Edited by Lori Arden
A Gap in the Industry
When we look at other industries, from wine to fine dining, there are rigorous standards in place that allow for a clearly defined spectrum of desirability: the higher-end is easily discernable from the lower, and if not, there are trusted professionals who can differentiate for us. Establishing categories around quality not only helps us create better products, it facilitates a process by which people can study, discuss, and uplift their industry as a whole.
For too long, cannabis has remained an insider’s game, with plugs and self-proclaimed experts defining trends by capitalizing on hype without due consideration to quality. It’s time for us as an industry to elevate ourselves—not just by getting high, but by adding a layer of sophistication that can increase our appeal by encouraging mainstream accessibility and acceptance worldwide.
How Did We Get Here?
Well to be frank: money. Livelihoods are built on opinion, and the persistence of certain opinions has generated quite a lot of income in our industry. For example: let’s say a buyer acquires a pound of purple weed that, besides its coveted color, has little potency, resin content, or terpenes. Naturally the buyer will hype the color as the bud’s telltale sign of quality to push their product on consumers, even when these markers of desirability have zero to do with the actual quality of what’s being offered.
Now that’s the small-time broker I refer to, but even more dangerous are the mega-suppliers who end up doing the same thing. Their play is obvious: where quality is lacking, use hype to fill the gap. Grow purple bud that lacks on every other metric, but decree that purple is best and if it’s za it has to be dark.
In this vicious cycle of guileful growers and cunning plugs determining what’s in style, cannabis becomes akin to quick and cheap fashion, where the latest trend is king and quality the court jester.
Currently the industry hides behind two sources of standards: lab testing with rocket-high THC percentages and the previously mentioned self-proclaimed gurus who prop up hype and spread myths.
When it comes to THC percentages, consumers will tend to gravitate towards higher numbers, seeing those numbers as guarantees of quality. But here’s the thing: the amount of THC in a given strain as determined by lab testing is not a good metric of potency. I have, for instance, come across strains that have tested as low as 14% THC with terpene contents breaking the 5% whose effects will floor a seasoned smoker, while others that have tested at 30%+ impart a far less visceral high.
At the same time, the desire to achieve those higher and higher measures of THC introduces a whole other kettle of fish: THC additives in the post production process that are now streamlined into products to increase the bud’s testing. You’d be shocked to see the amount of distillate and CRC sprayed and soaked onto flowers and joints across the market.
But lab-tested potency alone isn’t enough; it has to be propped up by a healthy dose of hype, conveniently provided by our so-called “gurus,” a never-ending march of clout-chasers standing in line for the mic, lying in wait for their 15 minutes of fame. Cop a flashy IG handle and spout some opinions, and suddenly you’re a consultant, expert, or critic on all the finer things cannabis-related. Yet I’ve seen a total lack of willingness on the part of so many of these individuals to make the true sacrifice needed to be an authentic and accurate critic, requirements we’ll discuss later on in the article.
With Fractured Standards In Place, Myths Abound
Let’s start with the color of the cannabis, something we touched on briefly with those pretty purps without potency. For years we’ve already seen major market shifts based solely on how the bud looks from a color perspective. I mean I get it—color’s great. I like a wide variety of colors in my fruits and veggies, but while a purple sweet potato is cool, there’s no denying orange ones are delicious too. It’s all a matter of aesthetic preference. And if we’re really talking about the visually striking aspect of a cannabis flower, there are metrics far more indicative of the plant’s health and quality of growth then simply the color—such as dense resin content, large trichome heads, and trim quality.
In certain cases buds that are in fact meant to be green, such as OG’s, are turned darker on purpose in order to achieve those lucrative shades, with incorrect room temperatures and environmental settings actually stressing out the plant. This ironically ends up rendering them of lesser quality than the same strain grown to its proper potential and color. Not to say, of course, there aren’t naturally occurring darker buds that are delicious, tasty, and gorgeous to look at. But again it’s a preference; the bottom line is that color isn’t a tell-tale sign of anything at all, really.
Density of buds is the next issue at hand. The amount of times I’ve witnessed ignorance around how bud density is a sign of its quality is astounding. I’d say genetics is the most important factor for bud density, and while a strain that’s meant to be dense but comes out fluffy is a sign of poor growth and quality, there are many strains that simply aren’t dense at all but can still be some of the highest quality cannabis around. In fact I’d say that a strain that was meant to have a little bit of a looser structure but is instead hard as a rock can be a sign that a heavy amount of PGR (plant growth regulator) hormones are being used, which decreases the quality of that strain in spite of its newfound density.
And finally, the myth to end all myths: ash color, which, along with pretty much everything ash-related, will from here on out be known as General Custy’s Last Stand. It’s truly one of the most ill-informed myths, and yet it’s the hill the biggest mob of pot bros have chosen to die on, spouting their ash-related views with the conviction of a scientific expert.
But here’s the truth: decades ago, Big Tobacco decided they needed to whitewash their cancer-causing poison, choosing to formulate the perfect chemical additives that, when put into cigarettes, would make their ash burn nice and white. Because of course white equals pure equals clean equals not the thing that killed your grandpa or your Great Uncle Bob.
And clearly these Big Tobacco folk know where the real za is, because this silliness has infiltrated our industry with a vengeance that’s been hard to shake. All too often we hear white-ash diehards demonizing a darker burning bud, claiming the dark ash means it wasn’t flushed properly, cured correctly, has too many heavy metals, and so many more absurd notions. Ash color has far more to do with the mineral content absorbed by each plant and temperature at which the flower burns, and that differs from strain to strain.
That’s all there is to it: ash color is an aesthetic preference and not, as the diehards want you to believe, a statement on quality.
The Path Forward
So what’s the cure for all that ails us?
Connoisseurship. Real pot critics. Most importantly, people who are willing to create systems in place to truly put quality to the test. Smoking 50+ blunts at a Cannabis Cup and then saying you know what’s fire is a pretty flimsy claim to expertise. What we need, instead, is the opposite: people who are passionate about cannabis and its effects but are willing to sacrifice immediate and frequent highs in favor of spreading out experiences. Basically, we need people who have the ability to actually differentiate. You can’t fill a cup of water that’s already full, just like you can’t properly test cannabis when you don’t know if it’s the 10th or 12th joint of the evening.
Just as food critics must maintain sensitive and broad palates, and sommeliers spit out sips and clear their taste buds between wines, true cannabis critics need to find ways of consumption that maximize their ability to evaluate flavor and effects.
This ultimately would mean less over-consumption and more meaningful and intentional habits, ones that emulate the highest standards of any professional attempting to bring forth the finer notes and nuances of their subject, the product they’re testing. We need experts willing to study the broadest spectrum of terpenes, their individual flavors, and how these terpenes affect the mind, body, and spirit; how they interact with one another, and how they mix with different levels and types of cannabinoids.
The days of linear and narrow evaluations (think indica versus sativa) will hopefully come to an end, and truly unique and specific experiences can be coaxed out of the cannabis world to elevate it in ways we couldn’t even dream of. Imagine the perfect visual and auditory sequences mixed with impeccable strain selections, grown as well as can be, bringing out next-level experiences for people who love cannabis (not to mention providing professional and safe introductions to newcomers who might be curious but scared).
Such an aim toward curation and appreciation centered around standardized quality would bring on a paradigm shift in the cannabis world, one that would benefit all who consume this lovely plant.
How Connoisseurship Would Shape Consumer Choices
Once these true connoisseurs start coming out of the woodwork and gaining their well-deserved notoriety, I believe they’ll have the power to shift consumer choices in a major way. At this given moment the cannabis world is a fickle fiend, endlessly flip-flopping between OG’s and purples, fruit and gas, gas and candy, candy and funk, and so on and so forth. The trends come and go, and what’s popular is far from a statement on quality. As with fast fashion, the quality of the fabric—or in this case, the bud—isn’t in question, but rather concern with what’s in style (aka the strain of the month).
Just as in the worlds of wine and fine dining, cannabis must prioritize quality over popularity. Regardless of whether it’s a steak or a bottle of wine, if the chef or winemaker excels at their craft, then what they do becomes less important than the way they do it. Quality and the expertise that produces it becomes key. So for analogy’s sake, just like you’d get the chicken (let’s say OG) from the Michelin-starred restaurant vs the ribeye (let’s say Runtz) from the chain-run steakhouse next door, you’d hopefully be able to pick your cannabis in a similar manner. Knowing that even though you love Runtz, that OG grown by the Michelin-starred producer would be an experience worth remembering.
In the end, tastes and minds will expand, with consumers picking their strains not just because it’s a flavor they like, but as well because of the source and the way it was grown. Too often I see people fall back on reductionism when they talk about genetics, thinking since they’ve tried a strain once they now know whether it’s good or not. But in fact if you consume two identical phenotypes from two different cultivators, they can express so differently it’s like consuming two different products altogether.
With the advent of the true pot critic will rise the true chefs of the industry. Consumers will better be able to gauge quality outside of the “oh that strain’s good I’ve tried it before” metric, one that has failed countless people time and again. Crappy OG is still garbage even if you are an OG lover, and a perfectly grown Gelato is still amazing even in a market flooded with inferior-grown Gelato phenotypes. In fact I believe most often people fall in love with a strain because they had a chance to taste an exceptionally-grown version of it as one of their first experiences with that cultivar. As a cultivator, I can definitely tell you one of the best things you can hear from a consumer is that they’ve never had a specific strain in that way before. That’s when the producer takes the quality and puts it centerfold, above and beyond any preconceptions about the strain, reshaping the experience altogether.
None of this is to say there’s anything wrong with preference; I myself have my own go-to’s. I’m saying that finding the best-quality version of what you love will elevate it to a higher level than ever before. And to chase quality, we need standards. Without them, we’re stuck, chained to an endless loop of hype, forever consuming subpar weed in pursuit of the latest flavor of the week, just so we can think we are za za boyzz.