Facts and figures

• There were 601 dispensaries in Oregon as of Dec. 12, 2018, compared to 490 in the summer of 2017.

• Legal marijuana sales exploded to $9.7 billion in North America in 2017, according to a report from Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics. That represents a 33 percent increase over 2016.

• About 6 in 10 Americans favor legalization of recreational marijuana, according to Pew Research Center, which is double what it was in 2000.

• The District of Columbia and 10 states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — legalized marijuana for recreational use.

• 33 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico, have legalized marijuana for medical use.

• In 2017, there were 120,000 full-time-equivalent employees in legal recreational states. This year, direct industry employment is forecast to rise to more than 155,000 and by 2022, direct cannabis industry employment will approach 330,000, according to BDS Analytics’ State of the Legal Marijuana Markets Report 2018.

• Marijuana sales brought in $10.1 million in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Revenue Research

As the customer ran a finger down the printed menu of marijuana flower for sale at Substance in Bend, Alyx Loney asked the man what he was looking for. A fast-talking and knowledgeable marijuana clerk at the Empire Avenue retail marijuana outlet, Loney quickly recognized that his customer wanted little or no interaction. Knowing his customers is part of his job.

Loney is what the cannabis industry calls a budtender — similar to a bartender or a mixologist, but knowledgeable of all things related to marijuana. He is well-versed in the flower strains, potency, hybrids, the nuances of the varieties and where the product comes from. His role is to help customers navigate their purchases in a professional, customer-friendly manner.

Budtenders are the public face of an industry with more than 36,000 people licensed to work with pot in Oregon, and good ones not only serve as the chief sales force for recreational marijuana, they’re increasingly trained to have the low-down on everything about marijuana, from the strain to the soil to the chemical makeup and the effect it has once consumed. Experts say this emerging line of work can put budtenders on the path to a solid career.

“I talk about smell and flavor,” said Loney, 24. “It can be an overwhelming industry. Budtenders play an integral role. We’re the pot sommeliers. We help make the right pairings, like wine and food.”

On this day, he kept that knowledge to himself, waiting until the man selected his flower and handed over his driver’s license and cash. Loney quickly located the product from a package of sealed and weighed marijuana and scanned it into the seed-to-sale system.

It’s all part of his process as a budtender.

“We call these people product specialists,” said Jeremy Kwit, the owner of Substance, which has three locations in Bend. “They’re responsible for knowing the product categories, the brands and the producers.”

A budtender’s role is to assess the needs of a customer and interpret what the customer is looking for and make a sale. It’s a similar process played out in any one of the 47 licensed recreational marijuana retailers in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties.

Statewide, there are 601 licensed recreational dispensaries who train their workers to some degree to help customers with marijuana purchases. Each of these retailers have workers who have paid $100 for their license from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, passed a background check and a licensing exam to work in this highly regulated industry.

In Central Oregon, cannabis-related businesses accounted for an average of 304 jobs and $2.2 million in quarterly payroll paid April through June of 2018, said Damon Runberg, regional economist Oregon Employment Department. .

By comparison, there are about 26 Central Oregon craft breweries, which accounted for an average of 1,246 jobs and $10.8 million in quarterly payroll paid April through June of 2018, Runberg said.

Most of those cannabis jobs were in retail, earning an average wage of $12 to $16 an hour, higher than Oregon’s $10.75- an-hour minimum wage.

“A budtender can be a new consumer or patient’s first entry point to cannabis, so their role in educating people about a number of products and advising consumption methods is crucial to enhancing that customer’s experience,” said Heather Smyth director of marketing at Würk, a cannabis payroll and human resources company in Denver. “This role is responsible for not only providing top-of-line customer service, but ensuring inventory is tracked accurately, cash is managed correctly and more.”

Kelsey Hyde at Tokyo Starfish’s south Bend location has a work history in the service industry. She became a budtender two years ago and found budtending paid a wage that was above the minimum and felt there was training and room for advancement. Today, she’s a store manager.

“It’s an interesting time in cannabis,” said the 32-year-old Hyde. “There’s more opportunity in this industry versus bartending. It’s a young industry. When I saw what the industry was doing, I got excited and wanted to be a part of it.”

Gary Bracelin, an owner and founder of Tokyo Starfish, said the company has set up training programs that go above and beyond the norm.

“As a high-end establishment, you have to put in the training,” Bracelin said.

While some workers enter the cannabis industry as a temporary stop in their employment journey, others carve out a career. As an internship and employment coordinator at Oregon State University-Cascades, Rachel Cardwell says she’s heard from students who work as budtenders that they ­worry the job could affect their future employment. At the same time, she’s heard from students that they love budtending and want to earn degrees in fields like biology and engineering.

“There’s a fear that students won’t get a job because of their work history,” Cardwell said. “The fear is based on th fact that it’s a stigmatized industry.”

Dave McCullick, an instructor of business management at Oaksterdam, a cannabis college in Oakland, California, said that the more education workers receive, the better the experience for the cannabis customer and the less stigma there will be.

“It’s a real job,” McCullick said. “There’s a lot of on-the-job training. There’s now been a big attempt with licensing. There’s been a lot of more attention to customer service.”

At some retail establishments, new budtenders learn the industry by shadowing other budtenders for a week to three months. Vendors are an integral component of learning strains and products. The OLCC allows vendors to provide samples to recreational outlets, but they cannot be consumed on the property. Trying out samples isn’t a requirement of a budtending job, but it can enhance a budtender’s education, Hyde said.

Since recreational marijuana became legal in Oregon three years ago, many retailers have worked to make their outlets clean, modern and professional. Loney said he doesn’t offer personal experiences to customers and uses technical terms when describing a product, rather than slang.

“I try not to relate my personal experiences, unless I’m asked,” he said. “We do have an internal education database where we can post information about new products and information from the vendors.”

Oaksterdam’s McCullick said there are career paths for budtenders and they can move up the company ladder.

“It’s a career path,” McCullick said. “As a manager, you make a livable wage, and in most cases, but not all, people are getting medical benefits and 401(k)s. That’s more than your typical minimum-wage job and most, within 90 days, get a raise.”

At Tokyo Starfish, Sarah Rivera, a general manager of the three Bend outlets, predicts that the wages will remain competitive and will contain health and retirement benefit packages to retain workers. The company, with its 60 employees — budtenders, growers, delivery, quality control and compliance workers — never has to advertise when it needs to hire, Rivera said.

“Budtending isn’t a dead-end job,” she said. “There’s growth potential for people, especially for people who are customer-friendly. Budtending is a great foot in the door to work toward other positions.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2117, sroig@bendbulletin.com