This jar is empty, as all dispensary tip jars should be, according to Cannabist strain reviewer Jake Browne. (Thinkstock / Getty Images)

Why budtenders (still) shouldn’t have tip jars: One pot shopper pushes back

In my almost three-year tenure as a pot critic for The Cannabist, I’ve had my fair share of controversy: ironically suggesting Brainstorm Haze for an oft-concussed Wes Welker, and making the ubiquitous Blue Dream my favorite strain of 2014 come to mind. Nothing tops the response I got when I suggested that budtenders shouldn’t have tip jars, though. Tweets, Facebook messages, comments — and one angry bartender later — I get it: You’re pissed. Perhaps I should have stuck to unfortunate brain damage jokes.

People love tipping budtenders, and budtenders love the extra cash flow. After a lengthy Facebook discussion with budtenders, dispensary shoppers and total squares who have never smoked a single marijuana, I’ve come to one conclusion:

I’m still right.

Before I go full Adam Conover on you — this comedian, by the way, has a great video on why tipping should be banned — let me first explain that I’m not a monster. I’ve worked several jobs where tips were the difference between paying rent or lying to my landlord about why I’m paying rent a week late. This isn’t a referendum on gratuities, but a discussion on whether they’re necessary in dispensaries.

To your arguments:

Budtending is a service position. Servers make tips

Restaurant servers make tips because they earn substantially less hourly than the average American worker: Colorado requires $5.29/hour for the people recommending your pinot noir. Sure, they have the opportunity to make tips, but for every $500 Friday night I had, there was a Tuesday I walked out with $20 and a staff meal for my five-hour shift. It balances out.

Between Craigslist and industry sources, I’d put the average budtender hourly between $11 and $13. That isn’t insignificant: MIT’s calculator puts Denver’s living wage at $11.61 for one adult. Dealing with crap from customers doesn’t entitle you to cash at the end of the day, as any Verizon customer service rep can attest after getting chewed out for hours about their coverage map. Bottom line: Being knowledgeable and providing assistance are requirements at most jobs.

Marijuana display jars
Marijuana is kept in display jars for customers to smell at the Colorado Harvest Company shop in Aurora, Colo., in September 2015. (Brennan Linsley, Associated Press file)

Budtenders hook me up if I tip

As a lush who has absorbed his fair share of free tequila for being a generous tipper, this feels honest. Putting aside the possible legal repercussions of stealing from your employer or misrepresenting the amount of weed you rang someone up for, it always feels good hooking people up. Unfortunately, it’s terrible business.

I once worked for an owner who was infamous for weighing bags a little heavy and giving away things when he was behind the counter. Everyone loved him. They also hated us, the regular budtenders, because we didn’t have that same authority. Quid pro quo isn’t sustainable — and the people who can afford to tip need that extra hookup the least.

It doesn’t hurt anyone to have a jar

On the contrary: It only hurts people. Nothing is stopping you from sliding a few extra bucks your budtender’s way or telling one to keep the change at the end of a transaction. Raise your hand if you’ve heard the adage, “If you can’t afford to tip, you shouldn’t go out to eat.” Now put your hand down, you look silly.

Having a jar means that the tip is an expectation, and for people who can’t afford to tip, it can lead to a lot of guilt. It’s the same reason you wait until the cashier is watching before you drop your dollar in. You shouldn’t feel the need to explain your financial situation at the end of the transaction for fear of receiving worse service in the future, especially as a patient.

It makes me feel better to tip

Again, go for it, but being a decent person with a smile is also a treat. Money isn’t a strong motivator for the average person, so consider a thoughtful act for that special budtender in your life. Hint: Most like baked goods. Another hint: It’s illegal to bring pot food into dispensaries.

My dispensary doesn’t accept tips from patients

How on Earth could I disagree with this? I wouldn’t have until someone brought up an interesting point: Employees would rather work the recreational side of a med/rec store if there’s more tip revenue there. That leaves less qualified or tenured staffers to take care of people who truly need marijuana for medical reasons.

At this point, I’m even depressing myself.

Tips incentivize better service

Many dispensaries pool tips evenly among budtenders and add them to paychecks to avoid tax issues, so the money you think you’re giving to that super helpful gal Mackenzie also gets doled out to Max, who’s as unhelpful as a Festivus pole in a lightning storm. Shouldn’t the goal at a dispensary be great service, regardless of the tip?

Budtenders are underpaid

This is one area where we can agree. As of Jan. 1, budtenders can’t even work on commission. (H/T to Kat Humphries, compliance wizard at Vicente Sederberg, for that little nugget). Budtending isn’t traditional retail: Even when it comes to recreational shoppers, some are still there for medical reasons. There are times when you’re helping strangers figure out which strain is going to give them an appetite after chemotherapy. Wally in the paint section at Home Depot isn’t having those conversations; he’s trying to figure out what would happen if he put his head in the giant shaking machine.

The question we need to ask ourselves is: Should people who are assisting cancer patients be depending on them for tips?

We’ve reached a point where dispensaries can and should do better. I’ve called 2016 the year of the awful budtender, and that’s a function of the pay not matching up to the job description. Instead of tacky jars by the register, we need to demand that employees make a higher wage in an industry swimming with profit. Relying on sick people and tourists to pay your staff is a bigger turnoff than any amount of preroll joint licking.