When the person behind the dispensary counter isn’t properly trained, it’s not just the patient who suffers, says James Yagielo; it’s the whole cannabis movement.

“It’s critical that a medical patient be paired with the proper products,” he says.

“Say a patient is trying [cannabis] for the first time, gets the wrong product from an untrained budtender and it doesn’t work for them or, God forbid, makes things worse; they’re then going to say, ‘yeah, I didn’t think it was going to work in the first place.’ It adds to the stigma of medical marijuana that we’re trying to change.”

Yagielo is doing his part to help foster that change through HempStaff, the Florida-based industry leader in medical marijuana recruiting and dispensary training.

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In courses offered twice a month in 13 different states, experts in the cannabis field teach prospective budtenders the ins and outs of the plant along with what it takes to work at a dispensary. 

“What we tell our [students] is that they are supposed to be cannabis product specialists ... It’s important to be professional and educate the patient rather than just selling weed,” says Yagielo.

“So, if someone comes in and says they’re having a really hard time sleeping, the [dispensary agent] needs to know what questions to ask to guide the patient to the right product.”

From cannabinoids and terpenes to the cannabis strains best suited to different ailments, the program is a crash course on everything cannabis for the alternative pharmacist.

“We cover the top 20 or so cannabis products – excluding the common ones like flower and edibles – like transdermal patches and inhalers and topicals and drops and all kinds of things people may never have seen before going into a dispensary,” says Yagielo. 

“We also teach [students] how to interact with [customers] and choose the products that will give each medical patient the relief they’re looking for.”

One of the most common problems among untrained dispensary agents, according to Yagielo, is a tendency to base one’s cannabis recommendations on personal experience.

“The biggest misconception a lot of agents have is that they can just try all the products themselves and then recommend them [that way],” he says. “The problem is that not everyone is the same, and how you feel isn’t how everyone else will feel.

“You may not be tired all the time but the patient you’re dealing with is tired all the time, so the same edible you ate with no problem might knock them out for an entire day.”

It’s the kind of know-how HempStaff has shared with roughly 3,000 would-be budtenders since 2014. Yagielo anticipates the company will only continue to grow going forward, as more and more states adopt cannabis legalization. He adds that the company is looking to get officially accredited by states including Pennsylvania and Ohio in the near future.

“Next year we expect to expand [our course offerings] to three times a month and the following year we expect it to be every week, because as more and more states come online, more and more states are going to need training,” he says. “Once the bigger states like Texas get going, we’re really going to be busy.”