A budtender's job is increasingly taxing, but they also need to remember to put the patient first. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

Dear Budtender: Remember to take your time and care for patients

I tend to romanticize my time as a budtender, telling the story about breaking a jar that ruined a grand’s worth of Sour Diesel — or the one about making the pot cookies that sent everyone home for the day — to elicit laughs.

Because in reality, it was one of the most emotionally taxing jobs I’ve had to this day. You’re one part amateur physician, one part therapist, one part retail employee. You’re the sounding board for people with no outlet to discuss their condition relative to medical marijuana, but don’t forget to hit those all important sales goals.

As an industry that often decries “Big Pharma,” I’ve been turned and burned at a number of dispensaries lately. At the risk of being overly didactic, I feel like many have forgotten the true meaning of marijuana in Colorado.

Something wonderful happened when retail sales started on January 1st of 2014. People from across the country could experience something that Colorado patients (and, let’s face it, stoners with roughly $100 to get a red card) had seen ad nauseum: jar after jar of legal weed. To declare this the era of recreational marijuana, however, would be incredibly short sighted. Between those who were afraid to be on a government list (corporate Joes who’d be sacked over a sack of bud) and those who suffered because their condition had yet to be approved on the medical side (veterans who continue to fight for PTSD to be included), there were still patients. Unfortunately for them, the game had changed.

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My average visit to a rec shop now more closely resembles a cattle call than any sort of care. We’re herded over to display cases and told to sniff around for what we’d like, then take our wares home to graze. I always ask about genetics of a name I’ve never seen, only to be serenaded by crickets or have them shout over to the next budtender down. Reviewing over a dozen different samples since December, I’ve been asked a grand total of once if I was looking for a strain for a certain condition. That’s not to say I should be asked to turn over my medical charts when I’m shopping for a pre-roll. It’s just so foreign to me.

See, back in my day — yes, I’m now in my rocking chair made out of soap boxes — there was one-on-one care for everyone that came in. We talked about conditions, what had worked in the past and followed up on the last purchase. There’s no silver bullet in medical marijuana, so you adjust. Constantly. You had to have an intimate knowledge of your strains, and that included things that weren’t currently on the shelf. You talked about proper edible dosage and showed old ladies how the carb on a pipe worked. There was a responsibility you felt because simply selling someone the strain du jour had consequences.

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I’ll never forget a patient with fibromyalgia who had spent twelve hours in pain because the Durban Poison she took home made her skin feel like fire. And she came back because MMJ was still her last hope. Four years later, I still can’t really talk about my first patient who passed away. I was never prepared for that.

So, are these new “rectenders” squarely to blame? No. There’s only so much you can do when you’re seeing 400 customers a day and many of them are only that: customers. I’ve been in massive lines that evoked the old aphorism “There are no atheists in foxholes,” imagining how overwhelmed the staff must have felt. Managers and owners clearly aren’t placing an emphasis on training or simply are too busy to notice what’s passing as guidance. Or they’d rather have an attractive twenty-something do a mediocre job and generate sales because they have no respect for what the job actually is.

Can they improve? Absolutely. Here’s my open letter to the budtenders:

Dear Budtender,

I know. You’ve just worked an eight-hour shift for slightly more than minimum wage, and now some pot snob is lecturing you about your job. You barely got a bathroom break, and now you only want to smoke a bowl and sleep so you can wake up and do it again tomorrow.

But hear me out.

People send me e-mails all the time asking for advice on how to get your job. They want to relocate from Arkansas and Alaska and all kinds of places I’ve never been. And I keep telling them how hard you grind. For them, it’s the novelty of selling weed out of a storefront and not a backpack. But we’ve actually been on the front lines. So it seems pretty self-righteous of me to sit and criticize you without eating some crow of my own.

When we’d get some no-name bud from a caregiver — yes, that was a thing — I’d try to come up with a funny name for it. I’d post selfies on Facebook of a QP and our closing drawer like I was some kind of Scarface of sativa. You’ve probably worked with someone similar to young, dumb me. Then that changed. Because of that thing I said is hard to talk about.

My first patient who passed away came in with her son and daughter-in-law. She had been diagnosed with cancer, relegated to a wheelchair that didn’t at all fit her. See, it was evident that the disease had taken its toll on each of them, but she had a strength and dignity that surpassed her current limitations. After we finished the requisite paperwork, she grilled me for a solid 45 minutes.

“Grilled” might be an understatement. How we grew, the chemicals we used, what types of edibles and hash we had, vaporizers and a dozen other topics I can no longer remember — all while her son/caregiver stood by, his face a mix of bewilderment and exhaustion. I threw out some B.S. that sounded good when I didn’t have an answer. And then, without buying anything, they left.

Read more of our open letter to budtenders …