a medical doctor. However, he has years of on-the-job training that serves his patients well.

Every day, budtenders are asked to make knowledgeable recommendations on what kind of cannabis medication patients need for their particular ailment, whether it’s cancer, anxiety, pain, arthritis or something else. Many put in the time to study and try out new products and strains. But that’s not always the case, McDaniel says. There’s no certification process for budtenders. No universal curriculum. No license. It becomes a matter of trust, McDaniel says.

“It’s a complete gray area,” McDaniel said. “There’s a fine line between being called a snake-oil salesman or someone who has the knowledge to recommend.”

Lauren Strauss, 27, been working at La Brea Collective since volunteering at age 19. The Collective has been around for a decade and offers steep discounts to terminally-ill patients who receive $25 weekly credits and 25 percent off all products, all the time. “We’re here to help. That’s what we care about,” she says. 

Strauss' interest is personal. She is allergic to over-the-counter pain pills containing acetaminophen. She says marijuana is the only thing she takes to stop the pain of two herniated discs. Over the years, Strauss has tried many forms of pot to keep the pain at bay, including edibles, flowers, concentrates, topical salves and rubs.

Because Strauss experimented for so long to find out what works for her, she became well acquainted with various kinds of marijuana. She’s fond of smoking “ocean grown” marijuana and any of the Bubba strains. She’s also recommends cannabidiol or CBD products “where you don’t get high” because CBD is a non-psychoactive part of pot.

“Everyone’s chemistry is different,” Strauss said. “If someone comes in and asks what to take for their arthritis, I ask them if they’re going to be working or at home relaxing. If I’m at work, I don’t want to be sluggish and CBD products do that for me.”

For pain, Strauss says straight indicas like the OGs, the Bubbas and the Masters strains and Afghani Kush work the best. “Granddaddy Purple is always a good one,” she says. Strauss says sativas can help with appetite loss because the turpenes within stimulate the taste buds.

At Sticky Medz, McDaniel says he makes suggestions to a wide-spectrum of clients, including recreational users. McDaniel figures that some of their clientele are terminally ill patients, while others seek relief from symptoms associated with problems like arthritis or seizures. Many other clients, he says, just want to get high. He estimates that most of his customers fall within the 18-35-year-old demographic, while the over-55 crowd amounts to about 10 percent of his L.A. business.

McDaniel says that’s not the case in northern California. He says that more Baby Boomers frequent San Francisco dispensaries “because there are a lot of retired hippies there. It’s a more holistic experience in the Bay Area. If I go to a dispensary in Oakland, they might offer me a class on growing or a yoga class.”

For those who pick up products in Northern California, McDaniel says that patients should avoid bringing cannabis products on commercial airliners.  “I do not travel with any cannabis at all because planes are federal territory,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a vape or an edible. If there is something you must take, get an edible and remove the packaging. And if you must, there are things like Gummi Bears. There are Farm Caramels Ocean Grown candy that can be dropped into a cup of coffee. Korova makes really good medical cannabis cookies. There are chocolate-covered coffee beans and blueberries.”

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