Confessions of a pot shop girl

At our recreational marijuana store, we have sativa strains, proper lighting, and many people, sharing their pain

Published March 15, 2015 10:30PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jason Redmond)
(Reuters/Jason Redmond)

People stare into the content of our cases with a dazed look in their eyes. So many little containers with tiny labels. In the old, illegal days of buying pot, you took whatever the dealer gave you. If you were lucky, it was pungent and tight with crystals. But even if it wasn't, you gladly accepted dregs. No decisions to be made. You paid, you smoked, you were content — until it ran out. Could have tasted like dirt: Time for more!

The recreational marijuana store where I work in Washington state is different. It is well lit. Every batch of our pot and other cannabis products are tested in a lab twice so that everything arrives with reams of paperwork indicating moisture content and THC percentages down to decimal points.

We guide the overwhelmed to a "menu" kept on the counter, which is printed with a line or two about all the marijuana strains we have available in the store that day, a brief description of its taste or effect culled from online comments on stoner message boards.

"Front side is the Sativa-dominant strains, Indica-dominants on the back," we say with our fingertips on the menu, just by way of breaking the ice. The vast majority of new customers have no idea what this means. Old hippies who have been smoking every day for 50 years will scratch their ponytails and say, "Come again?" I am no stranger to pot, but I had to study up on this stuff, too.

I happened into this job late last summer when I went to chat with the woman who had acquired one of the three retail licenses the state allotted for my town. It was front-page news as she is a local businesswoman, a connoisseur of wine rather than pot, who applied on a dare. We got to talking and I told her my story: how getting high had once consumed my life. Now I wasn’t smoking, but I was still fascinated with the end of pot prohibition. I didn’t want to be left out. OK, maybe I was a little lonely and aimless, too. I had just spent several years writing at home by myself and now the manuscript was turned in. So I joined a ragtag group of employees: three middle-aged moms, two dads, a semi-retired veteran, three millennials, and me. My pay would be just above minimum wage, but that hardly seemed important given the front seat it would buy me.

Since last summer, my state has issued 334 retail pot licenses. In addition to state-imposed regulations, every shop must abide by the rules of the county and city in which it is located. Some locales may impose strict restrictions on location—like, say, a certain distance from a school or park. That’s how the shop where I work ended up on a commercial strip in an old brewery behind a warehouse that showcases appliances with dings and dents. These walls were well versed in intoxication, though of a different sort.

The legislation that legalized the growing and selling of pot for recreational purposes left the already existing laws regarding medical marijuana untouched. Medical places operate on a different track entirely. They are generally formed as collectives by individuals who grow or acquire bud on behalf of ailing patients. As such, they are loosely overseen by the state’s Department of Health but no one is tracking or taxing their transactions.

For recreational shops, the oversight is intense. Every movement in every store is being filmed always, a constant live feed beamed into official computers should anyone care to watch. As an employee at the shop, I wear an ID badge around my neck that prominently displays my photo and full name. On it is a barcode, my very own, which does double duty: lets me clock in and out and gives the state-level powers-that-be a moment-by-moment play of who's selling in the shop. Our cash register keeps a running tally of each purchase so that we can pay our exact state excise tax.

Every transaction in the shop begins the same: We ask for a driver's license. It doesn't matter if the ID is from a different state or even another country, because there are no rules about that. Even if the individual is obviously middle-aged, even if the person is downright elderly, we will make a big show of studying the numbers and announcing, "You just made the cut off!" because we are constantly aware of the cameras. This charade plays out over and over until a person has come back enough times that they are instantly recognizable to us and the cameras—which, for some, only takes a few days.

Glass cases display the wares: small bottles that look like prescriptions or plastic baggies—depending on the grower's packaging—in one-gram and two-gram quantities. This isn't like one of those medical shops they show on TV with the big glass jars of buds that staff members pluck out with chopsticks and place on scales. Legally, our bud must be weighed and packaged before it gets to us and, while in the shop, remain sealed tight. Sometimes a certain strain will come in a three- or four-gram bud or shake. We usually have joints in one- or half-gram sizes. We also carry oils and waxes with THC percentages as high as 90-ish, but those can sell out quickly and usually to younger guys who have properly equipped their bongs. Lately, we've been offering cookies and caramels that contain 10 milligrams of THC. All the products must come from licensed producers in the state. We hope to expand the range of edibles as soon as more commercial cannabis kitchens are up and running.

We explain the two types of cannabis plant, each with unique effects. Sativas generally produce a head high, stimulating cerebral euphoria and creative thinking. Indicas tend to offer a more body-based buzz; they can be sedating and physically soothing.

You can almost see the wheels turning in their minds: They're flipping through memories of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of times they've smoked. Which kind of plant? Where, exactly, were those highs located?

At my shop, I am personally responsible for keeping our “menu” up to date. A tall order given the speed with which certain entries sell out, the unpredictability of inventory arrival times, and the obscure genetics of some plants our regional growers decide to propagate. Not to mention my self-imposed "high-atus" but here, I draw on a heavy suitcase of memories.

We clarify that most plants are actually hybrids of Sativa and Indica. Modern growers have teased the genetics to borrow traits from both types of the plant to produce unique combinations like mostly head high with a dash of physical numb or a body buzz with a twist of cerebral. It's a spectrum with Sativa on one end and Indica on the other—that's where the word "dominant" comes from. Whenever possible, our menu provides the precise breakdown of a particular strain. Your job, we tell the customer, is to decide what place on the scale is right for you: 90/10 in one direction or the other? More like 70/30?

Recreational shops like mine follow guidelines strictly enforced by the State Liquor Control Board. The law forbids us from selling "medical marijuana." According to the regulations, our product is "recreational" only — meaning, I suppose, the most obvious definition of "for occasional enjoyment." If anyone in my type of shop is caught selling "medical marijuana," the owner faces a steep fine and the possibility of having to close for several days. No one wants to be the idiot who caused that, so we employees do our best to interpret the law properly. But this has been an unexpected challenge of the new pot economy. I never expected how open our customers would be about their own suffering.

The video that records our every move in the store isn't legally allowed to have audio. Good thing, too, because the stories customers share can be so intensely private that often I am amazed to have been entrusted with such delicate subject matter. In the beginning I flattered myself that it was something unique to me, like my patient demeanor or sympathetic eyes, inviting their confidence. But no, my co-workers experience it, too. I think it has more to do with the nature of the product that sits in this spanking new environment.

Many customers match the details I've shared about marijuana with back stories of their own: a horrific crash, a chronic condition, a degenerative disease. Even before they speak, I can see discomfort in the tightness around their eyes, an ashen complexion, a gait that's not quite right. Tremors are apparent, as are the bloated cheeks of pharmaceutical steroids or skin that's been ravaged raw by autoimmune disorders. I see canes, wheelchairs, walkers. Neck brace, spine stabilizer, head cage. Never in my life have I had contact with so many people suffering physical ailments. Since our doors opened four months ago, they've hobbled and wheeled through the doors by the hundreds. Where have they been until now? Tucked away at home? In ICU?

They lift their shirts to show me scars. Strangers have inadvertently shown me butt cracks, they’ve shown me nipples.

How is this supposed to work when the weed in our shop is “strictly for enjoyment”?

When is marijuana "medical"?

So far we haven’t turned anyone away no matter how sick they may seem. I’ve rationalized through compartmentalization: I told the customer about our product and now they are telling me about themselves. Two separate events that happen to coincide. Eventually they will make a purchase that I can only assume will bring them occasional enjoyment.

Lately, I'm taking a bit of a bolder stand—and this is as far as my marijuana activism has progressed—by refusing to see these purchases as anything other than recreational. Who's to say some people's idea of fun isn't as simple as sitting upright without wincing?

But it gets more dicey the less visible the wounds. Some customers feel compelled to share soul-level injuries. Maybe they don't open up their first time in the store but something in discussing the finer points of getting high eventually brings it out in them. This is another difference from the old way of doing business. Back then, pot deals were usually conducted by shady characters about whom you tried not to learn too much. The swap itself was hasty and obscure, best erased from memory. They didn’t exactly invite sharing.

In my time on the job, I’ve heard from a grandma raped by a man she was trying to help; the only scar left is the faintest line at her neck. I've listened to fathers who held babies taking last breaths, moms whose bones were snapped by angry boyfriends, veterans—countless veterans—who did or witnessed something that haunts them still.

These people all look perfectly normal and I suppose they are in that just about every person has some trauma, however seemingly small, that chafes. But, here, these individuals are buying weed and they are sharing this story, so that I might make the connection that they are seeking relief from nightmares or flashbacks or something less specific like daily sadness. Perhaps they long for the psychological euphoria offered by THC to help lift their spirits or alter their brain chemistry in such a way that they can hit pause on thinking that drags them down. Maybe they need that push to focus on small details, the ordinary occurrences of daily life like the way the breeze feels or the branches tremble or the surface of a table gleams. To be reminded of joy. To laugh, to take pleasure again. I know because I've been there. I've heard so many times that marijuana is a "gateway drug,” meaning that it leads to the harder stuff that can kill. I might call it a gateway, too, but not in that sense. For many people, it prevents a downward spiral. It keeps them on the side of a desire to live.

What would you call this type of marijuana use? Medicinal? Therapeutic? Or maybe it is "recreational" in its most foundational sense. The root is "to create" and so to "recreate" is to "bring to existence again; refresh; revive." For some people, marijuana does that.

I'm sure this will all get easier. The recreational marijuana economy is still so fresh and hazy; and, if the financial success of my little shop is any indication, it’s here to stay. Maybe with time customers will share less because they won't feel compelled to justify their purchases. Or the interpretation of the law will loosen to accommodate a wider definition of "recreational." Then everyone can lighten up.

With all this linguistic foot shuffling keeping me on edge, it's almost a relief to encounter a customer with nothing to share and no apparent motive for buying pot other than wanting to get blazed out of his freaking mind. He's Spicoli and Shaggy and Harold and Kumar and every stoner stereotype rolled into one fattie. His stank is a breath of fresh air. He's not particularly friendly. He's probably grumpy about having to buy weed legally at such inflated prices but his regular guy is dry. He does not care for the bright lights or the gleaming cases or even my ridiculous compassionate smile. Shut up about the fine points of Sativa versus Indica, forget putting whatever motivates his purchase under a microscope.

"What's the best bud?" he asks, not even bothering to take off his sunglasses.

Here is recreational pot's ideal customer: the dude legislators had in mind when they wrote the law. They probably never even considered the twisted and tortured souls seeking respite.

Without speaking I point to the one or two strains that came in with off-the-charts THC and bid him adieu. He'll be back. He'll open up when he's ready.

By Corinna Nicolaou

Corinna Nicolaou is a bud tender and writer in Washington state. Her first book, a memoir about religion, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. It will be available in 2016.

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