How Should Budtenders Respond?
By Jordan Wellington, Simplyfya Cofounder and Chief Compliance Officer
In many ways, working as a budtender is similar to working at other types of retail establishments. Whether it is a small clothing boutique, a giant grocer, a liquor store or a medical cannabis dispensary, employees are expected to have knowledge of the products, provide quality customer service, and follow standard operating procedures for everything from conducting transactions to accounting for inventory in compliance with state public health and safety standards. But there are some aspects of working at a licensed cannabis retailer that are quite unique, and, if not properly addressed, can cause trouble for employees, businesses, and the industry as a whole.
In addition to facing background checks and mandatory licensing in some states, budtenders are often asked medical and legal questions that their counterparts in other industries would never encounter. For example, customers at a liquor store would generally not ask the clerk how much beer they should drink to feel the desired effects, or whether wine is helpful or harmful to someone with high blood pressure. It is also hard to imagine a customer asking where they should go to drink the bottle of whiskey they had just purchased.
It is understandable why cannabis customers would have so many questions. Marijuana was illegal for most of their lives. While considerably more information is available now compared to a few years ago, many people are still unfamiliar with it. Not surprisingly, consumers who want guidance from a cannabis expert often look to dispensary employees for advice.
While most budtenders are typically very knowledgeable and just want to be helpful, they are not doctors and they are not attorneys. Therefore, they must avoid providing medical or legal advice, as it could lead to lead to problems for themselves, their employers, and, most importantly, for consumers.
A study released last month in Colorado highlighted the sensitivities surrounding these types of communications between marijuana business employees and the public. Researchers conducted a telephone survey in which two people posing as pregnant women called hundreds of adult-use and medical marijuana dispensaries to ask whether the employee would recommend cannabis as a treatment for morning sickness. About 69 percent of surveyed dispensary employees recommended cannabis, and Westword reported:
Less than a third of the employees contacted told the callers to consult their health-care providers without being prompted by the caller. And nearly 36 percent told the callers that it was safe to use cannabis while pregnant. "After eight weeks, everything should be good with consuming, like, alcohol and weed and stuff, but I would wait an extra week," one employee reportedly said.
The results raised significant concerns among state health officials and regulators, and they highlight an important question: Should budtenders be providing this type of medical advice? Put simply, no, they should not. Whether it is a woman inquiring about cannabis for morning sickness or a man who is curious if it will interact with his heart medication, these are questions that need to be directed to health care professionals.
The dispensary workers involved in the study were surely well intentioned, and it is quite possible that some of them are well versed on the medical research surrounding marijuana and pregnancy. They might even be more knowledgeable than some health care professionals. But they are not health care professionals, so they must be careful not to step over the line into providing medical advice.
Instead, they should follow a clear set of talking points that balance their desire to be helpful with the limitations placed on any non-medical professional. The same rule applies when addressing questions about the legality and the effects of cannabis. Examples of such questions are: when a customer, having just bought a pre-rolled joint, asks if it is legal to smoke it in their hotel room, or when a first-time consumer asks how much cannabis to consume and how long it will take to feel the effects.
It is up to cannabis businesses and industry organizations to ensure budtenders are able to properly address these types of consumer questions. Fortunately, huge strides have already been made in developing best practices and training employees. But this is just the beginning. New workers are joining the industry every day, laws and regulations are evolving, and new products are constantly being introduced to the marketplace. All of this produces an ongoing need for training and education.
To help meet that need, Simplifya organized an event in Denver this month titled, “Say What?! A seminar for cannabis business employees who communicate with the community.” This event provided a few dozen local budtenders with a primer on best practices for handling frequently heard consumer inquiries. The event was led by cannabis compliance experts from Simplifya and Cannabis Trainers, and it was sponsored by some of Colorado’s most prominent cannabis industry groups and businesses. Simplifya plans to put on similar seminars in other states and localities in regulated marijuana jurisdictions.
Jordan Wellington is chief compliance officer at Simplifya and director of compliance at Vicente Sederberg LLC. He previously served as a policy analyst for the Colorado Department of Revenue Marijuana Enforcement Division, where he helped develop the state’s adult-use cannabis regulations.