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Happy 420! We asked Seattle pot shop budtenders what it takes to get their job

In honor of the “high” holiday, and Washington’s status as one of the growing number of U.S. states to be cool with recreational cannabis, Evergrey Writing Group member Don Goldberg went around the city’s pot shops to ask the people behind the counter something he’d been wondering: What does it take to be a Seattle budtender?

“There are people my age who simply can’t believe this would ever come, that you could have this job,” said Don, who turns 70 in November and has enjoyed a good smoke for years. “We started it as counterculture, and now it’s the over-the-counter culture.”

Here’s what Don found out.

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Want to be a Seattle budtender? It’s a growing business, you get to meet interesting folks, it’s not going to be outsourced, and, let’s see… free weed, right? Not so fast. I took a sobering look at your job prospects and spoke with some folks in the know around Seattle to get the lowdown on the high life of a budtender.

The qualifications

Pot shops are looking for personality and passion for the product, and if you’ve got experience in customer service, either in retail, managing people, or even food service, that helps.

Kalie Sandstrom in human resources at Lux in Ballard looks at diversity, not just in tats, piercings, and hair color but in race, gender, and life experience. It takes a village, so to speak. A budtender may even have a criminal background, so long as he/she can get along with people.

Overeducation isn’t a detriment but neither is it a prerequisite. In your interview you’ll be asked about your experience with the product and how you use it. Don’t worry about needing to pee in a cup.

You don’t need to be an expert, but passion pays off. Jay Berger at Pot Stop in Fremont says that “you have to love people.” It’s easier to teach budtenders about cannabis than how to get along with people. “The job is very educational,” he said. “You can’t not learn on the job.”

The education

Dani of Queen Anne Cannabis Co. (Photo by Don Goldberg)

Like others, Jay came from the medical side to the recreational side. Pot Stop started back in 2010 as SMMA (Seattle Medical Marijuana Association) and still is authorized to sell to medical patients. If you’d like to be a budtender on the medical side, you’ll need a bit more education: a 20-hour online course. Then you’ll have consultant certification.

Your folks might have bragging rights knowing the fruit of their loins is certified, but should stop referring to you as a “budding doctor.” Still, it’s a career with a future. If you stick with it, you can move up quickly. Jay sees this is as the start of the “green rush.” Dani from Queen Anne Cannabis Co. left a gig at Old Navy (unlike Popeye, she had a different kind of spinach in her pipe), answering an ad on Craigslist, and two years later she’s gone from budtender to buyer and inventory manager.

The commitment

Do some work before you interview. Show you’re in it for the long haul. Turnover can be high. Dani’s first job found her with the most tenure after just six months. And keep up the enthusiasm. Dani comes off as a pot pied piper, which is a wonderful asset as Queen Anne Cannabis Co. is closest to the ship terminal and she gets a chance to serve “cannabis virgins” fresh off the boat and eager to sample Seattle’s kush life.

“Welcome to the real adult kid in the candy store,” she says as I role-play a newbie. “I love first-timers. They’re so much fun.” And normal first-timers are in their 40s to mid-60s, so be prepared to turn your parents’ peers on to cannabis. There’s a switch. Then again, the demographics of recreational cannabis clientele are wide, but there seems to be a median group in the late Gen X to Gen Y. Heaven knows what millennials are into other than themselves.

The perks

Andrew Cornwall of Origins. (Photo by Don Goldberg)

What about the perks? Free ganja, right? Like free lunch, no such thing. But the good news is that the caveats are easy to take. With so many products to stock (at Origins in West Seattle, for example, they get in 20 new strains every week), it takes some diligence and a collective “consciousness” to keep up. Stores do get small samples from suppliers, and they get divided up among staff to test.

But there’s homework. At Pot Stop, budtenders and staff are sent home with a checklist to document their experiences sampling the goods. I’d say you need a checklist unless you want your record to read like a Hunter S. Thompson article. Erin keeps track of about 2,000 items currently in stock. It’s a real buzzness. (Did I say?…I mean business.)

The knowledge

You’ve got to be “present in the moment,” says Origins’ Andrew Cornwall, to serve the 200-400 customers they see each day in West Seattle. He looks for “cannabis guides” who recognize cannabis culture as a “lifestyle.” In that regard, Origins’ extensive menu is organized in a spectrum of tabbed pages, including self-discovery, adventurous, social, holistic, after-hours, and partygoer. Such classifications may be helpful to some customers. Others, like oenophiles (read: wine connoisseurs), appreciate more clinical assessments listing terpenes, CBD, THC, and other characteristics regarding flavor, potency, and botanical info.

Otherwise, it’s decision by the craziest marketing names for various strains. Here’s a few I made up: Zombie Skunk Venom. Wicked Angel Exhaust. Leaf of my Senses.

A good budtender can guide you through the marketing morass. But he or she has got to know how to give straight talk to stoners. Although it’s not fair to compare tenders of bud to bar, one thing is certain: If you’re looking for advice, beware of the bartender who gulps and of the budtender who inhales on the job. Can you be trustworthy? “We’re so confident in our system, [if] you bring it back in and tell us we gave you the wrong product, we’ll give you 15 percent off the next stop,” says Andrew at Origins. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

The sale

Jay Berger of Pot Stop (Photo by Don Goldberg)

In any event, you’ve got to know your customer. There’s no commission. The best budtenders aren’t into upselling like in other retail businesses. There’s a good chance the customer’s in there to buy. The game is to match them with the right product. Sounds like the beauty counter at Macy’s; just doesn’t smell the same. You need to cater to the neighborhood clientele.

At Pot Stop in Fremont, they see business from Seattle’s new growing tech community. “The products that I provide keep the community balanced,” says Jay. So much for high-tech. “We do our best to pair them with the product that’s going to give them the balance that they want.”

Next time you ask Alexa to add something to the shopping list and you find 10 bags of Doritos delivered to your doorstep, you’ll know where the Amazon programmers are getting their weed. Different smokes for different folks. At Lux in Lake City they sell a lot of $5 joints, but at their Ballard location, craft elixirs are in demand.

The community

You’ll be on the front lines of a local business, and the better recreational cannabis stores do feel connected to both the neighborhood and the cannabis communities. You’ll want to be involved. Origins and Lux in Ballard have contributed to food drives and assisted organizations that help folks in homeless shelters. Lux is working on a presentation called “Cannabis for Seniors 101.” Origins even has a softball team.

You’ll need to be a team player at work as well. At Lux, you’ll be 1 of 3-5 budtenders behind the counter at any given time. Some transactions are quick, but it can also take a lot of time for someone to make up his or her mind. Like Dani said, “a kid in a candy store,” but the candy comes packaged with a 35 percent excise tax, so it’s not cheap.

The opportunity

Kalie Sandstrom of Lux. (Photo by Don Goldberg)

So what about the pay? Well, there may be a team, but no union, and I didn’t see anyone complaining. A well-run pot shop takes care of its employees. Lux has a health plan covering 70 percent of certain costs. And as I mentioned, the industry is growing and there’s a lot of opportunity starting behind the counter and progressing to the “back end.”

If you’re good at what you’re doing and learn to love the industry as much as you do the experience of the product, take the initiative to get yourself higher and let the sky be the limit. Move on from retail and work in a lab. Ethos, a producer of oils, edibles, and sprays sold in many pot shops, has a program that works with local universities to clinically test strains. Perhaps there’s a future in that for you. It’s like going back to the ’60s when drug-testing for marijuana meant testing the drugs, not the user.

So, after all this, when the smoke settles and you still feel that budtender’s the job for you, I say go for it. Talk to your local friendly person behind the counter and to the manager. Bring your résumé, but more importantly, bring along your winning personality and your passion to dig in and light up the room. Whether you’ve worked in a lingerie shop, as Dani did, or managing banquets in a hotel, like Jay, or even spent 10 years as a therapist, like Erin — or you just got that philosophy degree and your only life experience is having an idea, follow your passion.

As Erin put it: “As a budtender I was on the front lines…communicating with people every day and that enthusiasm was contagious…I thrived on it. It made me happy,” she laughs.

Maybe the job is simply about giving the person on the other side of the counter a contact high. And is that such a bad thing?

Don Goldberg is a member of The Evergrey Writing Group. He’s written jokes for the Emmys, satire for Jerry Springer, help screens for Microsoft, web pages for HP, The History of Rock and Roll for radio, church bulletins, documentaries for Children and other work for hire he’s not as proud of. No matter how hard he tries to be serious, he finds the humor in it because he revels in the absurdity of it all. He has lived all over the United States but settled in Seattle 26 years ago because, as he puts it, there was no other place left. He lives with his wife, Gail, and his daughter, Maya (until she moves out of the house), and is currently working on an irreverent spiritual sendup novel and a companion cookbook about a rebellious teenager and her family.