A First Cannabis Dispensary Experience: Sarah’s Story

When I was a new patient, I had no idea what to expect for my first cannabis dispensary experience. I also had only a basic understanding of existing cannabis products – most of what I knew was from the legacy market during my university days. Overall, the experience was unpleasant. I share why – and how to make it more welcoming to new patients – below.

For context: I reside in Florida where recreational cannabis is not legal (as of May 2021). Medical cannabis is expensive. The market is dominated by a small list of multistate operators.

Part 1:  The Cannabis Dispensary Waiting Room

I’m not sure what I expected pulling into the narrow parking lot one hot Florida day. In my purse sits a post-it of products listed as available online; I put aside a budget for my purchase accordingly.

It felt more than a bit strange openly buying cannabis after years of avoiding the substance. It was never worth risking my career; I wouldn’t even talk about it! Frosted privacy glass blocking any view of the inside, plus a security buzzer, certainly didn’t assuage internalized stigma.

One of my qualifying conditions is anxiety and here I am, feeling like a criminal while navigating an entirely new social situation. Fun, right? Anyway, the door opens and I find myself standing in a stark, sterile room.

Lights? Fluorescent bright and headache-inducing. Music? More what I’d expect in a dorm common room. The space itself is so large that all of the sounds echo and blend. Not having a clue what to do, I pretend to text on my phone and wait.

Another patient comes in behind me. I watch how he navigates the space before following suit and approaching the desk.  The poor receptionist tries twice to give me instructions before I actually register what she’s saying. Sorry, ma’am!

I present my medical card before taking a seat in the middle of the room with everyone else. There is really nowhere to look, nothing to look at even, except for other people or the wall. If I didn’t know better, I would think I’m getting called in and fired from a job.

So far, the experience has been a nightmare for someone with anxiety issues. Then comes the waiting. Sit and wait. Sit and wait. Oh! My name was just called! In front of everyone? Awkward…

Sitting in a stark chair in the middle of a white room, much like this photo, was an uncomfortable first cannabis dispensary experience.
All I needed was a dunce cap.

Part 2: The Back Room of a Cannabis Dispensary

The gentleman calling my name motions for me to follow him back through a clouded privacy door. Again, I can’t see the other side and have no idea what to expect. We enter and I’m guided to a station with a register and budtender.

It’s all very sterile and busy. There’s no readily available information about products. “No problem!” I think. I can always ask if there is an issue.

But…the music is still loud and the room is shaped like a “U”. Here I am, telling the very peppy budtender what my medical need is in earshot of other patients. Thankfully, I can say anxiety and not PTSD. Anxiety gets less attention from other people.

The budtender smiles. “Well, we are out of that one,” she says about the flower on my list, “I recommend (Strain Name). It’s a personal favorite and very popular.”

“They’re out of stock? Is this even a good idea for my needs?” I think it over. “Ok, I’ll try that. How much?” I figure it would be a wasted trip to leave empty-handed.

Expensive. It is expensive. I can’t tell if the budtender genuinely meant what she was saying or if there was a push to sell that product in particular. What I can say for certain is that she can’t explain why it was a good choice outside of its popularity and her personal preferences.

Swallowing the cost of the product, which I had never tried before and could only toss if it made things worse, I reach to pay with my bank card.

“Oh, we can’t accept that particular one. But there is an ATM behind you by the door!” She nods to a nook behind me. My eyes travel the room. Did I miss payment information posted somewhere?

“Oh…thanks.” How embarrassing. Still, I manage a small smile. It isn’t her fault.

It takes a couple of minutes to withdraw the cash, plus a fee, before heading up to the counter to pay (for real this time). The price hurts almost as much as my back! (Strain Name) is twice the cost of the flower I had selected at home.

I think I hear a “have a good day” as I scuttle out of the cannabis dispensary with my little white bag, stapled and labeled “THC.” Not sure, though. The music is still going and all of the sounds blend together.

I spend the next ten minutes reflecting upon the experience and collecting myself in my car before pulling away to head home.

In hindsight, the experience left me feeling apprehensive and uneasy. It turned out that the flower I bought was acceptable but not a good pick for my day-to-day use. I have a toddler at home and that particular strain hits a bit harder than I want.

Save for specific products, which can be delivered after a couple of days, that dispensary is off of my shopping list. There are a couple of others that have fewer product choices but the dispensary experience is welcoming.

Improving the Experience

There are five major aspects of the cannabis dispensary experience that I urge owners to consider. If you already address these concerns or are finding a way to do so: you rock. This totally isn’t about you. Keep on keeping on.

  1. Audio: Volume, vibe, and echo all make a huge difference when done well, especially for hard-of-hearing folks or people with processing difficulties. In the example above, lowering the volume would have been an immediate improvement.
  2. Visual: Please, anything but awful office lights! I can’t imagine being there as someone who gets migraines. I’d have kept my sunglasses on if it didn’t look so sketchy.
  3. Information: It is very helpful to have a menu of in-stock items with pricing both in the waiting room and at each budtender’s station. Online stores aren’t always accessible nor updated properly. Also, make sure the business website is clear to consumers.
  4. Employee Training: It needs to be clear that the typical budtender is not a medical professional. Yet, they’re expected to give medical advice. This is unfair, unethical, and dangerous.
  5. Medical Consult Area: This is both a physical space and a personnel issue. Ideally, each dispensary would find someone with the knowledge and credentials to actually dispense advice in a quieter consultation room, out of earshot of other patients. Perhaps a rotating regional cannabis-trained pharmacist?
This is so much cozier and welcoming.

Challenges and Solutions

I understand that regulations are intense and there is still a need for credentialled medical personnel versed in cannabis. There is also a lot of missing medical research because of the Schedule I designation at the federal level. It’s a tangled mess but there so much potential for the industry.

A short-term solution may be special training programs for budtenders if not stricter hiring guidelines. Having partnerships with reputable cannabis educational resources and medical doctors would be a boon, too.

What would happen to patient experience if there wasn’t an oligopoly of multi-state operators keeping start-ups out? What would a mom-n-pops shop do if they could afford to enter the market and compete? How could that change the game?

Are you a cannabis business? Do you struggle with unclear websites losing customers like me? Book a call – I’d love to have a chat.

1 thought on “A First Cannabis Dispensary Experience: Sarah’s Story

  1. Amy E.

    The article was hard-hitting because awkward first experiences are so common, even in cannabis norm cities.
    For example this month I stepped into a big name medical retailer, Medicine Man in Denver, CO, and was greeted by a smiling 20 year old dispensing with obvious pressure to sell top shelf and the intent to load me up with misinformation regarding my treatment goals that lead to a guaranteed $100 bill. I had to leave the situation and shop at a recreational dispensary in order to find the concentrate specified by my medical doctor for my condition. Wow. It can be rough. Thanks for understanding how hard it can be to navigating this issue.


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