Diary of a budtender

I sat behind a cash register and watched the cannabis industry change

Photo/Jordan Gearey

This story was originally produced as a class project at the University of Nevada, Reno and published by Our Town Reno.

On May 20, 2017, I was hired by Blüm Reno as a budtender. At the time, Blüm was still just a medicinal dispensary, serving cannabis product to people with prescriptions for varying ailments, but in under two months, the store location would turn into a recreational pot shop, serving citizens 21 years of age or older. From June to the end of August, I sat behind a cash register and watched the cannabis industry change drastically in one chaotic summer.

The beginning

I was working a relatively boring job as a clerk in an attorney’s office that specialized in estate planning. The job paid OK, and with the nickel-and-diming I was doing providing bud to my friends and classmates, I was able to pay for my own place and get through school.

But as I was sitting in the haze of my own living room hotbox, I watched a local news report that the ballot measure had passed to legalize recreational weed. I took a drag off the spliff in my hand and pondered the future of my own “black market” profits. (The term “black market” implies something so much more threatening than it actually is. Some folks imagine a wordless exchange on the street corner between two hooded figures, when in reality it’s most likely a goofy but well-meaning kid, who, although born and raised in Reno, dresses like he was a member of the Lords of Dogtown.)

I wasn’t a veteran in the game by any means. The consequences of smoking and drinking were pretty blatantly laid out for me by my parents when I started to come into my teenage years. I was too terrified and intimidated by anything that had to do with partying in high school to partake. But this little late bloomer grew into a fully-grown individual with a passion to smoke that sweet, sweet bud. However, my beautiful world of self-expression and individuality was juxtaposed against my family’s collective concern for my well-being. If you’re young and stoney like myself, then you may understand the battle with overbearance from a well-intentioned family. It’s one of those first-world problems that we lower-middle class millennials are subjected to.

Thankfully, my grandmother chose the right side of history and embraced my righteous reggae rituals with entertained enthusiasm. She even went so far as to connect me with one of her friends who had just been hired on as administrative personnel for a dispensary in midtown Reno. That friend was able to set me up with a brief interview and eventually a job as a budtender. Sweet old grandma had made sure that I was going to be directly involved with a historic change in our biggest little society.

I was to report for two days of training. Racked with nerves and eager to prove myself, I sat down in a small conference room with eight other friendly faces. A couple of the new hires had worked in the industry before, so they were able to guide the discussion as we moved through our two-day syllabus. The rest of us were subject to a massive amount of new information. We covered the basics of strains, parts of the plant and the chemical compounds that did the lord’s work inside our brains. For an industry that devotes institutions of higher learning—no pun intended—to teach curriculums about this subject matter, I had a pretty overwhelming two days of training. (Oaksterdam University in Oakland, California offers 14-week courses to master cannabis business and horticulture. Have you ever forgotten to take a half ounce out of your backpack before you went to sit down in a psychology lecture? Don’t have to worry about that at Oaksterdam. Your half-ounce of stench is like farting in Bangkok. You’re not going to alter that overwhelming aroma.)

Recreational sales hit Reno

In the spring, the new hires spent a couple of weeks shadowing budtenders who had been employed at the dispensary for almost a year. For limited weekly hours, we learned all about the flow of the job—the exchanges with customers, the computer point-of-sale systems and even the nightly chores to keep the shop clean. Medical customers would shuffle in here and there, eager to fill their prescriptions. Some would be fun-loving adults who would tell you what a bright spot in their day it would be to stop by our little store. Others would be very quiet and reserved, just hoping to ease whatever tensions, physical or mental, that were bothering their day to day routine.

But on the stroke of midnight on July 1, the lines grew around the block. The anticipation and nervousness of the dispensary staff turned into focused pandemonium. All new personnel, who had been shadowing for only two and a half weeks, were now operating one of 10 registers on the floor. The lobby outside was packed with people who had been waiting up to three hours to get inside and marvel at the selections.

Sitting in a room with nine other budtenders having simultaneous conversations with at least one patient at a time meant over 20 voices would fill the small space. I was almost shouting at times and went hoarse within the week. Regulations prohibits windows looking into the storeroom to protect privacy, and maybe the innocence of children, so there would also be no sunlight for most of eight-hour shifts and the plenty of overtime we were working. It was hard work, but we loved every minute of it. My managers would rent hotel rooms close to the store, so they could get a couple hours of sleep before going right back to counting money and finding weed to sell.

We were all giving the whole of our beings to this one cause. To get the city of Reno high as hell. It felt like we were at the center of the world—the loyal disciples of the first summer of legal weed in Reno.

I never smoked at work. I felt like I could sell and count faster when I was sober. My sales numbers were great, and my drawer was always spot on at the end of the night. Some of the budtenders would have really long-winded and genuine conversations with their customers, but not me. Our supervisors encouraged us to shorten the amount of time it took to make a sale so that we could reduce wait times for customers in the lobby. Quicker transactions and shorter wait times meant larger profits. I hit my rhythm and moved weight like a firesale. The conversations became repetitive as I developed a method to the seemingly never-ending madness. The quiet and pleasant atmosphere of our June training could not have been any further in the past when the onslaught of July recreational cannabis users flooded our lobby and extended about two blocks down the street.

A state of emergency

When Question 2 was originally written up for the 2016 ballot in Nevada, it was understood that alcohol wholesalers in the state were to be given the rights of distribution from medical grow operations to retail storefronts. So, when the Department of Taxation agreed to give licenses directly to those grow operations and cut the alcohol wholesalers out of the middle, they were met with a lawsuit and an injunction. Only alcohol wholesalers were to be allowed to distribute the product.

Of the seven applications turned in for distribution licenses by alcohol wholesalers, only two succeeded. The other five turned in incomplete applications. With sales exceeding expectations, we were running out of product and running out of people to deliver more.

Customers began to get angry, and prices kept spiking. A lot of people thought that we could go out of business and lose our jobs, as the market seemed to be about to explode. But Governor Brian Sandoval saved the state’s weed stash by declaring a “state of emergency.” Licenses were to be given to the growers, and the city would have its weed once again.

Although the problem seemed solved, the stress of the alcohol wholesalers appealing their lawsuit to the Nevada Supreme Court remained. We were selling weed with a bit more comfort at the thought of our own job security.

The owner of the shop and a whole lot more

Business carried on into the late summer, and our great success in midtown was not to go unrewarded. The owner of our store, and four others under the same flag in Oakland and Las Vegas, was throwing a party at her hilltop house in West Reno, and rumor had it that a special musical guest was going to show up.

We were all bursting with curiosity. Our managers knew, but they kept it close. We couldn’t get a word out of them. All they would give us were hints at the magnitude of the fame of whoever was coming.

Apparently the owner of our franchise and sister stores threw a party just like this one last year and was able to get John Legend to perform in her dining room. Another manager said that she told Jay-Z to “name his price” for a half hour performance at her Reno home, but Jay referred her to his “no private house party rule.”

She was something of an urban myth around the store. She’s a German immigrant who is thought to be around her 70s but seems to have enough plastic surgery in her medical file to pass for her early 50s. Her Facebook page is filled with photos of her sporting large assault rifles and practicing Olympic power lifts in a gymnasium. She’s written a semi-autobiographical novel where she hints that she was at one time carrying Elvis Presley’s love child. The only time I ever saw her was when she was convening with my managers in the main office of the dispensary. I would come in to ask a question of my managers and be petrified by both her electric blue eyes and her torpedo-shaped, braless, fake breasts. We were all in awe of her and couldn’t wait to find out who she had hired to perform at her backyard party.

We all got our invites with dress code and address. As the date drew closer, Snoop Dogg’s name grew louder around the store. The Doggfather of West Coast kush himself was rumored to be the headliner.

What do we say if we meet Snoop? Are we going to smoke together? Do I trust myself to keep my composure in front of the most high?

But any illusion of a chill kickback and some one-on-one time with Snoop was proved wrong by a well maintained backyard filled with business suits.

I don’t intend to complain at all about the owner’s hospitality. The backyard stood high on top of an insane view of the city, with all of the liquor and hors d’oeuvres that a kid could eat and drink. There was even a blunt rolling station, where employees of the Oakland store rolled Backwood Cigars filled with Blue Dream for the party goers. (Blue Dream is a classic strain—a sativa, or head high, for the rookie smokers. The pine-scented, dense bud with orange hairs can’t be mistaken. It was a favorite of my high school graduating class, in fact.) They were tremendous at it. A few kids from Oakland rolled for hours as tall, white businessmen in expensive suits hopped into the front of the line to ask for three of the Russian Cream flavored.

The show started, and Snoop Dogg took center stage with a couple of friends. He was a mere 10 feet away from us. He played all of the crowd favorites as my co-workers swayed back and forth amidst the strong clouds of smoke. Everyone seemed to have a blunt in one hand, and their phone in the other. People had to make sure this moment wasn’t going to be lost to time. It had to be put on news feeds for the world to see. It’s not every day you get to see Snoop Dogg in someone’s backyard.

It may have been a pretentious sort of thought, or a genuine moment of internal disagreement, but something felt wrong. I slowly backed out of the silent and intoxicated crowd and wandered over to the blunt-rolling station. The kids from Oakland were still there. They were arguing with a man who wanted them to roll him another blunt. They had been rolling all night, and they just wanted to go see the show, but this gentleman wanted his complimentary blunt rolled immediately.

I left feeling a little uneasy—and guilty—as I usually do after a night of indulgence. However, the Irish Goodbye saved me from a permafried party, and I caught an Uber back home, thinking all the way about how much the feeling of this job had changed. I began as one humble stoner among many, just hoping to help people feel better, but after that evening I saw just how full people’s pockets were becoming.

The end

During the following couple of weeks, work began to feel different to me. I wasn’t feeling that same rhythm and magic that I had initially. Long-time medical patients of the store were becoming increasingly aggravated at the difficulty they were having with the enormous flow of recreational customers. They complained that their medical needs were not being prioritized over the recreational needs of the massive amounts of new customers. Budtenders would get screamed at by people with serious ailments because they had somehow been mistreated or given the wrong product. It was hard to argue against the idea that amidst the hectic legalization of recreational cannabis, medical patients were somewhat falling into the creases.

Some people with serious ailments weren’t even finding the answer in cannabis. Some complained that they felt like the large doses that they were taking were actually making them intensely depressed. Most people were still happy and told me miracle stories about how I had changed their lives. People were grateful for my help. But despite the encouraging words from those customers, I still knew that I was a long way from any real knowledge about these people and their bodies. I knew I was nowhere near qualified enough to be giving them some of the information that I was told to give them.

When I brought this up tentatively to my managers, I was told not to worry and that I was doing a great job. My drawer was always on count, and I was outselling the rest of the team, but I knew sales was not a calling that sat right in my soul. I quit the job and quit smoking weed for about three months or so.

Since leaving, I only recognize a couple of familiar faces in the store when I go back to buy product. Almost everyone I know from the group of new hires that I trained with are gone—either from quitting like myself, or from being fired for different reasons, depending on who you talk to. The job turnover could be attributed to a few different things, but, after talking to numerous ex-employees, the feeling is that the dispensary has changed internally—and not for the better.

The impact of my time felt real and was real to so many people—but, after experiencing the lavish parties, the upset medical patients and the disgruntled ex-employees, it’s hard to see past the underlying truth: In a capitalist American market, money is king. Money comes first. The patients and people will hopefully remain a close second.