The Very Strange Lives of Budtenders, the People Who Sell You Legal Weed

MC Wolfman/Thrillist
MC Wolfman/Thrillist

Sure, selling legal weed to happy stoners may sound like a cushy, carefree job. But in one of the weirder side effects of legalization, budtenders -- the clerks behind the counter at the country’s newest pot shops -- have wound up filling a tricky role that falls somewhere between bartender and therapist. In Oregon, where recreational weed stores opened two months ago, there’s a strain of cannabis for every personality, problem, and quirk -- making in-store conversations ripe for oversharing and pushing the $10-an-hour clerks into a foggy legal and ethical gray area.

Budtenders may have signed up to roll joints and weigh bud -- but they’re suddenly finding themselves privy to an entire population’s secret angst and psychological baggage. We interviewed nearly two dozen of them over the last several weeks. Our conclusion? These so-called "retail" workers aren’t getting paid enough.

"They unload on you"

Russell Goodwin, 27, RKO Dispensary: People start to treat you like doctors. I had a woman show me her tumor. I had a guy go into great detail about how it helped his sexual experience. I was like, "OK, glad it worked for ya -- can I interest you in a joint?" One really old guy told me he’s anorexic. He wanted the munchies. A lot of people talk at you because they need to rant to someone. It’s interesting to see how people open up over time -- then they unload on you.

Ben Adams, 27, Pure Green: We see an amazing range of everyone from TV personalities to government officials. Smoking weed is another hat they wear and now it’s finally OK. We call it, "Coming out of the basement," because they don’t have to sneak around anymore.

Belinda Kerr, 44, Top Hat Express: People come in looking to solve problems. I had a lady tell me, "I want to feel happy." I said, "Well, stay away from men!" Just kidding! I said it's hard for me to say because all types of weed make me happy. She ended up buying Agent Orange, which is really uplifting and motivating. But some people have more serious issues. One man told me he needs weed to save his relationship with his wife. He’s an alcoholic and spends too much time at the bar. He always feels terrible, dehydrated, and hungover. If he can switch to cannabis, he thinks an indica will keep him home more.

Jason Pott, 46, Cannabliss & Co: I get the sex one a lot. Couples come in, gay and straight, and they say, "This is what we plan to do tonight." I say go with the Blackberry Kush, it turns on the horniness and gives you an endorphin boost. It skyrockets you to a point of no return -- like when people say they see God during sex.

Adams: Customers are, like, "Be my new best friend." They machine-gun their problems at you. Sometimes it can be traumatizing. One guy told me he had rented a hotel room to kill himself. It was a long conversation and I had to tell him, like, "No, don’t do that. Call a psychologist, now." There’s only so much you can do in an eight-hour retail shift. It can be emotionally taxing. For some people, it’s the only thing keeping them going.

Andrew Parsons, 27, Little Amsterdam: I never knew people could talk so much.

Chris Backhous, 27, Cannabliss & Co: I had a guy tell me he grew weed in his house and the DEA raided it. People have no line. They just speak.

Dez Hair, 23, Rip City Remedies: We had a guy make out with our surveillance camera. I don't think he knew where he was. I grabbed the camera and said, "Um, you can't do that."

Jennifer Dalton, 30, Gras: We have a lot of people battling meth addiction in this area, trying to find an upper substitute so they can kick it. The Trinity [strain] gives them that feeling and it's cheap, $5 a gram. So they buy a gram every day in quarters.

Travis Turnsen, 38, manager/budtender, Pure Green: I had a mom in the shop with tears in her eyes, she was so happy. Her kid, who suffers from seizures, had been pumped full of pharmaceutical chemicals for years but nothing was helping. She was ecstatic that cannabis was working -- that something was finally working.

Kat Nichols, Green Oasis: You get a lot of background stories. They might be oversharing but I’m used to it. One woman told me she gained weight because of her divorce and was looking for an appetite-suppressing strain. I told her about Sugar Plum -- it’s the Skinny Girl of cannabis. The dispensary is like a counselor’s office. But it’s retail, so we have to get them out in a timely manner.

Michael Fagen, budtender/grower’s apprentice, Green Sky Collective: People are self-diagnosing and then coming to us. They really appreciate an ear. That’s where we come in. We are the listeners.

Tanisha White, 37, Green Stop: Not everybody can afford therapy. Other people just don’t want to say they go to therapy. But in here, we don’t judge.

MC Wolfman/Thrillist

The art of handling overshares

Kerr: When people overshare, I share back. I'll say something like my husband is a drinker too. I have anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and I’m in tears without my smoke. So tell them my situation too and I hear them out. It's like the little old man who sits at the bar: maybe he's got nowhere to go. Or maybe he just needs somebody to listen to him.

Amy Long, 29, budtender/manager, Bridge City Collective: I've learned to not take home vicarious trauma. People come in with sob stories and "TMI" stories. It is stressful to hear about someone else’s crappy day -- I definitely pick up on other people's anxieties. You try to deflect it and say something that relates but doesn't beg for details. You can connect but still keep a wall up. Sometimes, I'll throw out a joke. A lot of people feel alone in their personal anxieties. But, really, everyone is a freak.

Pott: I smile and nod politely.

Nate Roszina, 32, budtender/owner, Treehouse Collective: I've had people open up about straight-up serious medical issues in such a nonchalant way. You try to help -- and not necessarily permanently.

Turnsen: For some people, it’s their only form of support, that’s why they’re telling us crazy information they wouldn't tell friends or family. You gotta have patience.

Backhous: I’m an open book, myself.

Dalton: I used to be a hairdresser so I've always been in the role of a confidante. It can be overwhelming. It's emotional -- sometimes you're up and someone comes in the shop, and afterwards you just feel numb. But, hey, weed can help with that too.

White: We have a very nice gentleman who now comes in regularly. When he first started coming in, he was a mess -- pale and greasy and sweaty. It was bad. After the first three visits he started talking. And every day he gets better and better. We help a lot of people coming off of pain pills. It’s hard not to get too invested emotionally. But when you leave the shop, you have to leave that here, too.

Tony Crane, 30, Little Amsterdam: I'm fine delving into almost anything but it's some of the language, mostly about sex, people use that I don't like. I think, "Wow, you're getting a little too comfy with me there."

Desirae Duvall, 31, manager/budtender, Maritime Cafe: It is hard to listen to people be sick all the time. Me, personally, I’ve experienced a lot of loss -- my little niece recently died. So, as morbid as it sounds, I detach myself from other people’s losses. That sounds cold, I know. It’s not that I don’t care.

Hair: You have to like people.

MC Wolfman/Thrillist

Invasion of the Boomers

Nichols: For sex, the older couples want the "little blue pill" of weed.

Pott: I have ladies come into the shop in their yoga pants and say, "I'm 60 and I'm back!" They haven't smoked since the days of Maui Wowie in the 1960s, but they’re back. They remember when a quarter actually cost $25. And so I’ll grab some Blue Dream -- it's mellow -- to ease them back into it.

Long: A lot of middle-aged people are looking for Acapulco Gold. It’s what they used to smoke back when they followed the The Dead.

Parsons: Old hippies are still using the same old terms. One of them asked me if I had "a lid." I had to Google it.

Dalton: There’s a vet who comes in, it breaks my heart, he pays in change. He’s spent a long time using alcohol to try to fix his problems and has lived most of his life believing weed is wrong. Like a lot of vets, he came back from war and drank himself stupid. He needed a release from the brain washing. But the vets are starting to come around. They’re figuring out marijuana can be better.

Crane: You hear lots of stories about the good old days. One thing that keeps coming up is Thai stick -- what they used to smoke in ‘Nam. Well, turns out it had opium in it. So, yeah. That's why everybody liked it.

Goodwin: Fibromyalgia -- I had to learn what that is.

White: The increase in seniors is outrageous! There’s a couple in their 70s that smokes when they watch the presidential debates. They said it keeps them clear-headed and focused.

MC Wolfman/Thrillist

The legal buzzkill

Kerr: We have to be careful about how we phrase things, because we're not licensed medical professionals. We have to talk around it. I can say, "I hear from customers this helps them sleep," or "Indicas help me sleep." But we can’t say "this will work for you," and we can't give dosing advice.

Jodi Stricker, 23, Brothers Cannabis Club: We are not Big Pharma. We can’t say this will cure you.

Duvall: A lot of the recreational customers seem like they need a medical card -- but they don’t have enough money or a doctor. You can tell some of them are on [hard] drugs or mentally unstable. We aren’t supposed to give medical advice. But it’s hard because you want to help.

Dalton: The laws haven’t caught up to the [cannabis] research yet. I'm a bartender part time, too, and I watch the people I serve stumble home sick and fucked up. I think, what did I do? I don't feel good serving someone more than two or three drinks. But here, I'm giving them something that's more like medicine. I'm glad [weed] is not looked at so negatively anymore.

Goodwin: As the stigma about pot goes away, people will open up even more. Venues where you can consume socially will be legal nationwide, maybe in five or 10 years, and those shops will be more comfortable places to talk.

Fagen: It’s already headed that direction. People are coming to the shop just for one specific budtender. They’re coming in for cannabis -- but they’re also coming in to feel a connection.

Goodwin: The whole pseudo-therapist budtender thing is only going to get bigger.

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Natalie O'Neill is a writer in Portland, Oregon, who contributes to Vice, Gawker, and Eater. She loves weird news, beer, and bicycles. Follow her on Twitter @inkonthepad.