With the sudden influx of new, unlicensed dispensaries, pop-up weed shops, and “gifting” being done across the state, we have to wonder, where is this weed coming from? Who’s growing it and how? But most importantly, is this a quality product that is safe for me to consume?
There are many different factors that determine the quality of cannabis. But before we get into determining quality, let’s first talk about determining if what you’re interested in buying is even safe to begin with.
Is It Safe?
It might sound like a silly question, but it needs to be addressed. If you talk to many cannabis users, there seems to be an attitude of “I’ve never known if my weed was clean before, so why should I care now?” And while this may be a common perspective to have, there are many differences in the current market that must be taken into consideration.
Why should I care about laboratory testing?
In the past year, there have been multiple hospitalizations and even some cases of death from people that purchased unregulated cannabis products that ended up containing fentanyl. This has occurred across the Northeast including New York State. There are currently no requirements for laboratory testing for fentanyl even in legal markets. If that wasn’t bad enough, there are also a number of methods that can be used to deceive purchasers. Low quality cannabis or even hemp can be physically and chemically altered in order to have more “bag appeal” and fool purchasers. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the safety associated with a lot of these practices.
Some common methods used in the unregulated market include:
- Spraying cannabis flower with chemicals to enhance its aroma.
- Spraying hemp flower (CBD) with low quality THC distillate, so it’ll get you high.
- Coating cannabis flower with powders such as baking soda to make it look more crystal You can try squeezing a little lemon juice on a nug if you suspect this, or check the bottom of a bag for powders that aren’t sticky.
- Freezer-burning flower to give it a “purple” You can look for dark purple on dark green or brown nuggets.
- Adding different types of pine and wood resins to wax or distillate to make it crystalize and become more stable. You can look for wax that balls up in your fingers but never melts or becomes sticky.
- Cutting the distillate in cartridges with glycerin, MCT oil, or terpene blends designed to dilute the final product. Remember that vape additives may contribute to vaping-related illnesses or lung injuries.
- Using harsh pesticides, chemicals, and growth hormones in the growing process to make a product that looks amazingly high quality, but isn’t necessarily even safe.
- Using fake or copycat packaging that can be purchased online.
- Spraying candy/snacks with THC distillate. Nobody is making Skittles, sour patch kids, or nerds ropes perfectly from scratch; they’re taking these name-brand snacks, spraying them with cheap THC distillate, then repackaging them into fake packaging. These products raise serious safety concerns and can easily be mistaken for the normal non-infused candy or snack.
- Packing “pre rolls” with trim and floor sweepings from the trimming process then spraying the outside with flavored distillate to enhance the smoke’s Watch for smoke that tastes sweet but is still harsh on your throat and lungs. Also watch for clean, white ash at the end of your joint. If you suspect anything, cut open your joint or pre roll and inspect it for seeds and stems.
- Weed should NOT crackle and pop. This is a sign that the buds have, at best, been over-dried. Worst case scenario is that this could be indicative of harsh chemicals being present, or that the flower had begun to develop seeds which are igniting and popping, which also isn’t healthy to be smoking and has often been attributed to causing headaches.
Now that we understand why we should be safe in the emerging market, let’s approach how to determine if what you’re looking to buy is safe to smoke. First of all, nobody can tell if your weed is safe just by looking at it. It’s simply not possible without extensive knowledge of how the cannabis was grown and handled, or without a full-panel lab test.
Prior to Smoking
When buying in a retail environment, it could be a self-regulated dispensary on the reservations or an unregulated store that’s decided to begin “gifting” weed for stickers or other merchandise such as t-shirts. The first thing to examine is the location itself. Is the store clean? Would you buy groceries or food from a store that looked like this? If you’re planning to ingest what you’re buying, then storage comes first because even the highest quality products can become spoiled if not stored properly. This means that cannabis flower being sold should NOT be exposed to open light. It might look impressive to have a massive jar of nugs sitting on the counter, but if those nugs aren’t being protected from sunlight their cannabinoid content will deteriorate much faster.
This brings us to the next step — packaging. All imported products from regulated markets like California, Colorado, or Michigan have their own cannabis tracking systems to know the seed to sale life cycle of the plant/product. Ask or check for these stickers/marks to indicate a product that is truly imported from a legal state and has gone through a regulatory process at some point. Check for proper labeling and seals which would include an identifiable manufacturer and tamper resistant seals, as every regulated state has implemented child safety laws.
Now it’s time to inspect the Certificate of Analysis or COA (better known as third-party lab results). These normally appear as a QR code on the product you’re looking to purchase and can be scanned with your phone to bring up the report.
There are several things to look out for when determining whether a COA is legitimate. First, the link that is pulled from the QR code should never be a JPG or image file. These are far too easy to manipulate using Photoshop or similar programs. Second, watch out for “blacked out” or deleted/missing sections in the report especially in the top address lines. The name on the top of the COA should be the business that you’re buying from or the brand that is on the packaging. All of these steps are necessary for establishing a chain of accountability and custody in the buying process. Even in a perfect world mistakes can happen, and when they do the only line of defense for the consumer is accountability.
When checking a COA, ask or check for a full-panel of lab results which should include at least the following: pesticides, heavy metals, solvents, mold, mildew, and other microbial organisms.
For more information on the dangers of ingesting any of these compounds please consult a medical professional.
Does a clean COA mean that I definitely have a clean product? Absolutely not. There have been and currently are plenty of laboratories–especially in California–which are “pay to play,” where growers can pay a premium to get the lab results they desire. There has also been a great deal of electronic manipulation which has led to COA’s being altered after results are sent back from the lab. In addition, storage plays a huge role in quality, and if products are left in high heat, strong sunlight, wet or moldy areas then even a clean COA and quality product can be ruined.
After checking the COA, it’s time to physically inspect the flower. Starting with a visual inspection, does the flower look like it’s been trimmed well? Care in the trim process shows how much that grower feels their product is worth. There are plenty of guides online to help recognize if flower has been machine- or hand-trimmed. These are indicative of whether the grower operates on a commercial scale or a home-grow. Commercial growers are typically more worried about profit margins and will use methods to increase profits that lower the quality of the product.
Continuing with the visual inspection, look for healthy colors in the flower. Different shades of green, purple, yellow, red, and even pink can be seen on healthy flower.
However, avoid any flower that is brown, faded yellow like old hay, and especially if it has black on it, as this could be mold! These are all signs of old, moldy, or expired weed.
Visually, you will also be able to see a comparison in trichrome coverage between different strains by observing how “crystalized” the flower appears to be. If you have a simple jeweler’s loupe you can visually inspect the trichomes for size and color as well as be able to check for whether the white coverage you’re seeing is mold, mildew, or spider mites, all of which can be deceptive to the naked eye.
Next is touch. There are two main things to look out for when giving your nugs a squeeze. The first is density. Your nugs should not be little rocks that you can’t break between your fingers. This is an indication of a chemical called plant growth regulators, or PGRs, being used in the growing process. This is a type of growth hormone which causes nugs to tighten up, but when synthetic PGRs are used the nugs become rock hard.
According to a study: “The residues of PGRs in agricultural products are seriously detrimental to human health because they have been found to have hepatotoxicity, nephrotoxicity, genotoxicity, neurotoxicity, even carcinogenicity and teratogenicity.” 
Once you’ve given your nugs a squeeze, you should also take caution if you find that the nug falls apart in your hand because it’s so dry, as this is a sign of improper storage. If you squeeze the nug and it still feels wet, that’s also a problem because if not properly dried then mold can develop over time (even after being lab tested or properly sealed and stored).
Last is smell. Possibly the most important part of enjoying your experience after you buy your product is giving it a good old-fashioned smell test.
There’s a common phrase in the cannabis industry that stands tried and tested through experience. That phrase is “the nose knows,” which means that when you smell something that is attractive or stimulating to you, it is an indication that your body chemistry is receptive to that blend of terpenes and compounds.
There is a lot of fuss, especially from budtenders, surrounding “indica vs sativa” and what strain has what effects. Some of this holds true, however, how a plant is grown still has the largest impact on its effects. Any plant that is kept in the ground for an extra week or two before harvesting will see its trichomes turn from clear, to milky, to an amber color. Once a plant is driven toward a more mature state where the trichomes have turned amber, the concentration of other cannabinoids changes including degradation of THC into CBN which is attributed to causing more drowsiness. Point being, even the strongest, most energetic and uplifting strain labeled as “sativa” can turn into a couch-locking sedative that people would associate more with an indica strain. Always trust your nose and be willing to experiment with new strains.
While lighting up your new flower, there are a few factors to pay attention to in order to see if you got what you paid for. As mentioned before, if the flower snaps, crackles, or pops while it’s lit, then the nug may be dry, not properly flushed, or contain seeds. All of these may have an impact on health, and certainly impact the experience itself.
Pay attention to taste! Does the weed taste like it smells? Taste being different from smell can be indicative of the flower being grown or sprayed with chemicals to enhance the smell. It can also be a sign that the flower wasn’t properly stored or used chemicals in the growing process. Does it have a harsh or chemical taste? That would be a direct indication that there’s something off with your weed. Your body is naturally built to identify what agrees with it and what doesn’t, and if you find yourself sneezing, coughing excessively or differently than usual, or short of breath even several minutes after smoking then maybe reconsider that strain or even the source you purchased from altogether.
One part of the taste is the smoothness of the smoke. Proper humidity in the storage of flower ensures there’s a level of moisture present to keep the smoke smooth and not dry out your lungs. Overly dried flower can cause more coughing, as well as irritation to the mouth, throat, and lungs. Harsh smoke can be due to a multitude of issues, but regardless of what the cause is, the end result is a less enjoyable experience for the consumer.
Lastly, how do you feel? By far the most subjective and yet the most critical aspect of the experience. It’s why we smoke in the first place and why you’ve taken the care to get to this point. Does the experience match up to your expectations? After establishing that your source is safe, this will by far be the most important thing when it comes to buying a strain and trusting that the grower will deliver what you’re looking for.
One more thing to consider. How you decide to smoke will also have an impact on your experience. If you find that you’re getting far too high but meanwhile you’re only smoking out of a 3ft bong that your old roommate gifted you, well those huge hits you’re taking might be why you’re feeling the way you do and not the strain you’re choosing.
Experiment with different smoking devices, determine what works best for you, and stay consistent with delivery methods when comparing different strains. It isn’t fair to take two hits of a joint with one strain and say that you didn’t get nearly as high as when you hit a different strain out of your friend’s gravity bong. The less factors you change, the more clearly you will be able to distinguish your experiences.
Once you’ve finished enjoying your flower, there are a few items to pay attention to that could give further indication of quality. Although there is no scientific backing, there is a tradition within the growing community that clean flower should burn and leave white ash only. The presence of black ash in a fully burned bowl has commonly been associated with improper flushing of chemicals or wasn’t properly dried & cured. Ash alone is not a good indicator of quality, and should only be used in conjunction with other indicators to help verify underlying suspicions and not as a primary form of quality assessment.
As your high begins to dissipate, pay attention to the duration of the high as well as how you feel as it begins to wear off. Does your mind/body feel clear and back to its usual self or do you feel slow/worn down as the buzz clears? This isn’t a direct indication of quality either and could instead be a sign of strength, strain properties, and your own body composition.
The Short & Sweet
If you didn’t grow the weed, or if you don’t know the person who did, then you really have no way of knowing what is truly in your product. Having a trustworthy source has always been important, but in an emerging and saturated market it is more crucial than ever to be diligent in assessing the quality of what you’re purchasing. Cheers and as always enjoy responsibly. -CannaBuff Staff
QC Checklist (Quick):
- Lab Testing
- Physical Inspection (look, smell, feel)
- Experience (taste, smoothness, feeling)
- Ash (white ash when burned)
QC Checklist (In depth):
Research, research, research.
Know your strain! There’s a wealth of information online.
- MOLD/Powdery Mildew
- Heavy metals
- Age – How old is this weed?
- Storage – How was it stored?
- Look (properly trimmed, healthy color, trichrome coverage)
- Smell (the nose knows)
- Feel (density, wetness, stickiness)
- Taste (does it taste like it smells?)
- Feeling (how does it make you feel?)
- Check your ash (white ash after burning)
- Duration of high
- How do you feel as the high dissipates?