The irony is as pungent as a freshly cracked jar of kush. Less than a decade after voting Amendment 64 into law, Coloradans have confirmed through both their dollars and their delegates that recreational cannabis is an essential industry in the era of COVID-19. Despite the widespread — though certainly not unanimous — consensus that access to legal weed can alleviate cabin fever and thereby make stay-at-home directives easier to follow, finding a solution that would allow dispensaries to stay open and stay safe remains elusive. In exchange for providing a bit of relief from the tedium of quarantine, cannabis-industry professionals get to remain gainfully employed, yet the nature of their employment is in constant flux. For employees on the ground, this period of uncertainty requires adapting and re-adapting to new procedures on a near-daily basis, awkwardly fielding questions from concerned customers and desperately hoping that strangers aren't going to cough into your face.
I started budtending earlier this year because it seemed like a relatively undemanding way to earn some stable income while still pursuing a career in writing and comedy. Indeed, compared to any other customer service I'd done, the job was a breeze. Customers were easygoing, the tips were pretty good, co-worker drama was minimal, and I hardly thought of work at all once my shifts were done. Throughout February and the lion's share of March, business continued much as usual. As alarms about the oncoming pandemic began ringing louder, however, we installed extra hand-sanitizing stations by each door, taped tiny square boundaries six feet apart to encourage social distancing, and changed into a fresh pair of latex gloves between each transaction. While I dreaded the seeming inevitability of the crisis getting worse, I had no idea what it would mean for my hitherto chill job of selling weed.
I hardly need to tell you that all hell broke loose when Mayor Michael Hancock announced the temporary closure of liquor stores and recreational marijuana dispensaries on March 23. After an initial swell of gratitude that I'd managed to clock out before hordes of panic-buyers swarmed the store where I work, I spent the next few hours worrying that I'd be laid off before the day was over. Though the mayor clarified his remarks a few hours later, assuring frenzied locals that they weren't in fact getting cut off from their supply of weed and booze, chaos nevertheless reigned over the next few days as people stocked up for the coming isolation. I often remarked that if consumers weren't held to a legal limit of one ounce per day, weed would be harder to find than toilet paper.
The weeks that followed included a litany of adjustments. For example, my store installed a sneeze-guard-like plexiglass window to put yet another barrier between its employees and any disease-spreading droplets the public might cough up — an essential safety measure that nevertheless makes hearing difficult and each transaction far less personable. Fear of cross-contamination means shoppers can no longer follow their nose to find the strain that's right for them, and small talk seems like a luxury of a pre-corona era. A brief and industry-wide experiment with curbside sales befuddled staff and consumers alike, and unfortunately harked back to the bad old days of the black market. There's just something inherently unsavory about exchanging cash for cannabis in a parking lot, no matter what the industry's evolving legal framework dictates. Personally, I was just happy that we were permitted to move sales back indoors before it snowed again.
The job of budtender has become a bizarro version of itself; obliging customer's whims for the sake of salesmanship has been supplanted by issuing stern and frequent reminders to step six feet back and masking our frustration when someone whines about not being able to stick their nose in a weed jar. Rather than forging bonds with regulars and trying to charm your way into a generous tip, sales must be conducted with brusque efficiency. The nakedly transactional nature of each sale is vitally necessary: Not only do the airborne droplets that can carry coronavirus spray forth with every word a person speaks, but our store maintains a strict limit of six customers in the building at any given time, and people get surly when they have to wait in line outside.
So while self-isolating is a necessarily lonely endeavor, and shopping at the dispo provides a rare opportunity for otherwise housebound weed smokers to engage in a bit of social normalcy, our status as an essential service isn't an invitation for you to go out and mix it up with the public. I'm aware that for many customers, budtenders represent the first opportunity for human interaction you've had in days, but now is not the time to share your COVID-19 conspiracy theories or Tiger King reactions — DM for those! Now is the time to get the weed you need and hurry the fuck home.
If you sincerely want to keep essential workers safe and continue to buy recreational cannabis without making your budtender hate you, consider the following handy guide to proper dispensary etiquette in the time of coronavirus:
Take advantage of online ordering wherever possible
The dispensary where I work had no online ordering infrastructure in place before the outbreak reached American shores, but the IT department implemented a brand-new system and had things running smoothly —notwithstanding a few hiccups here and there— within a couple of days. Now more than ever, cannabis consumers should do as much research and pre-preparation as possible before walking through the doors of their favorite dispensary. Budtenders will still be on hand to answer any questions you might have before handing over any of your increasingly precious cash, but answering informed questions is always preferable to scrambling to find the product you want based on a fuzzy recollection of what the package looked like.
Trust your budtender
I say this at least four times a day, and I'll reiterate it here: No, you can't smell the jars right now. I typically follow my nose —rather than lab-tested THC content or indica/sativa designation — when selecting strains, so I readily concede that the dispensary experience is incomplete without the buffet of smells on offer. However, since the wrong nose is capable of contaminating an entire yield, now is the time to study up on terpenes. Like Sour Diesel but don't see it on the shelf? Educate yourself about the terpene profile of your favorite strain and you should be able to find a suitable replacement (and perhaps even a new favorite). When in doubt, ask your budtender for recommendations. Most of us are connoisseur-level stoners who've tried most of the products in the inventory, from edibles or vapes to the flower you're no longer allowed to smell. As a result, we're well suited to find what you need for the best deal possible.
Don't show up in large groups
Tourists (whom our store continues to serve in large numbers despite stricture against non-essential travel) love to mob up at the dispensary. While permissible — though almost always irritating — in normal times, large groups present an undue burden on budtenders during the current crisis. In order to adhere to the store's mandated six-person capacity, we effectively have to allow your band of bros to take the entire building hostage while you gawk at the vast array of edibles on sale. You wouldn't squad up to lurk at a grocery store these days, so don't crowd our sales floor with a bunch of unnecessary breathers. Right now, you should only go into a dispensary if you intend to buy something. If you're shopping for other people — which is fine, as long as you don't explicitly mention it, and you definitely don't need to — pool your money and sort your order beforehand so you can minimize your collective risk of exposure. And if you all intend to purchase your legal daily limit of cannabis, enter the store one at a time. These suggestions may take some of the fun out of shopping for weed, but they're a small sacrifice to make if it means keeping you and all your loved ones safe (and stoned) throughout the quarantine.
Tip your budtender
Budtenders rely on tips in the best of times, and we are probably in the midst of the worst of times. After an initial rush of panic-buying that saw sales rise 390 percent during the hours that followed Hancock's quickly rescinded order to close all non-medical dispensaries, the shopping surge is beginning to taper off. It's reasonable to expect the decline in sales to deepen as the unexpected and involuntary unemployment for waiters, entertainers, bartenders and any worker who relied upon drawing a crowd to make a buck persists. Budtenders may have the good fortune to keep working through this time of uncertainty, yet our fortunes feel far from secure. Ailments as minor as an allergy season-based runny nose that might have been overlooked last year (as stores ramped up for 4/20 crowds) are now sufficient grounds for an unpaid day off. If you have the privilege of working from home or collecting furloughed salary, consider paying it forward to the workers risking public interaction each day to keep you comfortable during quarantine. No tip is too small, either; the symbolism of gratuity is often as important as the value of currency exchanged. Forty cents may seem like an insubstantial sum, but by pocketing that return on your purchase, you're effectively saying, "Fuck you, I'd rather pay for half a load of laundry than acknowledge your service." In other words: Street parking is free now, so let your budtender keep the damn change.
While it should be obvious that anyone exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 should self-isolate immediately, one can never underestimate the human capacity for reckless disregard of public health. Just last week, a woman attempting to shop at the store where I work flatly admitted to struggling with all the worrisome signs of infection (fever, fatigue, dry cough), and then tried to hand me her virus-riddled ID with an ungloved hand. I don't relish treating strangers like they're lepers from some biblical epic, but it's unconscionable to put everyone you encounter at risk just because it might be nice to eat some weed gummies.
Tending bud in the time of coronavirus is a lot like doing anything else right now. We're all trying to maintain some sense of normalcy while faced with far more questions than answers. While much of what the future might hold remains in doubt, one indisputable truth resounds loud and clear over the din of widespread social anxiety: Don't be a dick to your budtender. We're putting our health at risk for forty hours a week to make your quarantine less boring, so the least you can do is hurry up and buy your weed.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.