Bud Tender: An Emerging Occupation in Oregon

by Guy Tauer

November 6, 2018

In July 2015, with the passage of ballot measure 91, adults 21 and older could legally possess and consume cannabis within private residences. Starting in October 2015, medical marijuana dispensaries were allowed to sell limited quantities of cannabis flowers or “buds” to any adult 21 and older. As of January 1, 2017 sales are allowed at licensed recreational retailers. Previously, medical marijuana dispensaries were also allowed to sell to recreational customers – any adult over 21 years old. Currently, recreational dispensaries may sell cannabis to both recreational and medical customers, with only recreational customers subject to taxes. Now medical-only dispensaries are only allowed to sell cannabis to those with a medical marijuana card.

There are now nine states along with Washington D.C. where adults can possess and consume limited quantities of marijuana without fear of prosecution by law enforcement. Support for marijuana reached new highs in 2018. A Gallup poll showed that 64 percent of Americans favor legalization. Recently, recreational marijuana became legal nationwide in Canada. Legal marijuana sales exploded to $9.7 billion in North America in 2017, according to a report from Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics. That represents a 33 percent increase over 2016.

Now that Oregon voters have approved legalization, and the federal government, so far, has allowed states to adopt their own laws regarding cannabis, there are currently 592 actively licensed recreational dispensaries where marijuana can be obtained as of October 2018, up from about 490 in the summer of 2017, according to a database maintained by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC). The Oregon Health Authority, which oversees the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, shows just five medical-only dispensaries left in Oregon, down from 22 a year ago. Applications for medical marijuana dispensaries peaked in 2015 when there were 751 medical dispensary applications filed with the Oregon Health Authority. The pendulum has swung rapidly to the recreational side of the industry, based on the number of licenses granted, evolving rules, and broader societal acceptance of cannabis.

Introducing … the Bud Tender

On the medical or recreational side, marijuana dispensaries are the storefront of the marijuana industry, and the occupation most common in those establishments is a cannabis dispensary technician, also known as a “bud tender.” Those are the people who stand behind the counter with a dizzying array of cannabis flower varieties, edibles, concentrates, topicals and vaporizers that are available for sale. But if you want a job as a bud tender, don’t think just because you have smoked a lot of pot for many years, you have what it takes to sell weed, legally.

According to dispensary owners, at the end the day, it’s a retail business and the same attributes you would want in someone selling shoes at a shoe store are similar to what you would want in someone working behind the counter at a marijuana store. Employers expect their bud tenders to have excellent customer service skills and be very knowledgeable about the products they are offering.

Wade Hall, the owner of Top Shelf Wellness Center in Phoenix, discussed his employee handbook, which not only covers the usual rules and regulations that any business would expect employees to know, but also the complex and quickly evolving rules and regulations that apply to the cannabis industry in Oregon. He also tests the knowledge of his employees about regulations and the marijuana industry in general. His bud tenders need to understand the software and computer system that tracks customers and sales, and that they are collecting accurate taxes on recreational sales as required by the State of Oregon.

One of the rewarding aspects of Mr. Hall’s new business is seeing how cannabis has proven to help his customers, either for pain suppression, appetite increase, or in one instance he told about seizure relief that was previously not obtained through traditional pharmaceutical remedies and prescription drugs. Recall that for recreational use, customers must be 21 and older. In this instance, a younger person had been plagued for years with constant seizures, and had gained weight and had poor quality of life with little relief from traditional medicine. With a doctor’s prescription, he was able to obtain medical cannabis and regain much of his quality of life, remain seizure free for many months, and lose the weight that was a side effect of the prescription medication he had been taking previously. The strain this customer was obtaining was very low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the psychoactive chemical in cannabis – but had more of the cannabidiol (CDB) chemical associated with some of the medicinal qualities of cannabis. All the bud tenders I spoke to talked about how rewarding it was to be able to help people and legally obtain relief for some conditions they were plagued by.

I asked Mr. Hall about difficulty in finding workers or challenges in hiring. He said he doesn’t have to recruit because he gets many inquiries regarding employment opportunities at his business. In his employees, Mr. Hall looks for people who are personable and make his customers comfortable in this business. He said like any business, he expects his employees to keep up on cleaning, making sure that his business runs well and projects a professional image to customers and his business neighbors. On the flip side of this new industry equation are anecdotes about employers in other industries lamenting about the dearth of formerly available workforce who have found work in the burgeoning bud business.

One of the Top Shelf Wellness Center employees, Dale Nielson III, spoke at length about really understanding how different strains of cannabis, based on their genetics and strain, would affect those who consume it. He had a detailed notebook of chemical compounds that different strains possessed, whether it was an “Indica” or “Sativa” strain, and percentages of compounds such as THC and CBD – acronyms for some of the chemicals in cannabis that induce an uplifting feeling, or more of a relaxing sensation. He discussed some strains known to suppress appetites, which he said would not be recommended for someone such as a cancer patient who was experiencing nausea as a side effect from treatment, but he could point them to different strains that would increase appetite, or give “the munchies,” as it’s more commonly known.

Mr. Nielson also noted that not every person will have the same reaction to different strains of cannabis flowers. Every person’s body chemistry is slightly different, so working with customers to find out what works best for the effect they would like is an important part of a bud tender’s job. One of his responsibilities is keeping current about new products and strains of marijuana that they offer. I asked about career path possibilities, and he thought that at some point, he would consider possibly going into business for himself.

Trends in Sales and Customers

I also asked about what demographic most of the bud tenders served. Most said it was an “older” crowd of 30 and up. I had to laugh when 30s was considered “older.” They felt that maybe younger people couldn’t afford the slightly higher prices that dispensaries charged due to having the overhead expenses of a storefront, in addition to the 17 to 20 percent tax now levied on recreational sales. For those that were “older,” they thought that the benefits of dispensary shopping included the many varieties that were offered, and the ability to avoid participation in black market or illegal sales transactions. He also felt that Oregon’s testing program for unwanted pesticides, mold and other impurities was a benefit that their customers are willing to pay a bit more for.

Ben, a bud tender employed at Fireside Dispensary, explained that once people understood that much of the tax was dedicated toward school funding and providing additional resources for addiction treatment and services, they accepted tax as part of the retail price. Medical marijuana is not subject to the tax.

Employment and Wage Measures Are Behind the Times

The Oregon Employment Department doesn’t yet have a lot of hard data about the bud tender occupation. To work in the cannabis industry in Oregon, you are required to obtain a marijuana worker permit. However, these permits don’t differentiate what part of the industry or occupation those workers are in. According to Mark Pettinger, the OLCC’s recreational marijuana program spokesperson, “Because possession of a marijuana worker permit allows an employee to work in any sector of the regulated environment, for any OLCC licensee, we don’t ask applicants for, or track, any specific job category or position they state they will work in. They don’t differentiate between someone “trimming” or someone working as a budtender. As of late October 2018, the total number of people “authorized” to work in the regulated industry – having passed their exam and paid their license fee – was 36,626 with another 18,656 worker permits authorized but not yet paid. A sizable share of those are likely working in the budtender occupation.

However, most dispensaries in the local area had between five and 10 bud tenders employed. Conservatively extrapolating that small sample to the 592 licensed dispensaries statewide means there are likely around 3,000 to 3,500 bud tenders currently working in Oregon. Wages mentioned for local bud tenders ranged from the most common rate of $10 to $11 per hour, up to $17 plus additional tips that customers are welcome to give if so inclined.

For more information about the field of bud tenders, one firm offering a training course is Kenevir Research. They serve Oregon medical marijuana dispensaries, producers and consumers with laboratory services and consulting for cannabis and cannabis businesses. There is also a Facebook page, The BUDtender Society, that was mentioned by a few businesses as a resource for those wanting more information. Another website mentioned was Leafly.com, which has additional information pertinent to the occupation.

Of course, marijuana is still illegal under federal law and cannot be shipped by the postal service, or possessed on national parks or other federal land. And like any substance, it has the potential to be misused and abused. This article shouldn’t be construed as supporting consumption or use of cannabis. But Oregon and some other states’ prohibition of marijuana have ended and a new industry and job opportunities have arisen from these changes. As we measure employment and wages in Oregon and its local areas, we are just trying to keep up with this newly budding sector of the economy.

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