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Loving care for budtenders: Key workers don’t get support they need, book argues

Budtending at a dispensary in Portland, Oregon. (Getty)

Javier Armas didn’t set out to write and self-publish a multidisciplinary cannabis textbook during a pandemic, but stranger things have happened. An Oakland native with many past lives as a budtender, high school teacher, paralegal and sales rep, Armas now runs his own equity cannabis business, Javier’s Organics, and serves on the board of the Bay Area Latino Cannabis Alliance. He’s now added author to that list, and plans to refocus his career on mentorship and grassroots community organizing.

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His book, “Budtender Education Vol. 1,” is available as an e-book and as a paperback on Amazon ($13.90) and is sold in select dispensaries like Harborside in Oakland and California Street Cannabis Co. in San Francisco. It comprises 22 essays in just over 100 pages that Armas initially posted to his LinkedIn feed before and during the pandemic quarantine. The essays address topics Armas felt were lacking in the cannabis literature of the last decade, including indigenous agricultural practices, cannabis’ potential in Lebanon, and the decades of activism that communities in the Bay Area have contributed to the plant’s decriminalization.

While it’s not necessarily the first book of its kind, Armas says the intersections of a global health crisis, a racial justice movement and big leaps in cannabis legislation prompted him to rework his writing into a book that not only addressed the big changes in the industry in the past year but also contextualized centuries of cannabis history for its vastly undereducated front-line workers: budtenders.

Armas calls budtenders the “key industrial link between brands and patients,” as they are most often directly responsible for what a recreational consumer or patient buys in a store. But while most dispensaries look like Apple stores nowadays, budtenders occupy a unique space that goes beyond that of a retail clerk or “genius.” They are often asked to perform like a doctor, prescribing treatment, or a sommelier, pairing strains with people’s tastes.

“It’s somewhat trying to be a textbook without really being a textbook,” says Armas. “Budtenders are so neglected, exploited, overworked; nobody cares about them. My pedagogical training is looking at action and learning, and as a budtender I think it’s very relevant, because you learn from this practice with a theoretical underpinning of science, history, politics, law and then a little sliver of psychology.”

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For the then-14-year-old Armas coming of age in North Oakland, cannabis was as much an identity as a means of financial opportunity. He would eventually graduate from both selling dime bags and high school, earning a history degree from University of California, Santa Cruz. After graduation in 2006, he moved back to the Bay Area and started budtending full time in the age of California’s Senate Bill 420, which had built on the existing Proposition 215 of 1996 to establish dispensaries where registered patients could procure medical marijuana. There were no standard operating procedures, nor was there software to track cannabis through the supply chain, seed to sale. Most of his co-workers had learned about cannabis from selling it illicitly rather than reading books by informal cannabis scholars like Ed Rosenthal or Jorge Cervantes.

Feeling underappreciated and unfulfilled, he left cannabis to teach high school history for the Oakland Unified School District for five years, and later worked as a civil rights paralegal for another five. By that time, California voters had passed Proposition 64 to legalize recreational cannabis, and he rejoined the industry as a Jetty Extracts sales rep. But the industry’s problems of greedy investors, pushy sales reps and clueless dispensary workers hadn’t gone away. It was clear to Armas that action needed to be taken in order to move the industry forward.

“Mobilizing on the local level can be effective, encouraging the cannabis community to increase its political organizing work and use these openings to build more sensible cannabis policies,” Armas writes in the opening pages of his book. “This book is partly to inspire a local cannabis democratic movement for change across the globe by peeking into and learning from the California cannabis industry with an Oakland equity perspective.”

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Though it’s addressed to budtenders, the book offers a learning opportunity for anyone who has set foot inside a dispensary and wondered how we got to the point of selling medicated gummy bears or odorless vape pens. It’s written conversationally, with generous images that prevent stuffiness and a range of quoted sources, from Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky to Ron Leggett, Oakland’s first Native American equity applicant. The essays are not in chronological order, so readers can flip through the pages to find one that piques their interest, whether it be the parallels between cannabis and agricultural workers, a breakdown of how Bay Area equity licenses work or a review of nascent research on cannabis and the coronavirus.

The next step for Armas is bringing the book directly to the people who need it most. He’s working on securing a brick-and-mortar space for an equity cannabis community center, and he’s hoping to turn dispensary break rooms into classrooms by educating staff on-site through his book. His brand, Javier’s Organics, hasn’t started producing cannabis products yet, but he hopes to be that well of information for the coming generations who have never worked in the Wild West of cannabis.

“The Oakland equity community, I think, is demoralized, so I’m trying to build a community of healthy Oakland equity businesses. If I can pay my rent, eat food, write my books, I’m happy. I could spend the rest of my time … helping Oakland equity businesses get off the ground, sell their edibles, their carts, their dreams.”

Amelia Williams is a freelance writer.