The promise of legalization was supposed to usher in a tide of quality, heavily regulated cannabis. And while the country certainly has received the latter, everything from product recalls to mouldy weed means that customers need to know how to tell the good from the shwag.
Most cannabis lots receive laboratory testing before heading to market, though the information that gives consumers is limited.
“[Testing] really just determines product safety, that doesn’t really determine quality of the cannabis,” says Peter Shearer, Director of Planning and Business Development at 7ACRES, a recreational licensed producer under Supreme Cannabis.
Shearer has 13 years in the cannabis industry, beginning as a cultivator under Canada’s early medical programs. One of his key roles there was to develop a grading system to evaluate the quality of the company’s product.
“There’s really two methods of evaluating quality. One obviously is lab testing. But really just determines product safety, that doesn’t really determine quality of the cannabis,” he told Grow. “What the grading scale I developed does is really measure the more subjective characteristics of the product and then thins it out into grades.”
The grading system may be familiar to those who have frequented dispensaries — or what Shearer calls the “informal market.” His methodology breaks it down into three categories: AAAA, AAA and B.
The good news is that whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the devil’s lettuce or a newbie looking to safely explore every adult Canadian’s newfound green freedom, you already possess all the tools required to judge good cannabis.
“It’s your eyes, your nose, and your mouth,” says Shearer. “Cannabis has been sold in clear plastic bags for a very long time. How a consumer determined if they enjoyed a product and would repurchase it was through this sensory evaluation.”
Perhaps the simplest and most immediate way a buyer judges cannabis is by sight.
The key, according to Shearer, is to assess the bud structure. Dense is preferred, but it’s not everything. Cannabis quality assurance departments are also looking for signs of insects, pests and pathogens.
“For pathogens, we look for certain colourations,” he says. “There are visual signs. Browning and bleaching of the plant matter is a sign that there was mould during production. It may not be alive and active but it indicates it was present during production.”
Another sign of high-quality cannabis is in the trim. If your pot is full of brak leaves — untrimmed leaves around the bud — then that’s a sign something may be amiss.
“High-end cannabis is trimmed very well of any extra leaves on the bud.”
Shearer’s system places the most emphasis on the aroma. By detecting the intensity of common earthy smells — what he calls “green leaf volatiles” — one can determine if some defects are present.
“Those are unwanted green notes like the smell of hay or cut grass. More planty aromas that aren’t really indicative of high-quality cannabis,” he says. “We look for the pungency of the aroma so you don’t want your cannabis to be flat or muted.”
Consumers can also detect if the buds have passed their prime or been in storage for too long. Poor storage conditions lead to a musty smell — “like a basement or old towel.” Old cannabis oxidizes and the terpenes and cannabinoids within will actually smell like piss or raisins. (Don’t ask us how those two are related, we’re just trusting the expert on this one.)
The final tool of evaluation is everyone’s favourite, the gustatory check — it’s a fancy word for taste.
Quality cannabis will have a robust taste that compliments the smell. As it burns there should usually be clean white ash.
When asked if someone in the QA process is actually smoking their product, Shearer responded: “Its a little hard to figure out the logistics of but yeah at the end of the day we do benchmark all of our products that go out to market… as well as pretty much everything else on the market.”
The tools need to assess cannabis are basic, simple and assessable. Not only is this a solid system for consumers, it’s an evaluation method used by a company that’s business model has placed an emphasis on quality over quantity.