A Beginner’s Guide to Determining Cannabis Quality
Shopping for the best bud in your price range can be tricky, especially when you don’t know exactly what to look for. While prices on the recreational market range anywhere from $5-$6 per gram all the way up to $15-$20, not all grams are grown equally. Despite common belief, sussing out potency is more complex than checking percentage points on each sack. Not every gram that tests at “30%” will send you to the stars. And not every gram that tests at 15% will be bunk shwag (read more about this here). How can consumers navigate this occasionally overwhelming industry and pick out the most potent products? This guide breaks down the basic cues for quality when shopping for flower.
The first and most important lesson to internalize is know the nature of the products you’re shopping for. Cannabis is a crop, similar to fresh produce or flowers (the vase kind). Different growers in different environments with different methods produce radically different results. Just like no two fujis are the same in the apple isle, no two nugs will be exactly the same.
But cannabis products, just like produce, can be assessed for quality through visual cues you can implement in the store. Here are a few tips to distinguish the shwag from the fire:
Frost is one of the biggest indicators of quality. You should be able to see the THC. Well produced flower should have visibly evident trichomes dusting the bud. The most concentrated amounts of cannabinoids live in the trichomes. The more visible the crystals are, the more cannabinoids were able to develop.
Side tip: when storing bud, avoid using plastic baggies. The static cling can pull those precious trichomes from the bud!
Weed comes in a lot of shapes, sizes, and colors. Different genetics can produce beautiful purples, reds, and oranges in the flower. But cannabis should never be brown. Brown or blonde colored weed can indicate light damage and a degradation of potency. Exposure to light and/or air is the fastest way to ruin your stash and destroy precious cannabinoids and terpenes.
This can be subject to personal preference, but dense bud signals advanced CO2 levels during the flowering process–an excellent indication of plant health and quality.
With denser buds, you’ll likely require a grinder to successfully break it apart. Some folks may have personal smoking preferences which lean toward fluffier nugs, but density can indicate well-grown product.
However, don’t confuse density for anything related to brick weed. Brick weed–found primarily on the black market–refers to cannabis condensed into bricks for travel. It’s the toker’s condensed milk. Low potency. Super dry. All around yukers peppers.
Density refers to the individual buds. Give it a feel; when you pick it up does it surprise you with its heft versus size? Good. But it should still look like a nug–not a cube.
Numbers are one of the cooler things about legalization for Washington. But I’m definitely not talking about unreliable THC percentages. Rather, the most important number on labels is the harvest date. The birthday for bud. In this market, old weed probably won’t serve you well. While it’s true that proper storage means your bud will stay fresh for a while, the conditions of a retail dispensary will likely not provide the best storage for longevity.
See-through plastic bags allow light damage and tend not to seal as airtight as jars. This exposure to light and air decomposes cannabinoids and decreases potency after enough time. Dispensaries won’t often know harvest dates of a particular lot when they place an order until the product is sitting in the store. Or maybe a product doesn’t move as fast as expected. Whatever the reason, expect older weed to have spent time over-exposed to light and air.
But fresh weed won’t be great either. Bud needs some time to dry and cure. Different processes, strains, and environments can affect how long this takes. But drying should take at least 3-7 days, plus a month or so to then cure. Fresh flower won’t burn correctly, will taste and smell like hay, and won’t have fully developed its cannabinoids and terpenes yet. All that equals less potent pot.
If a product has a recent harvest date–say, within the month–check its stems to see if it had time to dry properly: if stems feel like a cooked noodle–that’s bad. That means the bud is still too moist before it was sealed and likely hasn’t had the proper time to dry out before curing.
If a product has an older harvest date than about the last six or more months, give the bud a pinch. Is it turning to dust and crumbling from slight pressure? Hard pass. That bud is going to be old and dry.
It’s easier to home-cure fresher bud than to reconstitute dried dust. Fresher is generally better.
The really high potency parts of the plant exist in and on the bud itself. While fan leaves and stems do contain cannabinoids, it’s to a much lower degree. Sometimes those little baby leaves will be so caked in trichomes, the grower prefers to leave some on the bud. This indicates a well grown product, so flavor and potency won’t be compromised from a few leaves.
Plus, the degree of trimming can be indicative of the environment the flower was dried and dured in. In very humid climates, removing as much stem and leaf as possible is critical to helping the bud properly dry. But in dry environments (like Eastern Washington), leaving some leaf can help the bud from over drying.
The biggest thing to look for here is the care taken into the trim. Was the flower hand trimmed or machine trimmed? It can make a colossal difference in potency and yield. How can you tell the difference? Machine-trimmed bud tends to all look the same–like tiny pine trees.
Why is machine trimming an issue? Machines are programmed to treat each nug as the same nug. Same size. Same density. Same shape. So while it shaves away at a nug, machines tend to shake off and trim away all those delicious trichomes that make weed so potent.
Professional trimmers know how to handle each bud with care. They know where and when to trim–making sure to leave behind plenty of crystaly frost. Trimmers assess each bud’s shape, considering things like genetic structure and size, where the machine cannot.
Seeds and Stems
We’re talking about a plant here, so stems are unavoidable. And the bigger the nug, the larger the stem has to be to support it. So the presence of a stem shouldn’t deter you too badly. The presence of seeds however can indicate a lower quality product.
Seeds appear when male plants continue to grow and pollinate female plants. When a plant starts to develop seeds it spends more time on that growth than it does growing big, beautiful, potent flowers to be dried and smoked. There’s a time and a place for seed production, but it isn’t when you’re trying to smoke. If your bag is nothing but seeds and stems, stear clear–it isn’t worth your time.
In Washington, getting your nose on a product before you take it home is virtually impossible. Due to the nature of legalization in this state, we cannot have any open containers inside a dispensary at any time. But because of this, smell becomes more of a tell for quality.
If you’re looking at some beautiful product, sniff it out! Can you smell it through the bag or container? If yes: blamo! That’s an excellent sign that you’ve got some loud bud. If not, don’t stress–packaging may simply make smelling through the sack an impossibility, so ask your budtender! They likely have already interacted with the product and have some insight on quality, smell, and flavor.
Once It’s Home
There are a few more tests of quality that can’t legally be performed inside a Washington State dispensary which may help determine the quality level of your cannabis.
Your cannabis should break apart easily in a grinder, but without becoming dust. If it’s turning to a powder, you’ve picked up some dry herb and it will likely taste harsh with a lower potency.
Sometimes you just can’t tell until you taste it. So once you’ve lit up, check it out for harshness and flavor! You’ll realize right away if it isn’t burning or burns up instantly. One more tip: if your bud burns black, it’s probably not great–perfectly dried bud should smoke down to a white ash.
When In Doubt
Ask your budtender! Ask for a review from someone you know has tried that product before (likely the person selling it to you has). Even better than a random person, your budtender likely has the experience and exposure to be able to provide an accurate, helpful qualities of a particular product–just ask them to steer to the fire!