Budtender Feature: Sarah D

If one thing is clear in the cannabis industry, it’s that regulations guide our interactions. Similar to producers and brands, Budtenders also have to adhere to guidelines when addressing the questions and demands of their customers.

But when information is key to guiding customers, it can sometimes require a little creativity to get the proper messaging across. To help us understand more of the dos and don’ts Budtenders in Ontario face, we chatted with Sarah, an Ottawa Budtender who gave us some insight into how she navigates the consumer sales landscape.

WR: Let’s get started with some easy questions. What store are you working at?

SD: I’m working at Collective Growers in Ottawa.

WR: And how long have you been a budtender?

SD: I’ve been a Budtender for about a year.

WR: That’s great! And what would you say is your favourite thing so far about Budtending?

SD: I would have to say it’s the education. Even though the AGCO regulations make it a bit challenging to adequately convey the information needed to the customer. I really like having, for example, elderly customers coming in and asking what is CBD? What is THC? It’s those kinds of moments of educating them and seeing their mentality changing from what they were taught. I especially like when they say that regular pharmaceuticals don’t cut it for them, and they come back telling me that the CBD helped when [pharmaceuticals] couldn’t. I find it nice to see the stigma breaking down and people being more encouraged to seek these alternative options.

WR: Yeah, for sure. Breaking the stigma around consumption is key to success. Now you mentioned something about regulations, I wanted to talk more about. The whole market has some clear dos and don’ts. Can you tell me what is it about the AGCO regulations that might present a challenge?

SD: AGCO governs the compliance in retail and what’s going on in stores and what kind of interactions are happening. It’s understandable, that we are not allowed to make medical claims, we are budtenders not trained medical professionals. That’s no problem.

We need to be clear that any feedback is subjective. We can relate our personal experiences with a customer, as long as we’re clear that experiences can vary.

It would be helpful if cannabis was treated more equally to alcohol in how it can be described. If the AGCO wants to regulate both, they should be regulated on the same level.

WR: What do you mean?

SD: For example, take the Wana blueberry gummies. I technically wouldn’t be able to say that they taste like blueberry, I can only say that they’re blueberry flavoured.

But if I go into an LCBO and look for wine, they will tell me if it’s dry, sweet, or if it has notes of cherries and whatnot. In this way, I feel like cannabis is not treated equally, and that is a bit of an issue.

WR: Interesting. That seems like it could be a little misleading. But now I’m curious, if you can only note that it is flavoured as such, how would you then describe our White Rabbit OG soft chews. For example, the Craft Blueberry. It isn’t flavoured, there are actual blueberries in the product. It’s on the ingredients panel.

SD: There are some liberties taken when we can discuss how the product tastes if we’ve tried it. But as Budtenders in Ontario, the only descriptions we are allowed to use for a product are the descriptions that come directly from the Licensed Producers. So, if I were to go on OCS website and pull up the product, whatever is there as a description and as criteria for it, can be repeated verbatim to the customer.

WR: That seems a little jarring to a conversation to have to pull up the OCS website each time. But if I’m understanding, having LP approved information on hand makes it easier for you to converse with customers about a product.  

SD: Yes. I prefer being able to have a straightforward conversation with my customers without having to pull out my phone, to make sure that I use the exact wording.

It puts a dent in the relationship building, especially when nothing stops customers from reading the product description themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand this from a regulation standpoint, however, it becomes more transactional.

Budtenders are usually looked at for guidance, and it’s difficult to navigate the sales piece when we’re limited in what we can and cannot say.

WR: Ah, I see. Then, what’s the best way for brands to support you in your role? Samples? PK sessions? In-store interactions?

SD: I think pop-ups in themselves are useful in terms of, appealing to the customers and being able to capture their attention. And as a representative of the brand, you have a lot more liberty about talking about your own product than a Budtender would with respect to the regulations.

But in all fairness, I would say samples are a great way to do it. Just in terms of my own interactions with my customers. It allows me to describe how things taste when I experience them firsthand. The personal experience adds more trust with my customers. It’s easier when you can say what you think and how you feel about products rather than just referring to the manual.

WR: Yeah, that’s a lot better. I can appreciate how the personal experience lends to the whole consumer interaction. It’s a lot easier to convey firsthand information as opposed to theoretical. At least now people are talking more about terpenes and different facets of the plant to convey how they might work.

SD: Yes. It’s also amusing that the overall regulations want you to avoid subjectivity at all costs, but they still work with the classification of Indica and Sativa. It’s not what defines the result.

I think that the more we learn about cannabis, the better education about cannabis becomes. And as a result, people get more confident. Personally, I think that staying away from subjective opinion is a bit flawed because what works for you won’t necessarily work for someone else.

When a customer comes in looking for an Indica to help them sleep because that’s what they’ve been told Indicas are for, I’ve had them come back and describe how it gave them so much anxiety that they couldn’t sleep at all. I’ve experienced that interaction often, there are so many nuances like that.

Another example is the NightNight Oil, the name is NightNight and I’m still not allowed to say that it’s going to help you sleep because that’s medical information.

It seems that if you are looking for help sleeping, anyone can just say suggest melatonin, but within the regs, someone that works in the cannabis industry can not recommend a suitable equivalent option.

WR: Well I guess I know what the hardest part about being a Budtender is. That sounds like there’s a lot to navigate to be compliant. I never realized that.

SD: Yes, the restrictions can be a challenge. I am really passionate about the cannabis industry, and I try to learn as much as possible about it. But I am not necessarily able to convey that knowledge to my customers. It can be a bit frustrating at times.

WR: For sure. I appreciate that challenge. I think that everybody in the industry has that same feeling of being constrained.

SD: Yes, I respect the mentality. It’s a new industry, and it’s always safer to be overregulated in the beginning than to be easily available.  But we need a review of the Act.

WR: Yeah, I agree that there’s room for change to happen. I just, it’s been a very slow process, but I like to hope it’s coming. So, it seems that you’ve been doing a lot of learning in your time as a Budtender. To date, what’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned?

SD: I think it’s the drive that the people have in this industry that really amazes me. There was always a stereotype about stoners and cannabis users, that we just want to be lazy and want to lay back and just hang out.

And when I joined the industry, I was really impressed to see the drive that everyone had to change things, break the stigma, change laws, and get into the more political aspect of cannabis. You can definitely see a passion there and that’s something that really surprised me.

WR: I tend to agree. It’s refreshing to see that “stoner” perspective-changing. It’s slow, but it’s happening and that stigma that cannabis use equals laziness is changing. We work hard and we work in cannabis. The two can be married, but it’s still a challenge to fully accept that reality for a lot of people.

SD: I can relate to that mentality just because I really tip-toe on both sides. I work my corporate job during the week, and then I’m a Budtender on weekends. I work 60 hours a week, but I do that because I want to be able to be in this environment and this industry.

WR: This plays back to the whole scope of being a Budtender. It’s more than just a lifestyle choice, it’s a passion.

SD: Yeah. I also think that I’d add learning about minor cannabinoids. I knew about terpenes when I got into cannabis, but when I joined Collective Growers that’s really when LPs started releasing products containing CBN and CBG, and I was just amazed by it. There are more than just CBD and THC products on the market and there’s more knowledge available about these cannabinoids. It changed some of my own consumption habits

WR: Oh, interesting. I guess the more we learn about the minor cannabinoids the more uses we have for cannabis. Now, what would you say would be one of the craziest questions you’ve been asked as a Budtender?

SD: I wouldn’t say it’s crazy, but I was taken aback because it was the first and only time I was asked… but I once had a gentlemen come into the store. I asked what he was looking for and he said “Oh, I’m looking for edibles.” I said okay, and tried to narrow the options and he asked if I have anything to “put you in the mood”?

And I thought I’m pretty sure that’s not an OCS description, but let me see what I can do. From there, I went with chocolate, just because dark chocolate is considered an aphrodisiac, but I was taken aback. I never heard back if it worked… thankfully.

WR: You are the second Budtender I’ve spoken with who has had that experience. I think it’s interesting because there is more talk now about how cannabis can play a role in enhancing intimate experiences. There are more products becoming available in this area too.

SD: True. And now given what I’ve learned about minor cannabinoids, if that customer came in now, I would bring a CBG option to the table of it being impactful on pleasure receptors. It would be an interesting addition to the bedroom.

WR: Probably. I can, I can see that. CBG is becoming one of my favourites. OK, well, I think I know your answer, but what is the biggest misconception about cannabis you’d like to fix.

SD: I would say stigma.  It’s not necessarily a stigma about my neighbour knowing that I smoke or consume. It’s more that I think that the regulations themselves aren’t promoting the type of environment to break the stigma. I think it’s kind of encouraging it and hopefully, said regulations will get looser and that will further encourage and promote the openness of information surrounding cannabis.

WR: I agree with that too. The restrictions imposed on limits sometimes seem to work against normalizing the use of cannabis.

SD: Yeah, and even further, the labelling of cannabis products, the big red symbol saying to be cautious of THC… There is no similar symbol for alcohol, and I find that deceptive.

The biggest issue for me, I would say is, not having alcohol and cannabis on the same step. They should be regulating them in the same way.

WR: Interesting. That would be both forward and backward steps for each, which would be a challenge for both industries, I think. Sticking to cannabis, what’s your favourite method or your favourite way to consume cannabis?

SD: That’s a hard one. I would say it’s between joints and edibles. I’m an avid edible user, but I tend to make my own. While I will buy them, especially when it’s a novelty item, like a different format or if it’s an interesting flavour, generally speaking, I make my own from concentrates or tinctures.

WR: I see. When you do purchase edibles, what do you look for?

SD: I guess just more boldness. I want to see products enter the market that has an interesting twist. For example, the penis-shaped edibles, they’re in an interesting format. Will it be a repeat buy? Who knows? But it’s more about the giggles and the laugh at the beginning anyway.

More unique flavours and more unique formats are the way to go. If you go into a shop and you ask for a strawberry edible, the number of options is insane. Whereas if you were to walk in and ask for a Nanaimo Bar, odds are, there’s only one person that will carry it. Well, there isn’t a Nanaimo bar, but I wish there were. Chocolate and coconuts… There aren’t enough chocolate and coconut combos, in my opinion, it’s such a staple chocolate bar.

WR: I agree. I think the novelty, lends to the experience. For us, we’re trying to bring to market more creative flavours and not just simple fruit flavours. We do have the Craft Blueberry and the Craft Sour Peach, but they’re different because of the fruit purée that really makes the flavours stand out.

SD: It’s hard. When you have a flavour that for example, three or four other companies carry as well. As a budtender, if I am not allowed to provide my own opinion and whatnot. I present the basic information to the customers.

I would say flavour and price are the two main questions that customers have. It’s hard for me to be able to compare a $4 edible versus an $8 edible and explain why one is so worth it when I can’t really explain why it is.

WR: So how do you manage that? There is such a range of prices for edibles. You have some that are really at the bottom, then your mid-range and your more premium where quality really comes out. So how do you convince a consumer of that value?

SD: It really depends on the customer. I get a lot of budget buyers that will just come in and the flavour is almost not important. For them, it’s just about their price and getting a cheap high. In those instances, it’s quite easy. It’s just the cheapest 10mg that I have on hand. But I do get those customers that are really more focused on having organic or products with the least amount of processing possible.

I have a lot of customers that are fans of the dried fruit format for that exact reason. They like how raw and natural it is. Some customers are willing to pay a little extra just to be organic and less processed with fewer allergens and all those kinds of things.

The other is rapid onset. There aren’t very many edibles out there that are fast-acting. And I think that’s a valid consideration. If you’re just going after that high, paying for the convenience of having it kick in quicker … it’s worth it to me.

WR: Same here. Rapid onset all the way. Ok, the last question, I promise. We talked about how with White Rabbit OG we like our edibles to be outside the box and you noted that you make edibles at home, so I think this is a perfect endnote.

If you could design your own gummy flavour, what would it be?

SD: This is hard. In a way want to say, if you really want to stand out, go for something savoury, rather than something sweet. An interesting spice like a cinnamon gummy or something uncommon.

But I’m quite surprised there hasn’t been a birthday-themed gummy. The number of times that I get someone walking into the store when it’s someone’s birthday and asking what they can get them. It would be easy – here’s a cake gummy. It’s always someone’s birthday.

One other flavour that I’m surprised there aren’t more gummies of would-be dragon fruit. I absolutely love dragon fruit.

WR: Oooh, ok that’s a good one. But what would you pair that with?  

SD: Something more passive so that the dragon fruit can shine. Maybe a lemonade.

WR: That sounds good to me. Dragon fruit Lemonade. Well, Sarah, thank you for your time. It’s been insightful hearing about some of the challenges that you face as a budtender. Here’s hoping it gets easier for all of us in time.

SD: Thank you.

You can find Sarah at Collective Growers on Montreal Rd in Ottawa or follow her on Instagram at @Budtender613.