Chai Beckett, assistant manager at Buzz Box in Portland, Ore., considered a career in American Sign Language (ASL) before landing in the emerging cannabis industry. She had studied ASL in college, taking her coursework as far as she could, but then she found herself at a crossroads: What should she do professionally, after school?

Cannabis won out, but she soon discovered that it wasn’t an either-or proposition.

Last fall, Katalina B., founder of the advocacy group Human Informed Culture, reached out to Beckett to gauge her interest in a new set of ASL classes directed specifically at budtenders. Beckett jumped at the opportunity. It followed a sequence of events that had kept ASL at the very center of her life for years.

“It just seemed like a really cool language to me,” she says, describing her ASL path. “I started getting really into the music scene, interpreting songs. And then it was like, ‘Why don’t we have ASL taught at our school? We just have Spanish and French and German. We don’t have ASL, but why not?’” From high school, where she petitioned administrators to add ASL as a course offering, through college, Beckett’s interest in the language bloomed. Then came the cannabis industry.

The monthly ASL-for-cannabis classes are taught by Matt Maxey, founder of Deafinitely Dope. Prior to developing his three-tiered series of ASL classes for the cannabis space, Maxey brought his sign language skills to the music world. He’s worked with Waka Flocka Flame, Chance the Rapper and others to bring music to the hard of hearing. 

Maxey describes himself as “hard of hearing—severely profoundly hard of hearing.” He wears two hearing aids.

“I can talk, but sign language does help to make things more clear—instead depending on technology,” he says.

Music is important to him, so helping to bridge that language gap became a passion project. But so too is cannabis, and he found a way to bring his education skills to this new marketplace.

“There is a genuine intent in learning how to be more accessible,” he says. “We’re just trying to capitalize on that: Keep it moving, provide as many options as possible. But we’re still in the early stages.”

The demand is there, he’s quick to point out: “Everybody that I know who has a hearing loss indulges in marijuana,” he says with a laugh.

In other words, for dispensary employees, it’s paramount to include that customer base’s needs in day-to-day operations.

Buzz Box opened in March 2021, and Beckett says the dispensary prides itself on the surrounding neighborhood’s hyperlocal feel. It’s a tight-knit community. Dispensary interactions reflect that.

“We really love to have a personalized experience with every customer and patient that comes in, which I love so much,” she says. “We just try to get specifics on what they’re looking for so that we can give the right recommendations. With any category, like cartridges, extracts, flower, pre-rolls, it’s all about just asking those questions to make sure that they don’t get something that’s going to be too strong for them or not strong enough. We want to make sure that they know the right dosage and that it’s the right effect that they’re looking for.”

To do so, clear communication is required.

Maxey’s classes get right to the matter at hand: framing ASL education with the typical words and phrases that make up an exchange inside a dispensary.

“We learned things like ‘sativa,’ ‘hybrid,’ ‘indica,’” Beckett says. “We learned the different sizes—eighth, gram, quarter-ounce. We learned about different smells, like if it’s ‘funky,’ if it’s ‘sweet,’ if it’s ‘lemony,’ different terpenes. Those words can really help cater the experience. Why should hearing people be the only ones to have these extraordinary experiences that are catered to them in dispensaries?”

Without the proper communication tools like ASL, deaf or partially deaf customers may be stuck merely pointing at menu items or going to the trouble of writing down their questions for the budtender. This can add a degree of discomfort to what is sometimes an already complicated commercial transaction. Cannabis can be a confusing product to navigate, especially for those who are new the market. Even knowing the basic alphabet signs can go a long way in welcoming customers who need sign language.

Watch this video to learn from Maxey:

Maxey has seen a lot of success so far. ASL isn’t super difficult to learn, and budtenders have joined his classes with hopes of bringing the work back to their teams. He says Deafinitely Dope has worked with budtenders all over the U.S., across a variety of medical and adult-use markets. Demand is everywhere, even if it’s not as straightforward as it seems on first blush.

“Deafness is a spectrum,” he says. “It’s not one-size-fits-all. You may have people who have hearing loss and don’t know sign language. You may have people who have hearing loss and only use sign language. You may have people who really can’t hear, but can hear a lot with their hearing aid. All of that is still included in the spectrum. Whether they talk, don’t talk, whether they sign, they’re always trying to figure out how to communicate with you. Never assume that, ‘Oh, you’re deaf? You know sign language.’”

It’s a matter of meeting customers and patients where they feel most comfortable, and being prepared to do so.