Walk into a dispensary, slide your ID under a bulletproof glass window and voilà, you’re buzzed into a room filled with dozens of pot products and greeted by “budtenders” ready to consult you on cannabis.
Budtenders — marijuana dispensary workers knowledgeable on an array of pot products — are often young people working long hours to make a living. Since the legalization of recreational marijuana in January, working in the cannabis industry has become an increasingly common job for students.
Tim Pham, a 21-year-old former Orange Coast College student, found himself working with cannabis at a time when he badly needed a job and happened to know people in the marijuana industry. He said it was his best option at the time. His parents still don’t know what he really does.
“My excuse is that I work at a vape shop, but I’m pretty sure they know. It’s obvious,” Pham said. “Being in an Asian household, it’s just taboo to talk about it but I’m bringing in money to feed the family, pay off a major portion of the house, pay my dad’s debt, so what can they say about it?”
Pham eventually found it difficult to keep up with school and increasing hours at the clinic. He decided to focus all his energy into making money and advancing in the industry. Working 50 to 60 hours a week, he brings home enough to support his family and cover his own expenses.
Pham said he makes about $3,000 a month, adding up to roughly a $36,000 annual salary.
Before the voter-approved law went into effect Jan. 1, most medicinal cannabis shops paid their employees under the table. With tax-free paychecks on top of tips, the job had become a unique alternative to traditional college jobs like waiting tables or retail.
Tiffany Pham was a biology student working part-time in a bubble tea shop when a customer approached her, asked her if she smoked and offered her a new job at a dispensary.
Already science-inclined, Tiffany Pham had a keen interest in the healing benefits of marijuana products. She worked as a budtender for eight months before she could no longer balance it with student life.
“They wanted somebody with an open schedule, which I didn’t have. I stopped working because of the pressure, the late hours, working a lot and my schoolwork on top of that. My health just couldn’t take it,” she said.
Tiffany Pham’s shifts were usually 12 to 13 hours long. She had other co-workers who were also students, and they didn’t stay for long either, she said.
“It was a fun job, very social, but at the same time you’d work so much you didn’t have a social life,” she said.
Many dispensaries are infamous for long shifts that last from 7 hours to 17.
Other students in the marijuana industry grow cannabis.
Cannabis farmers can bring in six figures or more, according to a 35-year-old Orange Coast College business administration student who grows marijuana.
After the death of his father, the student and Navy veteran needed an available alternative to prescription drugs that treat depression, anxiety and pain.
“I’ve got family members that have struggled with and died from opioid addiction,” he said. “Every time we’re able to deliver a crop, and we know where it’s going, it lifts a bit of a weight off me. It really makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something and that I’ve helped in my own way.”
While the stigma of the cannabis industry has lessened, he couldn’t tell anyone about his job when he first started in the 1990s. Now he wants to teach people about his line of work — which he says keeps him close to the memory of his father.
“I think about lessons he gave me and being able to have that connection still. It’s like I get to spend time with him any time I’m working on the crop, because I know that’s where his heart was,” he said. “Helping people is where his heart was and it’s where my heart is.”