The Weed Whisperer: My Life as a Pot Dispensary Employee

It’s the American Dream: Go to college, get a degree, graduate with honors, start selling weed.

To be fair, I was an English major, so becoming a budtender in the wild, wild West of Denver’s marijuana industry seemed like a pretty reasonable gig.

I’d had my first dispensary experience several years earlier. Just as the green rush was beginning in 2009, I went to see a doctor in Fort Collins, said something along the lines of “Ouch, my back,” and was promptly handed my temporary medical card. Stepping into an actual pot shop for the first time was surreal: I wanted to touch every beautiful jar of bud, like a nineteen-year-old kid in a candy shop. It was a shock to realize that I could choose what I wanted rather than swap money for whatever weed my dealer happened to be offering in the parking lot. And the helpful budtender seemed to have the coolest job in the world. I visited him often before graduating, leaving Fort Collins and moving back to my home town of Denver.

A friend got me a job with a local medical dispensary in the fall of 2013. By then, the industry was much more regulated; many of the lessons the state had learned while licensing MMJ centers would be applied to the new recreational stores getting ready to open. I was assigned to a small, upstairs location in a relatively seedy part of central Denver; I called it “the treehouse of weed.”

I would morph my sales pitch for whoever came through the door, whether it was a Civic Center Park dime-bag dealer who’d somehow gotten a card or a fifty-year-old mother of four who worked as a librarian. I had patients who were cancer survivors, patients with MS, patients with everything from inflammatory ailments to gastrointestinal illnesses — all of which were seriously helped by marijuana. I tried to cater to my regulars, and would hide special batches of weed in the back room for them. One patient reminded me of my aunt; her favorite way to ingest cannabis was with a delicious mint chocolate bar, so I would put a few aside for her when I knew she’d be coming back to re-up.

The treehouse of weed had very affordable prices for medical patients, but I knew that sometimes meant we were the weed dealers’ weed dealer — that some of our patients were reselling at least a portion of the cannabis they bought from us. About 60 percent of our customers bought their “limit” every day. The lowest possible daily limit in Colorado is two ounces, and extended plant counts can elevate that to pounds per day; even the lower limits are a lot more more than the most seasoned smoker can possibly use.

A metal bat and a panic button were my only forms of security, despite the fact that I was sitting on pounds of weed and thousands of dollars in cash at any given time. Like many dispensaries, ours had a weekly deal: Wax Wednesday, which brought the grams of concentrates down to $20 or $25 apiece. A patient’s bill when they bought their limit in wax might be $1,200 or $1,600 — cash only, one sale. I was the key holder but not a manager, so I had the cushy task of opening and closing the store for $10 an hour. Still, the panic button just collected dust under my cash register. Not because I necessarily felt safe, but because I usually got high before my shift and forgot to wear it. Although I would have risked less and made more if I were slangin’ shirts at H&M, I loved the job.

But things were changing quickly — including prices, which were going up, and up, for recreational sales. That was a whole different animal.

I began selling recreational cannabis on January 1, 2014, the first day for retail sales. The lines were long and the days were chaotic; I spent upwards of thirteen hours on my feet, talking nonstop. To save my voice, I would gather would-be customers in groups, explaining Colorado’s rules, explaining Colorado’s cannabis. There wasn’t time to eat or use the restroom. Not all places have tip jars, but our store did — and we liked to see them used. I tried to provide as much information as I could, working off years of experience. Some people didn’t know how to use a pipe, so I would teach them or point them in the direction of our pre-rolled joints and show them the best method for lighting one. I remember thinking, “Someone just put $100 in my tip jar for explaining how to smoke weed.” I was like the weed whisperer; I would hold a package up to my ear and pretend I could translate for it. “What’s that? Oh, it says it’s 80 percent indica.”

One person paid me the highest possible compliment when he called me the “Yoda of weed.” Much to learn have you.

I learned that there is no stereotypical stoner, not anymore. Just as MMJ patients came in all shapes and sizes, so did rec buyers — though they were predominantly tourists. We had a map that showed where customers came from, and it spanned the globe. No matter where they lived, though, they were all curious. Some of these buyers hadn’t smoked weed in decades, or ever. Their minds were blown by the creative edibles, vape pens, concentrates and new ways to smoke pot. And their number-one question: Where could they smoke it?

For the most part, the customers treated me with respect, and I enjoyed working with them. The dispensary’s owners? Not so much. With the money rolling in, they bought new cars, fancy clothes, Rolex watches and even a gold-plated conference table. They didn’t share the wealth with their employees. And even though wages have risen over the past year — most budtenders start at $12 to $13 an hour, with managers closer to $20 — they’re still low considering what a big cash crop pot is. But at least most stores now have security guards and offer employee benefits.

I didn’t wait around to watch the business evolve, at least not from the inside. My dispensary job was like an abusive boyfriend: He was kinda hot at the time, but he just didn’t treat me right. Still, I’m a romantic at heart. I love the cannabis industry, and I love the potential it holds for Colorado. It’s a match made in heaven — or close enough.
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Lindsey Bartlett is a writer, photographer, artist, Denver native and weed-snob. Her work has been published in Vanity Fair, High Times and Leafly, to name a few.
Contact: Lindsey Bartlett