Dispensary Diaries: Stuck in the Pre-Roll

The Dispensary Diaries is a new column by Shireen Sabzi, chronicling her experience in the medical cannabis industry before it was legal for adult use in California. She will explore the nuances of being one of the few afab employees in the back of house staff, the shifting culture of cannabis in California, its quasi-legal status during an age of Trump, and the intersection of technology booming in San Francisco leading to mass gentrification.


Banner by Tiffani Gomez   [Image Description: Two brown hands with nicely done nails are rolling a joint, in the mix of ground weed is the title of the column “The Dispensary Diaries”]

Banner by Tiffani Gomez

[Image Description: Two brown hands with nicely done nails are rolling a joint, in the mix of ground weed is the title of the column “The Dispensary Diaries”]

“Take this joint and just smoke it,” my manager said as he passed the unlabeled pre-roll to me. I was on my way to a ten-minute break after hauling the last shipment of packaged cannabis products from our processing facility up in the Emerald Triangle. “Let me know how it smokes right out of the package. Product doesn’t want you to do all the fancy things that the rest of the budtenders do.”

“Seriously?” I asked. “I can’t just put it in the Volcano?” The Storz & Bickel vaporizer was my personal favorite way to consume without the added carcinogens of combustion.

“Nope,” he retorted as my hand clutched around the plastic wrapper. “It’s R&D. Don’t massage it, flick it or pack it down.”

R&D, or Research and Development, in another office might be testing prototypes for a new consumer product launch, like a new iPhone. In this case, one of our consumer products were pre-rolled joints that we charged $10. The return rate on the pre-rolls was abysmally high as patients would run around the corner to smoke (as our lounge was vaporizing only) and marched back in the doors with a half-charred stub. They complained our joints burned black, kept going out, and generally was a subpar smoking experience. I didn’t blame them.

I sighed and nodded in agreement. The things I do for this company, I thought.

Pre-rolls, as they’re often called in industry speak, are rarely comprised of the top shelf flowers fetching the $60 an eighth price. In fact, they’re usually packed with the remaining sugar leaf trim left behind after the large frosted colas are packaged and pretty. Depending on the processing line at the grow house, after the kief was collected, you would be left with a selection of small buds, stems, and leaf. Ground down into a packable material using a food processor, it’s no wonder these joints smoked terribly.

I would inevitably empty my end of shift token pre-rolls into a volcano bowl, my PAX vaporizer, or break them up and re-roll them with other flowers I preferred. Anything but smoke them straight out of the damn package like a fool who paid $10 for a trim pre-roll. After all, I knew better.

As I walked out the dispensary, passing by the line of patients in our lounge waiting to be served by the next rep, I broke the joint out of its green tube. It was unlabeled with the strain so I was seriously hoping that it wasn’t a Sativa since my parasympathetic nervous system didn’t need any more stimulants. It smelled grassy and dry.

By the time I had walked down the busy streets of San Francisco, passing transient people displaced to the new tech elite, waiting in line for their social services, and actual drug dealers slinging crack and heroin, to tuck myself into an alleyway to spark up this R&D, my break was halfway over.

Illustration by Tiffani Gomez   [Image Description: A tray of fast food, burger, fries and chicken tenders, but the fries are pre-rolled joints, the burger filled with nugs of weed and cannabis tenders]

Illustration by Tiffani Gomez

[Image Description: A tray of fast food, burger, fries and chicken tenders, but the fries are pre-rolled joints, the burger filled with nugs of weed and cannabis tenders]

It was my third year of working for this dispensary in 2017 and the clock was ticking down to legalization on 01/01/2018. Trump was President and the Attorney General was the most anti-cannabis one we’ve had since the 2011 Obama administration supervised raids on dispensaries. I knew I had to find a way out of this industry eventually, I just didn’t know where to go or what to do otherwise.

As I finally inhaled the branded joint, its paper emblazoned with our dispensary’s logo, I contemplated my future.

I needed to get out of weed. I desired no movement into upper management as the idea of being responsible for counting thousands of dollars of cash on site while trying to maintain a herd of lackadaisical staff didn’t appeal to me. My job counting all the inventory had grown stale, just like the joint I was struggling to smoke as it went out for the third time. I had worked every position at the dispensary and the only other places I could really go would be into cultivation. But I didn’t want to move up North, where aging hippies and conservative attitudes ran rampant. So where next?

One of the reasons why I stayed in the cannabis industry for so long is it’s proximity to transgression and rebellion, and quite frankly, what our product marketing team called the “Cool Factor” (air quotes included).

As a patient walking into a dispensary; depending on your comfort with cannabis, you may be asking “what is it like to work in a place like this?” When you first see the flurry of movement of the Volcano bags inflating in the lounge, contrasting with the frosted glass window facade outside, and Petri dishes of cured buds under LED lights, it’s all a far cry from purchasing a ten sack from a high school acquaintance’s basement studio apartment.  Standing behind a sleek metal and wood counter, it looked glamorous talking about different strains like vintages of wine and the myriad ways in which you could get cannabinoids into your body.

But I soon realized, that working in weed is still work. There is the fine line that blurs where you turn your passion into your profession and the point where it’s no longer pleasurable to talk about the modulating effects of the endocannabinoid system to someone who is trying to go toe to toe with you on weed facts. It was still work scanning in the piles of paperwork of collective contracts, the thin piece of paper that was our shield against any government crackdowns and accusations of noncompliance. At the end of the day, budtending was really a customer focused retail service job paying $15 an hour. There was no swimming pool full of cash and weed like people perceived from the curated Instagram feeds.

However, the awe at working in a medical cannabis dispensary (MCD for short) was often misplaced. As a patient, before I started slanging eighths behind the counter, I had the same questions myself. What really happened behind the closed doors of the dispensary? Where did you draw the line at work versus play when weed often means play for so many of us? Is it really medicinal or we all just playing the game required to get legal weed?

My joint went out. It was time to go back to work.

Shireen Sabzi is a former bud tender who worked in the California medical cannabis industry before adult legalization. With a passion for safe access and harm reduction, Shireen believes with education and decriminalization cannabis can heal the world. Her favorite strains are Sweet Tooth, Holy Grail, and Ancient OG.