Walk into a cannabis dispensary nowadays and it’ll leave you feeling quite literally like a kid in a candy store. Cookies and chocolate and brownies and gummies line the shelves. Flower and pre-rolls and concentrates and vape pens are on display, probably in some cute jars and cases. There’s even sort-of weed wines and sort-of weed beers in mini fridges at some spots. The sheer variety of product on display compared to the days of pre-recreational legalization is stunning.
Which is a good thing, of course. But as is the case with any new market, uncertainty abounds. Regulations for cannabis dispensaries vary from city to city, packaging regulations are in a seemingly constant and fast-paced state of evolution, and a lack of consistent and widely enforced safety protocols can create widespread uncertainty and panic, as evidenced by the current vape-pen scare. And while THC and CBD were once the only cannabinoids most casual users knew of, the emergence of other compounds like THCV, THCA, and CBG can make a gal feel like she needs a PhD in organic chemistry just to pop into a dispensary and find something to take the edge off.
So, what’s the cannabis-curious adventurer to do as we strike out into this newly illuminated and ever-changing landscape? Find yourself a guide to navigate those glittering shelves of green. A cannabis retail expert, a.k.a. a budtender, can easily be your best and most accessible resource when it comes to creating your ideal cannabis experience.
Not only is a good budtender well-versed in the technical aspects of cannabis and can confidently answer all your questions about the differences between cannabinoids, how to store your product, and what the heck a terpene is, but ideally, they’re also passionate advocates for cannabis and all its sundry uses, whether you’re using it for medical or recreational purposes.
We spoke to a handful of the best of the best in two hubs for cannabis retail—Los Angeles and Long Beach, California—about how to find your ideal budtender and (beyond that), a cannabis community in which you feel confident and comfortable.
Find a dispensary that fits your vibe
In states that have shifted from medical use to recreational use, a cultural shift has ensued; more and more, dispensaries are leaning more into the ganja-meets-Goop vibe than the Dank Smoke Den Dot Com aesthetic of yesteryear. And while appearances certainly don’t dictate everything, it’s partly a reflection of the fact that women are among the fastest-growing groups of cannabis consumers. Stores that are adjusting to the broadening of the cannabis-consumer demographic are the ones that will continue to flourish.
“In states that have shifted from medical use to recreational use, a cultural shift has ensued. Stores that are adjusting to the broadening of the cannabis-consumer demographic are the ones that will continue to flourish.”
“The ambiance of the store has a lot to do with it,” notes Bree Mares, the manager of the Belmont Shore location of Connected Cannabis Co. in Long Beach. “[Customers] have to feel welcome and that it’s a nice environment.” Mares notes that because Belmont Shore has a large number of older customers, many of whom are newly turning to cannabis for medical reasons, their customer service approach has been tailored accordingly.
“It’s about asking the right questions. Do they have $20 to spend and they want to just get in and get out, or are they looking for a solution to their problems? The key to being a good budtender is having the patience and understanding to figure that out and really listen to how they talk about their needs and the products they use.”
At The Pottery in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles, budtender Nick Prete notes that through design, layout, and store policies, they’ve tried to counteract some of the associations people have developed from older retail models—namely, the feeling that you’re on lockdown the second you walk through the doors, with security guards and cameras all around you. Whereas older dispensaries may require you to stay seated or stand in line until a budtender is ready to help you, The Pottery displays its products openly on countertops and encourages customers to explore on their own. They even encourage customers to take photos—a strict no-no at most dispensaries.
“Trust goes both ways,” Prete says, “and the whole experience is about approachability.”
Have a think about your ideal cannabis experience
Amidst new regulations and enforcement policies (or lack thereof), one of the first and most important things is to ensure that the dispensary you’re patronizing is licensed for recreational use. According to a recent survey conducted by the United Cannabis Association, there were nearly 3,000 unlicensed dispensaries and delivery services operating in California this last year. Only 873 retailers have licenses.
Shopping at a licensed facility is essential to consumer safety. For dispensaries operating illegally, they’re already taking a huge risk, Mares explains, and thus may not be motivated to stock rigorously tested products, which generally cost more. “A store is a store to most people, so it’s deceiving,” she adds. “But if they’re telling you they’ll give you free joints, that’s a giveaway, because that’s breaking the law.”
Once you’ve identified a licensed dispensary you want to check out, Omar Hussain, the general manager at Herbarium in Los Angeles, recommends taking some time to reflect on what you want out of your cannabis experience. Some of his budtenders are experts in pain relief or sleep aids, for example, whereas others are full of recommendations for using cannabis as a catalyst for creativity. “When a creative talks to another creative, they can really connect,” he says. “The heart that we have here, whatever you might be looking for, provides a healing service. It’s not just the cannabis but the compassion we have. And those are relationships we see being built.”
Prete at The Pottery also suggests considering not only what you want to consume, but how. Consider whether you’re sensitive to inhaling, in which case a joint, flower, or vape pen may not be the right choice. On the other hand, if you’re looking to feel the effects quickly, edibles generally take longer than other methods. “It can get overwhelming really quickly,” Prete says. “Trust the budtender and let them guide you. I generally don’t speak to anything I haven’t tried, because I’m vouching for a product experience and that trust is so important.”
Mares adds that it’s important to keep in mind that the experience one person may have with a certain product can vary widely from the experience someone else has. “Pay attention to what your body likes. Everyone has a different cannabinoid system,” she says. “Try to see what you liked and what you didn’t like and take note of that for your next experience.”
Channel your inner four year old and ask ALL the questions
The number one most important thing to know when it comes to finding a good budtender? There’s no such thing as a dumb question—really. Hussain acknowledges that since the transition from medical to recreational use in California, the average user doesn’t have as much baseline knowledge about cannabis in general. And for Los Angeles in particular, cannabis tourism is a real thing; people who have never used cannabis before are coming in just to check things out.
“The beautiful thing about cannabis is that it’s really welcoming.”
“Don’t be afraid to tell them you don’t know anything if you don’t know anything. They can walk you through it; they want to help you learn,” he says. “The beautiful thing about cannabis is that it’s really welcoming.”
Prete adds that amidst a marketplace that is evolving so rapidly, budtenders are also your go-to resource for safety concerns because they are constantly researching and testing products ahead of putting them on shelves. They’ll also happily show you certificates of analysis (COAs) for products, if you’d like to make sure the ingredients of a certain product are in line with what you’re looking for.
“A good budtender isn’t selling you something just to sell it,” he says. “They should want you to walk away with exactly what you want.”