Like a sommelier of cannabis, a budtender is a trained weed expert

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Grant Sanderson teaches cannabis enthusiasts how to sell legal weed.

The regional manager, cannabis division, of Alcanna, which runs the Nova Cannabis chain of legal dispensaries in Ontario and Alberta, explains regulatory compliance, methods of consumption and the lineage of more than 50 different strains. He’s being doing this since June, and more than 200 people have graduated from his four-day program to become legal dealers or “budtenders.”

He’s never had to kick anyone out of class for being stoned.

“If people want to consume cannabis outside of operational hours, that’s up to them,” says Sanderson, who has a background in hospitality and a business degree from the University of Alberta. “But these are professional training seminars and you can’t work impaired.”

The drop-out rate is also very low. “When we hire someone in retail cannabis, it turns out they’re very engaged.”

There is perhaps no job more influential in cannabis consumer tastes than that of the budtender, the point of contact through which as many as 70 percent of cannabis users will purchase their goods, based almost entirely on recommendation. While the budtender can’t, by law, specify any type of medical reaction to the different strains — for example, which will alleviate anxiety, aid in sleeplessness or boost appetite — they can offer their personal experiences on what’s mellow, what’s potent, what has the most THC or why a particular customer might be best served by topical CBD oils instead of pre-rolled THC joints.

Hilary Black started the British Columbia Compassion Club Society in 1998 and now acts as Canopy’s chief advocacy officer. The largest licensed cannabis producer in the world shares its data for free with provincial governments and has been serving 80,000 medical patients a year for the past five years. Canopy also operates Hi Society, a budtender education program for retail workers. Canopy also sells cannabis  to retail customers through its ownership of the Tokyo Smoke pot shop at Yonge and Bloor in Toronto.

Black says the budtender is critical because the world is watching how Canadians respond to our experiment in legal weed. “We have this privilege of representing a new industry and we want to maximize benefit, minimize risk and the budtender — a term I don’t love because it diminishes the role of a good cannabis counsellor — navigates the consumer through this newly regulated world.”  She says a great “counsellor” meets each new customer with an open mind.

“Knowledge of the plant is really important, but for me the job is about compassion and listening and understanding where each person is coming from,” says Black. “The world is watching us and if people are ‘greening out’ or their dogs are eating their weed cookies, it will bolster cannabis prohibition around the globe. Educators have the responsibility of sharing this plant.”

Watching the “educators” at Toronto’s downtown Hunny Pot on a Tuesday in July is impressive. The first legal dispensary to open in the city, the Hunny Pot sees up to 1,700 customers a day and receives weekly shipments of $25,000 worth of new cannabis, often featuring as many as 10 new products. The store at Queen Street and University Avenue is a bustling three floors, including a shelf in the second-storey lobby featuring “staff picks,” which, says budtender-trainer Sean Stevenson, “we highly recommend.”

Stevenson says that he meets often with the licensed producers to learn about their products’ special selling points. For instance, Up Cannabis plays music for its plants, including tunes by Dr. Dre and the Tragically Hip. And while customers want to know which strains have the highest THC, they also want to nerd out on terpene (flavour) profiles and growing techniques.

“There was a large grey area in cannabis, when fibbing and exaggeration ruled the industry, but consumers are getting smarter and we train our budtenders to deal in science and fact,” says Stevenson, adding that it’s not necessary for his staff to be cannabis consumers (but nearly all of them are).

Lift & Co. is a company that posts user-sourced reviews of cannabis strains. It also works with Mothers Against Drunk Driving on comprehensive, legally mandated cannabis budtender education courses in Ontario, called CanSell. Jon Kamin is Lift’s chief revenue officer and says that legalization 2.0, which will see edibles, concentrates, topicals and more introduced to the market as early as this fall, could bring another seven percent of the country to cannabis.

“It’s early days of what’s going to be approved by Health Canada, but at the same time we know budtenders are essential for onboarding willing consumers and we’re already working on getting them certified with updated edibles content,” says Kamin. He adds that 5.3 million Canadians consumed cannabis in the past three months, and 1.5 million Canadians, who wouldn’t otherwise get high, are likely to try edibles upon phase two of legalization.

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