A Day in the Life of an Essential Worker

Written by: Melina Luz Baeza, @melinabelina

Three years ago, I moved from Dallas, Texas to San Francisco, California to attend a one-year international MBA program at HULT International Business School. I left behind my family, my enormous black Labrador Beren, a decently salaried corporate supervisor position at an automotive finance firm with complete benefits, and my comfort zone. Within two months of graduation, I was holding four jobs in San Francisco: dog walker/sitter, Teaching Assistant for two masters’ programs at my alma mater, and budtending part-time at a dispensary in the Mission District. Thankfully, it’s been over a year and a half since I entered the regulated cannabis industry, I’ve managed to shift down to just budtending without juggling multiple jobs, and if I’m being honest, there’s no such thing as “just budtending.”

I come from a generation that seems destined to overcome insurmountable obstacles in as many different types of disaster as possible. In 2008, we graduated high school and had to come up with college tuition during a financial crisis, resulting in the student loans we’re shackled with now. In 2012, we graduated from undergrad into the Great Recession and were grateful for whatever salaried jobs we were offered regardless of how low the pay, or the fact that this caused an unrecoverable pay gap we’ve still not bridged. In 2016, we experienced one of the worst ongoing national tragedies of our lifetime, leading to the surreal regime we are currently living under, which only succeeds at compounding generational pain and horror. 

For those outside of the industry, in the summer of 2018, the San Francisco cannabis industry went through a huge compliance shift and countless brands disappeared then and since, despite the fact that the industry overall has been growing exponentially. My entry into the cannabis industry occurred shortly after compliance changed in September 2018, and at the time I was purchasing from the traditional market much more often than the regulated market. In 2020, we’ve been faced with yet another “once in a lifetime” crisis – after our governor deemed our cannabis dispensary an essential business – this has been my latest challenge.  

There are so many different types of patients walking into our dispensary. It is truly indescribable. Hundreds of individual humans served by a handful of walking cannabis encyclopedias known colloquially as “budtenders” – a fun play on bartenders for those who are unfamiliar. Before I became a budtender, I’d only been in a few dispensaries, though I was moderately familiar with a wide range of products due to my business background and the year I spent in graduate school getting closer to my inevitable calling. When it comes down to budtending, we have to be everything you can possibly imagine. 

A budtender has to be a therapist, responsible for advising which chocolate bar and how many pieces will heal the broken heart of the patient who found out their partner was cheating two days ago. We have to stay aware of impactful medical research to ensure we can protect patient health, and possibly suggest that cancer patients looking for comfort stick to sugar-free  options since cancer cells feed on it. When people shop for cannabis flower, they want to know the THC potency, the prominent terpenes, the effect it will provide, and whether it’s better for work or relaxing. These are just a few examples of what I can be faced with by 8:08 AM on a Monday morning. That was the baseline, before we were deemed essential three and a half months ago at the start of the worst respiratory pandemic of our lifetimes. You combine that with the inevitable civil uprising due to incessant state violence against Black people and we’ve all experienced some of the most unique days of our lives. 

In addition to making various product recommendations, my budtending role has evolved over my tenure at one of the busiest dispensaries in the city. Some days, I’ll spend a chunk of time on my hands and knees reorganizing product displays, rearranging product backstock, jotting down lists of products that I need from various inaccessible storage locations, to supporting our various budtenders who need reminders for breaks or need training on how to complete patient transactions. Lately, I’ve been assisting to manage our delivery dispatches which have had a huge increase since the crisis began in early March, and we’ve had to update our delivery process multiple times because of the constantly shifting situation. When a delivery comes in, I’ll put the order together, ensure we have the ordered products or find acceptable options to suggest if something is sold out, review the customer’s profile in our system, call them to review their order and information, then assign the delivery to a driver’s queue. 

Every day I work at the dispensary provides new and different challenges so wide ranging and nuanced that I could write an entire series on the various days in the life of a budtender. For me, this is just the latest iteration of my cannabusiness learning program, and it doesn’t escape me that this is occurring at a time of unprecedented inequality in the regulated cannabis industry. That’s due to the fact that the regulated cannabis industry is simply reflecting the larger picture of Black inequality more broadly. 

Here in the Bay Area there’s a history of civil uprising in response to police brutality; Oscar Grant was only 22-years-old when he was murdered by police at the Fruitvale BART station on New Years’ Day in 2009. And yet, here we are eleven years later, and last Friday we were protesting for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Sean Monterrosa who was yet another 22-year-old murdered by police in Vallejo. During my employment as a budtender, I’ve had to manage the cognitive dissonance of working in regulated cannabis with the knowledge that so many people who engaged with this same plant are locked up in for-profit prisons, arrested by systemically racist police, funded by regulated cannabis tax dollars, that cannabis businesses aren’t allowed to access despite the fact that we generated it. Even still, there are countless Black and NBPOC (non-Black people of color) impacted by the war on drugs who want to enter the cannabis industry yet are prevented from doing so because of the regulations written into the legalization framework. 

I’m honored as fuck to be a fourth generation marijuanera. Our people and countless others have been engaging with the cannabis plant as a healing medicine for centuries before anyone gave a shit about compliance and regulation for tax purposes. It’s been a few weeks since this latest civil uprising began and it’s my sincere belief that this particular amalgamation of nearly 45 million unemployed Americans, local militarized police forces brutalizing protestors and even journalists for the sake of protecting their ability to brutalize Black bodies – and our ability to digitally share, amplify, and bear witness to all of this horror – means that no one can be lulled back to sleep. 

For those of us privileged enough to work in the regulated cannabis market, remember the words of Audre Lord, “Your silence will not save you.” No justice, no peace. Buy BIPOC-owned cannabis and defund the police. 

“Every day I work at the dispensary provides new and different challenges so wide ranging and nuanced… I could write an entire series on the various days in the life of a budtender.”

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