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A Beginner’s Guide to Not Buying Shitty Weed

Have you ever walked out of a pot shop with a fresh gram of weed, only to be overcome with disappointment as soon as you open the bag and realize you bought a dud?

Accidentally buying shitty weed is an unfortunately common experience in Washington, where there’s thousands of pounds of amazing, world-class legal pot, but also a decent amount of garbage weed mixed in. So, what do you do when you’re presented with a hundred different choices and an unhelpful budtender?

The best tool in your arsenal is your nose: The difference between good and bad weed is often a matter of what aromatic compounds, called terpenes, are present in that piece of cannabis flower, and your olfactory senses are surprisingly good at sniffing out the terpenes you individually like and dislike.

Unfortunately, legalizing weed has put a hermetically sealed barrier between our noses and our weed. Washington state law requires all pot to be sold in sealed packages (if you want a true pot shopping experience go to Oregon where this law doesn’t exist), meaning gone are the days of a dealer opening up a couple jars of pot and letting your nose guide you to your favorite strain.

That’s unfortunate because there’s no single visual clue that can guarantee the pot inside the bag is dank, according to Jackson Holder, a cannabis expert and product buyer for Dockside Cannabis in SoDo.

“It’s definitely a kind of tricky thing because there are very few visual indicators that are going to tell you that this [flower] is for sure aromatic, in fact, I would say there aren’t any,” Holder said.

Holder said the best way to find great weed is to rely on the advice of a budtender. I agree. Try to find a store and a budtender you trust and then keep giving them your business, just like you would with a black market dealer that consistently supplies fantastic pot.

But sometimes you are inevitably left with a shitty budtender who doesn’t care and a menu of pot that is ten pages too long. So what’s a stoner to do? I’ve asked Seattle’s foremost pot experts and found a few visual clues that can help guide you away from the shwag and towards the premium sticky icky, icky.

“If you find a saltier looking plant then you have found a winner. Those guys are going to have a lot more cannabinoids,” said Ali Khan, a manager at Hashtag Recreational Cannabis in Fremont and Redmond.

These cannabinoids, of which THC is just one, develop into big bubbles at the ends of these glands, and the bigger the bubbles the more likely the pot is potent. Try to look closely at those white crystals—do they look like full balls of oil or more just like little white dots? Bigger balls mean more oil and a stronger high.

“It’s very possible to grow cannabis that is super frosty with trichomes all over it but it’s possible those trichomes never got filled,” Holder said. “I want to see if it’s not just frosty, but when I look down I want to see trichomes that are bursting with oil.”

Some shops provide handy magnifying glasses for checking out flower in closer detail—grab one of these and hold your pot up to it. Don’t feel bad taking your time and using all of the tools in front of you, a good budtender will never rush you into making a decision.

The biggest warning sign to look for is a bleached bud that has been discolored because of prolonged exposure to light. This isn’t necessarily just a lighter shade of weed—remember lighter shades can just mean a different strain—bleaching usually shows itself as an irregular discoloring. Instead of the entire bud being a light color, only one section of the nug, the part that was exposed to light, becomes bleached and light, while the rest of the weed remains its natural hue.

“If you have a product that has been bleached, by the time that happens the relevant aromatics are going to go away,” Holder said.

Other than those signs of bleaching, color isn’t a very good indicator of quality. A deep and dark green hue can indicate a grower cut corners on their curing process, but it could also just indicate a particularly green nug that was carefully cured immediately after harvest.

A faded gold or light white color may indicate that the pot you are looking at is old and stale, but it also could just be a particularly light-colored strain. Proper Acapulco Gold hardly looks green at all, but it’s still a highly prized heirloom strain.

In short, watch out for irregular bleaching of your pot leaves, but otherwise different colors don’t necessarily mean good or bad weed.

“If I was given the option to get one three-gram nug or three single-gram nugs, from a quality perspective I would choose the single larger nug every single time,” Jackson said.

Growers call the biggest buds on a plant the “colas,” and they can tower over the rest of the plant. Farms tend to save these big colas for larger quantity sales, like eighths and quarters, which is one reason to avoid buying single grams, according to Bill Eddy, a cannabis expert and manager at Ruckus Recreational on Capitol Hill.

“When you buy a gram you are getting the lower buds off the plant,” Eddy said. “Black market growers keep the colas to themselves, so that’s saying something.”

“Irregular edges mean they are hand cut, it means they’re carefully trimming and taking care of their pot,” Eddy said.

Another thing to look for is what kind of debris is at the bottom of the container. Is there a bunch of little leaves and a lot of trichome crystals sitting at the bottom of the jar? That’s a sign that this flower was poorly handled during processing and shipping. Even the dankest weed, the most sugary, crystal-covered flower, will not drop a pile of its trichomes if it’s properly handled.

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“A pile of crystals at the bottom of the jar is because they’re banging on the fucking jar,” Eddy said.

A hairy nug once indicated something special during the black market days, when lower quality dealers would smash a bunch of weed into a brick and ship it, damaging any hairs in the process.

“Hair is often a big indicator in a black market that isn’t served by craft cannabis,” Holder said. “If the hair is making it to your pipe [in the black market] it is likely that the product was taken care of.”

So, don’t worry about the hairs.

Washington, like every legal state, requires farms to test their flower and label each product with its cannabinoid percentage. You should pay attention to these labels as one signal in your hunt for good weed, but if you buy flower solely based on its cannabinoid percentage you will frequently be disappointed.

The difference between mediocre and amazing weed is almost always a question of the terpenes, those aromatic compounds, not the amount of THC in a plant. I am frequently blown away by flower that tests at just 11 or 12 percent THC, but has a rich and dynamic profile of terpenes. And I’ve bought flower labeled as 26 percent THC that gave me a mediocre high.

There’s also still a lot of problems with the testing industry in Washington, growers will shop around to find whoever will give them their highest THC percentages, so relying soley on these numbers is a fool’s game.

Marijuana Concentrates DrugFacts

Cannabis plants are covered by microscopic, mushroom-shaped, hair-like compounds called trichomes. These outgrowths surround the budding marijuana flower and produce the plant’s cannabinoids. Different varieties of trichomes can be collected. The resulting products—collectively called cannabis concentrates—can contain very high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly referred to as THC, the psychotropic ingredient in marijuana. These THC-rich marijuana products may be vaporized and inhaled using a vape pen or through a process called dabbing. 1

How are concentrates made?

Marijuana concentrates can be made in a commercial environment with modern equipment or prepared in a home setting. 2 They are produced in various ways, including:

  • dry processing
  • dry ice processing
  • water-based processing
  • combining pressure with heat
  • using nonflammable carbon dioxide solvents
  • using flammable solvents, including butane (lighter fluid), propane, ether or alcohol 1

Using flammable solvents is popular because the products have high THC levels, 1 users report longer-lasting effects, 1 and it is a relatively inexpensive and efficient production method. 2 Butane is a commonly used solvent, producing the potent marijuana concentrate butane hash oil (BHO). 2

What does the final product look like?

The products resulting from these methods may be:

  • a gooey liquid wax
  • a soft solid with a texture like lip balm
  • a hard, amber-colored solid

Hash oil and waxes can be consumed using vape pens. Solids can also be placed on a heated platform usually made of titanium, quartz, or ceramic, where they are vaporized by high heat and inhaled through a dabbing tool, often called a rig. 2

What’s the difference between concentrates, extracts, and dabs?

The terms used to describe these products vary. Concentrates is a broad term referring to all products that have been extracted from the plant. Although extracts and concentrates are often used interchangeably, some people define extracts as products manufactured using solvents, but not those pulled from the plant with non-solvent methods. Dabs may refer to products made exclusively from butane hash oil; however, the term is sometimes used colloquially for concentrates extracted in other ways. There are also post-production methods that lead to further variations in products and terms. 3

What are the health effects of concentrates?

There are adverse effects associated with marijuana use in any form, 3 though additional research is needed to understand how the use of concentrate may differ from smoking dried marijuana buds. Marijuana concentrates have very high levels of THC. Solvent-based products tend to be especially potent, with THC levels documented at an average of about 54-69% and reported to exceed 80%, while non-solvent based extraction methods produce average THC levels between 39-60%. 4 In comparison, the THC content in marijuana plant material, which is often used in marijuana cigarettes, is lower—with samples seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency averaging just over 15%. 5 Not only do concentrates have high levels of THC, but dabbers inhale the entire amount all at once—in a single breath. 2 As a result, concentrates can deliver extremely large amounts of THC to the body quickly. The risks of physical dependence and addiction increase with exposure to high concentrations of THC, and higher doses of THC are more likely to produce anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and psychosis. 6 Additional research is needed to understand how the use of concentrate affects these risks.

In addition, contaminants in concentrate products may be cause for concern. One study noted that 80% of tested concentrate samples were contaminated in some form, not only with pesticides (which is also a concern for dried bud), but also with residual solvents that were not fully purged in the manufacturing process. Users of BHO, for example, likely inhale some butane and other impurities along with the vaporized THC. 2 It is important to note that direct inhalation of concentrated butane among recreational inhalant users carries multiple risks, including reported deaths. 7 However, it is unclear what negative health outcomes result from the inhalation of residual butane, other solvents, or leftover contaminants during the dabbing process.

Is it dangerous to make solvent-based concentrates?

When solvents are used to produce concentrates, the preparation process itself can be dangerous. A number of people using butane to make extracts at home have caused fires and explosions and have been seriously burned. 8 A study conducted in 2015 looking at implications from marijuana legalization in Colorado reported that in a 2-year period the University of Colorado burn center saw a substantial increase in the number of flash burns that occurred during amateur THC extraction using butane, some involving more than 70% of body surface area and most requiring skin grafting. 9

It is against federal law to manufacture BHO, 10 and even in some states where adult use of marijuana is legal, like Colorado and California, it is illegal to make hash oil using flammable liquids. In Colorado, state officials recommend alternate methods using nonflammable dry ice (CO2), ice water, or purchasing the product from a licensed marijuana retail store. 11 Most licensed, commercial production facilities use a safer extraction system that prevents solvents from being wasted or exposed to the open air where they could inadvertently be ignited, similar to decades-old systems used in the production of many commercial products. 2