Growth of regulated cannabis markets forges ahead with new recreational markets expanding access to millions of Americans. What will these new markets need? Budtenders.
The demand for passionate, personable, and educated dispensary staff continues to grow, and many folks are interested in these positions as an entry point into this dynamic industry.
But what does a budtender do? How does this job fit into the bigger picture of a burgeoning industry, and how does one become a budtender? Below, find out more about the job, what's needed to be successful, rates of pay, qualifications, and more.
What is a budtender?
The title “budtender" refers to retail staff who serve customers in a cannabis dispensary setting. Today, you'll see various names given to these positions, such as cannabis consultant, patient care specialist, or wellness expert.
“There are a ton of different monikers for it, but at the end of the day, they are a retail sales associate," said Brett Puffenbarger, Vice President of Marketing at Green Check Verified and former General Manager of Fluent Cannabis in Florida.
While it's true that budtenders are retail sales associates, like all things cannabis, it's more nuanced and complex than you might guess.
What does a budtender do?
Not only do budtenders help customers find cannabis products, but talented budtenders recognize that they also act as educators and ambassadors. While budtending often involves simple and straightforward retail transactions, budtenders are also called upon to do a lot more than grab pre-rolls off a shelf.
“As varied as the strains they offer, budtenders come in many shapes and sizes, but the greatest among them take their jobs seriously," said Stacy Cason, Managing Director of Colorado-based Planeterie. Budtenders can provide customers with an exceptional retail experience by sharing their passion for cannabis with a high level of product and plant knowledge while also tailoring the buying experience to a particular customer or patient's needs.
And, with the advent of federally legal hemp-derived CBD and more states coming online with adult-use markets, brand new cannabis consumers are walking into dispensaries every day.
“When you're new to cannabis, a dispensary can be an intimidating and confusing place," said Nicole Lovett, a budtender at Vermont-based Ceres Collaborative. Budtenders need to not only educate their clientele on cannabis basics like tinctures versus edibles or cannabinoids and terpenes, but they must ensure their customers leave feeling confident in the products they have chosen and how to use them. Budtenders do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to consumer education.
“We like to say budtenders are weed DJs," said Veronica White, a Seattle-based budtender who's been working at Lux Pot Shop for over four years. “Being a good budtender isn't just about your ability to make a sale or explain extraction processes. Most of the job is feeling out what the customer needs at that moment and then drawing on everyone's collective experiences to find them something they'll like."
Essential skills of a budtender
Given the breadth and depth of what a budtender does outside of the basic retail work, there are several soft skills that both the budtenders and dispensary management staff we spoke with agreed were essential for being a successful budtender.
People skills and relationship building
This may seem like a no-brainer, but “people skills" is a blanket term that can mean any number of things depending on the industry you're in. For budtending, the dispensary staff we talked to all echoed the importance of being friendly and approachable, professional, empathetic, and patient.
Much like people having their favorite baristas or servers, many customers come to develop relationships with their budtenders. “People love to befriend their budtender," said Madison Mitchem, the Lead Budtender at Oklahoma City's CLOVR.
In cannabis — more so than many other retail sectors, like electronics or clothing — personal relationships with customers are more nuanced because the plant is complex and because people seek out cannabis to help with everything from managing medical symptoms to enhancing everyday wellness to kicking back and having fun on a Friday night. “Budtenders help make the dispensary a fun and educational place, where customers will hopefully feel comfortable asking questions and giving honest feedback," said Lovett.
Taylor Brown with NOXX dispensaries in Michigan was recently promoted to Assistant Store Manager and approaches customer service with three simple skills that she calls the Three Ps. “If you're positive while you're at work, and you're personable with the customer, and then patient when listening and figuring out their needs, then I think you'll be successful."
In cannabis, there is a level of personal connection that can go far beyond making a sale. Since many people use cannabis for deeply personal reasons, relationship and trust-building go a long way. “Yes, it is retail. Yeah, that is customer service. But at the end of the day, we're humans helping humans," said Randy Villarba, a budtender who has recently moved into a marketing role with San Diego-based March and Ash.
Curiosity and communication skills
No matter the depth of your knowledge base when you get into budtending, being in cannabis means continual learning. Not only do market regulations and laws change frequently, but innovation and scientific discovery are happening daily.
The good news is that the opportunities and resources for learning are abundant. “I, like many other budtenders out there, have done my own extensive research, and that continues to this day," said Tatyana Topasna, a budtender who has worked extensively in the California market. “There are books, podcasts, audiobooks, documentaries, cannabis experts on social media, live lectures and events, as well as training programs put together by experts in the industry."
Communication skills are also a crucial part of budtending, and in cannabis, communication skills become especially important because of the educational role budtenders often take. Being able to explain the difference between rosin and resin or why the onset and duration of edibles vary from person to person in an easy-to-understand and approachable way requires excellent communication skills.
Communication also goes two ways — in addition to being able to speak with clarity and accuracy, budtenders need to be great listeners, too. “You have to be the kind of person that is willing to put the time in and listen to what [the customer is] saying," said Jason Volpe, another budtender turned Assistant Store Manager at NOXX. From listening to the feedback you may get from customers on specific products they've tried to paying attention to the types of questions other budtenders are getting, listening is a way to gain insight and knowledge that can help a budtender become better at their job.
And let's not forget about communicating with co-workers. “Not only the customer feedback, but the watercooler talk can be very, very valuable as well," added Volpe.
A passion for all things cannabis
Cannabis is a countercultural icon that, for many, still carries with it a high level of cachet and coolness. From hot new genetics to innovative form factors, there is a lot to be excited about when it comes to weed. Keeping up with trends and new product developments is important for budtenders.
“Budtenders are expected by the consumer to know everything about every product, so the job can be difficult if they aren't on top of the current trends and research," said Eric Visciana, the Retail Floor Manager at Sol Flower in Arizona.
Cannabis also has deep roots across a variety of communities and a long history that is especially important for understanding the social, cultural, scientific, and commercial context of the plant today.
“For me, it's the medical cannabis culture that got us here and it is still a driving force," said Villarba. History informs much of how the industry is taking shape, from the racist beginnings of prohibition to the war on drugs, its medical and scientific significance to today's social justice movements. “There's something bigger going on here than most people actually give credit to," he added.
Knowledge of your local laws and regulations
Cannabis is a highly regulated industry, and in this way, it's much different from many other retail jobs. Local laws and regulations touch on many aspects of a budtender's position, from what they can say to customers to how much and to whom they can sell. Local laws may also dictate the operating hours of a store, how products must be packaged before leaving the dispensary, what parts of a store a budtender has access to, and who can shop there.
But each state, and even jurisdictions within a state, can vary widely, and laws and regulations often change as these relatively young markets mature. Many states will have mandated educational programs to provide the basics, but having an in-depth understanding of the laws and how dispensaries must operate to be compliant will help you stand out from other applicants and even other coworkers.
Small or new businesses often operate like startups and may need their budtenders to take on responsibility outside the scope of simply being a retail associate. New laws or changes to regulations can directly impact a budtender's job, and state cannabis agencies can pop in for surprise inspections to ensure the dispensary is compliant. In addition to evolving laws and regulations, the customer base, science, and merchandise are also evolving and changing, too. Being nimble and able to pivot is a vital skill for everyone in cannabis.
The highs, mids, and lows of budtending
No job is without its ups and downs, and, according to the budtenders we spoke to, the job can be deeply rewarding while offering some unique challenges.
Pros of being a budtender
- Genuinely helping people. Across the board, the budtenders we spoke to said that helping people was one of the best, if not the best, parts of their job. “The best part of my job is when customers come back and tell me that the product I recommended helped them get a full night's rest, or find pain relief, or discover a new method to consume cannabis — I could go on and on," said Topasna. Cannabis can be a medicine, a tool for self-growth, a supplement for everyday health and wellness, or all of the above (and more), and because of its dynamic nature, it can make a genuine difference in people's lives.
- Breaking residual stigma and normalizing cannabis use. Cannabis has gone mainstream, with outdated opinions and attitudes toward it changing every day. But that doesn't mean that there aren't residual misconceptions or lingering stigma around the plants and the people who use them. “This job allows you to have fun and still make a big difference in the industry by educating people and helping to reverse the stigma around cannabis," said Lovett.
- Meeting the wide variety of folks who use cannabis. As acceptance of and interest in cannabis continues to grow, the types and demographics of the cannabis consumer have never been wider. Understanding that there is no such thing as the “average cannabis consumer" can open up a budtender's worldview and allow them to connect to people that they might not have otherwise. “You see different people from different walks of life and learn about the different reasons people use cannabis," said Villarba.
- Being part of a new and dynamic industry. With all of its ups and downs, rapid growth, and continual evolution, the cannabis industry is an exciting place to be. “I like the startup idea," said Volpe. “I really like helping to build something, watching it grow and exceed all the expectations. It's exciting to be part of something so cool and moving so quickly."
Cons of being a budtender
- Working nights and weekends. A reality for many retail jobs, scheduling can be a bummer. “There's pretty much no way out of working nights and weekends — that's when people need weed the most," said White.
- Difficult customers. Another reality of working in retail and customer service: not every interaction will be seamless. Sometimes customers will be dissatisfied with products, and sometimes your customers won't be feeling well or they might just be having a hard day. “It can be challenging when faced with disrespect or angry customers," said Topasna. “It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it takes deep breathing and understanding that the customer may be going through a hard time in life, and I do my best to help in a professional manner."
- Trial and error. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to cannabis and this can be challenging for both the consumer and the budtender. “As a budtender, you're there to help the customer navigate the experimentation required in finding the perfect product for them, and that could be a long or frustrating journey for some," said Lovett. This is where skills like empathy and patience come in handy.
- Battling residual stigma and misconceptions. Helping to break the stigma and normalize cannabis use, while rewarding, can also be challenging. Even in a setting where people are interested in purchasing cannabis, there may be a residual stigma around the plant, different types of products, and those who use cannabis more generally. In addition, as our understanding of the plant and human physiology advances, it can be hard to get customers to be open-minded to the changes. “It can be difficult to convince some customers that THC percentage is not the most important thing when it comes to picking out the best cannabis products for them," said Sierra Mills, Wellness Expert at The Flower Shop. “There are terpenes and other compounds that are involved, and this is where our training comes in handy."
- The breadth and depth of knowledge needed. Speaking of training, budtenders need to draw upon a wide variety of cannabis knowledge: from consumption methods to cultivation practices, human physiology, and even the plant's sociocultural history. Customers expect budtenders to be able to answer all their questions clearly and accurately, and this requires a high level of commitment. The sheer volume of knowledge can be overwhelming. “There's so much research that we can do," said Brown, “So I would say for anyone trying to get into budtending: just educate, educate, educate."
Do you need experience to be a budtender?
Budtending is an entry-level position, and many dispensaries will not require prior cannabis experience to be hired. Experience in adjacent roles — like general retail, sales, and customer service — is desirable for many managers hiring budtenders. “I landed my first budtending position mainly with lots of customer service and retail experience," said Lovett.
While budtending is entry-level, and many employers require no previous experience, there are a few ways in which you can improve your chances of landing a job while setting yourself up for success.
All things cannabis — from the plant itself to the product landscape to regulation — can be complex. Being a successful budtender requires a deep knowledge base. And depending on the market and the individual business, getting a budtending job can be quite competitive. Some dispensaries provide training for new hires, but having basic cannabis knowledge before getting the job can be a great asset.
“Customers can and will ask a variety of in-depth questions regarding growing, manufacturing, and consuming, and it's expected that their budtender has the answers," said Mitchem.
At a bare minimum, budtenders need knowledge of topics and concepts such as:
- Different consumption methods, their onset times, and the duration of effects
- Basic physiology of the endocannabinoid system
- Cannabis types such as sativa, indica, and hybrid, along with an appreciation of how our understanding of these standard strain categories is changing
- Common cannabinoids and terpenes
- Concentrate consistencies and extraction methods
- Vape oil types
- Edibles and dosing
- How to use common accessories like vape pens and dab rigs
- Local possession and consumption laws
- General cultivation and plant processing knowledge
Is budtender certification necessary?
Budtender certification programs and other paid certificates may help you gain a robust knowledge of cannabis but they may not be necessary to get a budtender job. As the industry as a whole grows, more dispensaries are offering robust in-house education and training programs to their staff.
In the absence of employer-provided training, budtenders may wish to seek out third-party educational programs to help give them the foundations they need. There are many training options out there, but according to certified cannabis nurse Rebecca Abraham, “not all of this education is created equal." Abraham is also the CEO and founder of Acute on Chronic, a medically focused education provider that services both the cannabis industry and healthcare professionals.
Educational needs may vary depending on whether a budtender is working in a medical versus recreational setting. Still, foundational knowledge of the science of cannabis and cannabis products is universally useful. Quality can vary, so be sure to do your homework before spending your own money on a program. Abraham recommends looking for programs coming from academia, licensed healthcare professionals, or well-reputed cannabis industry professionals.
Some states require that you obtain a permit or complete registration to work in their cannabis industries, you can learn more about your state's requirements here. Often, working in cannabis requires a criminal background check and if a permit or registration is required, this typically involves paying a fee.
Is budtending a full-time job?
More dispensaries are offering full-time budtending positions alongside part-time work.
Budtender Nicole Lovett appreciates the security and stability of her full-time position with Ceres Collective. “I work 40 hours a week in my current position, with benefits, paid time off, and insurance available to all of Ceres' employees," she said. At March and Ash in San Diego, employees are unionized, which ensures better wages, access to healthcare, and subsidized child care, among other benefits.
How much do budtenders make?
Budtending positions are most often hourly, though some dispensaries offer salaries to full-time employees. According to the cannabis hiring platform Vangst, in 2021, budtenders typically made $14 to $25 per hour. Cannabiz Team reports an annual budtender salary range of $36,300 to $46,700 in 2022.
These reported hourly wages and salaries do not include tips, which are often part of the retail experience at dispensaries. Budtenders are considered to be part of the service industry and as such, tipping can be a gracious way to thank your budtender for good service. In addition, budtenders may be offered a variety of non-monetary perks like product samples and discounts.
Can budtending become a career?
Several of the budtenders we spoke to had recently moved up into supervisory or management positions within their stores. Because the industry is growing so quickly, there is ample room for advancement into roles like Shift Lead, Merchandising Manager, Inventory Specialist, Assistant Store Manager, Retail Floor Manager, and then into more senior positions like Assistant General Manager and General Manager.
Beyond this track of retail store-specific positions, opportunities will vary from business to business. Some dispensaries are stand-alone operations, which would mean advancement options are limited to the store itself. Other businesses have multiple locations and may have a corporate business structure with a centralized office to handle functions like finance, human resources, and marketing. “Everyone currently working in [the Lux Pot Shop] corporate office started as a budtender," said White.
Depending on the state you live in, companies may also be vertically integrated, which means that they own and operate the entire supply chain from cultivation to retail. They may also offer opportunities to move into other areas of the business like cultivation or extraction, for example, all with their own career paths. “Within our growing company, we are opening up positions for wholesale, production, edible kitchen, extraction, and lab roles," said Mills. “There is always room to advance in my career and this was one of the biggest reasons I chose to work [at The Flower Shop]."
Research the businesses you're interested in
Many of the budtenders we spoke to did a lot of research on the companies in their local markets before applying for jobs. “For me, the environment is super important when you're looking for a position," said Brown. “So I did look into a lot of different dispensaries and saw who was hiring and what their mission statement is. It's so important to understand the place you are going to be working at."
If you have your eye on a cannabis career, understanding the business structure and the opportunities beyond the retail store can help you find a good fit. Be sure to inquire about opportunities for advancement in your interview. “That was a big question in my interview," said Brown. “And [NOXX] was true to their word. Now I am an assistant manager."
Many assume budtending is a simple entry-level retail job, but given the complexity and dynamic nature of the industry, the consumers, and the plants themselves, being a budtender is a vitally important job in this young and evolving space.
Budtenders are often the first point of contact for folks who are completely new to cannabis, and they often do the heavy lifting when it comes to consumer education. For those who have a genuine interest in helping people and helping to advance the industry as a whole, budtending can be a great way to make your mark and help shape the industry's future.