If you’re running a recreational cannabis dispensary in a legal state, chances are you’re going to be faced with customers who use marijuana for medical purposes. Whether they’re registered medical patients or coming in for symptoms that would otherwise qualify them to be a patient, assisting these customers properly is crucial. In states where recreational cannabis is legal, the worlds of medical and recreational cannabis merge.

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Washington, for example, has a large number of retail stores that are medically-endorsed, meaning they have a certified Medical Marijuana Consultant on staff to assist medical patients with their purchases. Medically-endorsed dispensaries may have separate lines or operate slightly differently than other dispensaries to accommodate medical users and enter patient information into the state’s database.

If you’re running a dispensary, it’s vital to know how to assist customers who want to use marijuana for medical purposes when they inevitably make their way to your shop, whether they’re registered patients or not.

Budtenders Cannot Make Medical Claims

It’s crucial you don’t mistake your opportunity to assist a medical marijuana user as an opportunity to play doctor. Your goal is to help customers get the right product for their needs, and that means asking the right questions and offering general but helpful advice. Budtenders should provide equally excellent service and advice to both recreational and medical customers.

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Most importantly, don’t offer medical advice or make unsubstantiated claims. “We are not medical practitioners so we cannot make specific claims or recommendations to medical patients. What we can offer are generalizations for products that have worked for other medical patients and try to provide information on general effects and uses,” said Rachel Nisbeth, manager of NUG dispensary in California.

Budtenders can refer questions to certified consultants on staff if they’re available, but should also be well-versed enough in their cannabis knowledge that they can provide general guidance to customers without crossing the line into giving medical advice.

Medical and Recreational Customers May Have the Same Goal: Wellness

A budtender showing off a jar of cured cannabis flowers. iStock / AYEHAB
There may be extra formalities with officially assisting medical patients, but overall, there should be no distinction between the assistance provided to medical and recreational customers. Budtenders should be giving accurate but general guidance to both types of customers. It’s important to keep in mind that many recreational customers are coming in with their health and wellness in mind, not for the purpose of getting high.

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“The majority of customers coming into a retail location in this day and age, whether it be under the guise of recreational user or medical - are mostly coming in because of a symptom that would have qualified them under the medical umbrella of past years,” said Tim Dodd of Southern California’s Sweet Flower dispensary. This means whether a customer is registered as a medical patient or not, they should be given the best advice possible without overstepping bounds. This also means recognizing the budtenders at your dispensary are not doctors and training them accordingly.

Some dispensaries have partnered with other resources to assist customers with medical questions. For example, some dispensaries in Colorado partner with Leaf411, a free cannabis nurse hotline that provides guidance to customers over the phone. Katherine Golden RN, CEO, and co-founder of Leaf411 said, “we are not a phone service for just what is considered a "medical" patient because we recognize the challenges for some people with obtaining a medical card.”

Some of the reasons Golden referred to included not having a proper qualifying condition, a high-cost to obtaining a card and annually renewing it, restrictions for gun owners, and feeling exposed personally by being in a database. Golden also said their nurses never offer dosage advice to medical patients and will instead refer callers to a cannabis-trained clinician who can offer more specific dosage advice. Rather than offer highly-specific advice, the nurses work to help clarify cannabis language and its uses with customers.

“We educate everyone the same on basic plant language so that our public can start understanding some of the words used in our industry to make an educated decision. If someone expresses themselves as a recreational consumer, they will almost always state they are trying to treat something that bothers them in addition to feeling high for enjoyment,” said Golden.

Just because a customer isn’t a registered patient doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t qualify as one. Knowing both recreational and medical customers come into dispensaries to help manage various conditions, budtenders should assist all customers in a professional and meaningful way.

Train Your Staff to Offer Insightful Guidance

You can’t offer overly specific guidance (like dosages) or make medical claims to customers asking for advice. Instead, you can gently guide them to a better understanding of the plant. Budtenders should be trained accordingly before assisting the public with their questions. “A centralized database of information does not yet exist in the space,” said Dodd.

“We do cover these cannabis basics in our introductory training in addition to working with our brand partners to continuously educate our staff on new products in the market and how these products can be beneficial in meeting the needs of our medical and recreational patients alike.” This typically comes down to providing excellent customer service, which should always be a goal for your dispensary.

Budtenders should be knowledgeable enough to navigate conversations with customers and be able to ask the right questions to assist them. “We like to ask questions about their particular ailment so we can discuss products that others have used to alleviate those types of symptoms. We also like to discover if they are first time users or if they are interested in other types of products such as edibles or tinctures so we can have a more focused discussion,” said Nisbeth.

To better prepare your budtenders to assist medical patients, consider bringing in outside guidance. Nisbeth said NUG provides budtenders with “training on specific products through vendor demos as well as specialized training from medical cannabis industry professionals, such as Radical Health, to stay up to date and informed on effects and uses.”

The Bottom Line

If you’re running a cannabis dispensary, it’s extremely important to not overstep your bounds and make medical claims or offer medical advice to customers. Instead, your budtenders should offer excellent customer service, taking customer concerns into account and offering the best guidance possible. “Understanding what the focus of their visit is, in as specific language as the customer is able to articulate, is paramount in effectively addressing any medical needs.

For us, this comes down to the practice of exhibiting exceptional customer service in its truest form - a friendly and understanding demeanor, an engaged listener, extensive product knowledge and a working understanding of the endocannabinoid system,” said Dodd.

There is still a long way to go before concrete, thorough, and medically-accurate information is available for cannabis consumers and retailers alike. In the meantime, dispensaries can work with customers using the knowledge and training they’ve received to guide them on the right path to wellness.

It’s your duty as a dispensary to be a reliable source for your customers, and in order to do that, you have to avoid giving out medical advice. Ask questions, listen to your customers, and guide them in the right direction while helping them understand the language of the plant. But don’t outright tell them something will fix a certain condition or be the right fit for them.

If other customers have had good luck with a certain product, offer it to them with the understanding that other customers have found success with it, not by telling them it “cured” another customer with the same condition. Guide them in the direction of selecting something they think may be beneficial for them based on your general advice, and be available to help again in the future if they come back wanting to try something different.

If you’re worried you might be stepping too far into medical-advice-territory, change how you approach answering questions. Make your guidance as general as possible while still providing value. Remind customers that everyone has different experiences with different products and don’t make any unsubstantiated claims.