Budtender Tiara Darnell is shaking up Portland’s cannabis industry

Acclaimed budtender Tiara Darnell offers an introduction to recreations cannabis in Portland.

_74A1219-cropTiara Darnell works on her podcast, "High, Good People."
Ashley Anderson

Portlander Tiara Darnell knows that cannabis can get personal. A former budtender at Farma — a popular dispensary located on Southeast Portland’s eclectic Hawthorne Boulevard — the Maryland native isn’t shy about sharing her own experiences.

Oregon’s Best Budtender

Darnell’s stories are relatable, entertaining and, most importantly, informative about cannabis’s range of effects. A judge of the 2018 Cultivation Classic (a contest that spotlights Oregon-grown cannabis produced without the use of mineral salts or synthetics), Darnell playfully recalls a recent encounter with an unlabeled entry.

“Whatever I smoked — I was supposed to be giving an introduction about who I am to 150 people the next day — I smoked that [and] I was writing like, a standup routine,” she says, laughing.

Darnell’s affable approach to a sometimes mysterious drug feels like a breath of fresh air — and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Less than four months after entering the industry, her empathetic nature, infectious smile and sharp knowledge of the emerging science behind cannabis earned her the Best in State 2017 Best Budtender award from Leafly.com, the world’s largest cannabis media organization. In May 2018, Darnell became a finalist for Willamette Week’s “Best of Portland” Best Budtender award, despite having retired from budtending before the vote even took place.

What exactly is a budtender? “I always say it’s like a bartender or a barista, but for weed,” Darnell explains. “More than that, it is someone who relies on scientific information to provide customers with the best possible experience that they can have taking a psychoactive substance.”

Comparing cannabis to more socially accepted topics like wine is a technique Darnell frequently relies on to converse comfortably with customers about the industry, which has rocketed from taboo to trendy at a rapid pace since recreational cannabis became legal in Oregon in 2016.

Transitioning from wine to weed

Darnell first arrived in Oregon dreaming of a job in the wine industry. But after working at several vineyards, winemaking lost its allure, leading Darnell to enter two master’s programs in strategic communications and multimedia journalism at the University of Oregon. She took up part-time budtending while in school. Drawing on her prior experience, she found the transition into cannabis a natural one.

“If you know wine pretty well, it’s not that hard to make the jump into cannabis,” Darnell says. “I had the benefit of experience working in tasting rooms and farmers’ markets when I worked in the wine industry, so I knew I wanted to budtend because that would allow me to get to know cannabis [and] the industry and to interact with people and share what I’d learned.”

Budtenders at Farma are happy to answer questions from novice cannabis smokers. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

She’ll often compare choosing a specific strain to selecting a bottle of wine. “They make that association and they’re less intimidated,” she says of her customers. However, at this point “we know more about wine and how it fits into our fabric of society,” she adds.

Innovation in Oregon’s cannabis industry

Since legalization, the science behind cannabis has bloomed, giving rise to companies like Portland-based Phylos Bioscience, which uses molecular genetics to better understand the cannabis plant and its effects. Legalization also meant that edibles — cannabis that is ingested rather than smoked — have seen a spike in creativity.

Approachable items like Laurie + MaryJane’s dosed cheesy crackers and Herban Tribe’s fresh-pressed, low THC-enhanced orange juice (a favorite of Darnell’s) have enlivened the shelves of the state’s 150+ dispensaries and are helping to reshape perceptions of the drug. Local cannabis-centric events such as Cultivation Classic and Toke Talks (think TED Talks, but for cannabis) which emphasize technology and inventiveness in the industry further that initiative in Portland.

“It’s cool to see the innovation in terms of edibles that’s happening,” says Darnell. At events like Cultivation Classic, she says, attendees can see firsthand the bounty of the Oregon cannabis industry and dedication to organic growing standards.

“High, Good People”

Darnell’s enthusiasm and involvement with the young industry has also revealed its flaws. “I think that the cannabis industry is really unique, and [it’s] wonderful that there are a lot of women in it … but at the end of the day, there’s still a lot of white women and men in the industry,” she says. “In my experience there’s still … a disconnect when it comes to what it means to be a black woman in this industry.”

In response, Darnell launched a narrative-driven podcast and video series called “High, Good People” about the cannabis industry from the perspective of people of color. “High, Good People” addresses topics including class, cultural trauma from the war on drugs and restorative justice with regards to cannabis. Darnell is using the platform to push for progress and inclusivity in Oregon’s cannabis industry.

“I’m trying to draw from the richness of the community that I know … to contribute to the cannabis industry and fill a void,” she says. “I feel like this is needed here in Oregon, and it’s definitely going to be needed as the industry continues to grow.”

Scoping out the city’s cannabis scene

For cannabis-curious visitors, a visit to Farma, with its sleek white-and-wood modern interior, is a good starting point. Voted Leafly’s Best in State 2017 Best Dispensary, Farma always welcomes visitors — even if their intention isn’t to buy. “There are [states] where this is still taboo,” Darnell says. “And that’s a courageous move [for visitors] to even have the guts to step into a dispensary.”

Budtenders can help consumers choose from among a dizzying array of cannabis options. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

Budtenders can help consumers choose from among a dizzying array of cannabis options. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

If you’re new to cannabis, Darnell recommends talking with your budtender about why played-out terms “indica” and “sativa” are no longer relevant, as well as discussing terpenes to help locate a strain to fit your needs. Terpenes, the aromatic oils that lend different strains their specific scents, can cause a variety of effects, from anxiety relief to alertness. Moss Crossing, Darnell’s second favorite Oregon dispensary (located two hours south of Portland in Eugene), offers a detailed menu highlighting specific terpenes to aid customers’ selection.

As the industry grows, Darnell believes it will be budtenders like her who will ultimately shape the cannabis industry for the better.

“There’s no reason people, especially people of color who have been disproportionately affected [by the war on drugs] shouldn’t have a piece of the cake too,” she says. “We’re lacking in the field itself, so let’s get us in there and make some magic happen.”


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