Know Your Budtender: Set Lynden McKeever of Grass Roots

Working at a dispensary can be emotionally exhausting.

When Set Lynden McKeever heard there was a cannabis job fair happening at San Francisco’s City Hall, they were stunned.

“It was bizarre,” McKeever recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Is this really happening right now?’ ”

Following their initial trepidation, McKeever decided to speak with one of the recruiters. Despite intense enthusiasm from the man they spoke with, McKeever was still skeptical that the dispensary life would be a good fit. For one thing, McKeever doesn’t consume THC.

“I told him that I don’t get high anymore,” they say, “but he said that it was a new industry and it didn’t matter. So, I got the job.”

While the difficulties of recommending cannabis you can’t ingest seem immense, McKeever was uniquely qualified for the challenge. They’d spent the past seven years as a sober bartender, so they’d learned some tricks and tips along the way.

As a lead budtender for Grass Roots in the Tenderloin, McKeever, 56, often relies on colleagues to help round out their knowledge.

“I had a problem, early on, with impostor syndrome,” McKeever explains. “Once I started learning about strains and trichomes and terpenes and cannabinoids, I felt good when I got to work. I can ask my co-workers, too. There are four or five of us working at a time, so I can always pull one of them over.”

Technically, McKeever hails from Michigan, but they’ve been living in the Bay Area on and off since first arriving to attend the Academy of Art. Since then, they’ve lived in Paris, Denver, Italy, and New York, with stints in the Bay Area between each move. As a transgender person, McKeever believes that San Francisco isn’t nearly as progressive as it may believe — but that doesn’t mean it’s still not “loads” better than many other places.

Still, McKeever believes their transgender identity has previously cost them jobs in town: “The way you can find that out is if you have all the qualifications, and they need a bartender, and you don’t get it even though somebody has referred you. You just put two and two together after a while.”

When McKeever interviewed with Grass Roots manager Chris Schulman, he assured them that this dispensary would not tolerate discrimination from customers or staff.

“He told me that they hadn’t had anyone transgender work there before,” McKeever remembers, “but to just let him know what I needed or if anything happened or if anybody said anything. He told me they were not the kind of place, that they wanted everybody in there. He said they liked diversity and that if anybody said anything, then they would have a problem. To a trans person, that was just music to my ears.”

For McKeever, life as a budtender offers plenty of upsides. They note that unlike their previous tenure as a bartender, they now get home at 10 p.m. They have good benefits, including vision and dental. It’s a full-time position, and Grass Roots has delivered on its promise to offer opportunities for growth. McKeever’s promotion to lead occurred within the last two months.

That doesn’t mean the job is easy. Helping people with serious — and sometimes terminal — illnesses require immense emotional energy.

“I come home very tired,” McKeever says. “There are a lot of people that come in who are sick. They have cancer. They’re dying. You never get used to that. The first time somebody said that to me, I just thought, ‘This does not happen behind the bar.’ Nobody warned me about this.’ ”

With the rapid expansion of the regulated market, the dissemination of education has fallen largely to budtenders. According to McKeever, the thing most budtenders hear at Grass Roots is someone telling them that they’ve never been to a dispensary and that they’d like to know everything.

“It happens all day long,” McKeever says, adding that the expectation from customers to get a full crash course on cannabis before they’ve even made a purchase can make for an exhausting prospect. “Do you go into a bar and ask the bartender to tell you about all the alcohol they have? Do you want to give me some parameters?”

Some customers at Grass Roots arrive as severely ill patients, while others are simply looking to get as stoned as possible after a long day of software engineering. For McKeever, it can be exhausting to pivot from retail clerk to pharmacist to teacher to therapist — especially for a gig where they were trained on the job.

“It can be tiring talking to people,” McKeever confirms, “but my coworkers are amazing. We have a good time at work. It’s a fun job, even though it’s really taxing on your mind.”

Having settled into life as a budtender, McKeever is now learning all there is to know about CBD. Since they aren’t interested in THC, they’ve decided to devote themselves fully to the other cannabinoid making headlines.

“I do indulge in a lot of CBD. I’ve made it my mission to learn everything there is to know about CBD — all of the products and how they work. That’s the avenue that I want to explore. I’m so focused on it because that’s what I can talk about.”

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