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how to tell the quality of weed

How to Evaluate Weed Quality

Whether you live in a legal state or not (and perhaps especially if not), chances are you have encountered subpar cannabis flowers before. The era of weak, brown “brick weed” is long over, but that doesn’t mean that all flower is created equally.

The good news is that you can avoid being stuck with subpar weed if you know what to look for. In our experience, there is no substitute for a smoke test in a perfectly rolled joint or blunt, but a methodical visual inspection of the buds will give you a good idea as to the type of strain and the conditions in which it was grown. Once you know what to look for, you’ll always have the best in your 420 travel kit.

Table of contents

Smell
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Color
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Bud Structure
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Trimming
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Trichomes
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Hermaphroditic Traits
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Mold and Pests
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Did You Know?

Smell

Well-grown, quality cannabis buds should have a pungent, identifiable smell — that skunky aroma that ranges from slightly sweet to earthy to diesel-like — indicating high terpene content. Alternatively, inferior buds often lack any smell or smell similarly to hay or alfalfa, a sure sign of poorly grown and/or cured cannabis.

For reference, rich scents like coffee and chocolate are typically indicative of an indica strain, while bright, acidic citrus notes are generally characteristic of a sativa. Hybrid strains will likely contain components of both profiles.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid buds that smell like hay or have no discernible smell at all. If it doesn’t have that characteristic dankness, you probably don’t want it.

Pungency is directly linked to potency and terpene content.

Color

Quality cannabis buds should be generally green in color, not brown! The exact shade can range from lighter, frosty greens to darker, forest greens, with undertones that range from purple to rosy to golden.

The important question to ask is: does the bud look like it came from a healthy plant? It is not uncommon for quality buds to have hints of purple, pink, blue, etc. However, if the majority of the bud is rusty red, brown, tan, or yellow in color, it came from an unhealthy plant.

Buds that looked bleached white (not frosty with crystals) are the unfortunate victims of light burn, an unfavorable growing condition in which the plant is subjected to extremely high-intensity light. Avoid these buds, as they won’t give you a quality smoking or vaping experience.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid buds that are brown, tan, yellow, red, or white in color.

Quality cannabis is primarily green in color, with a wide range of accent colors and undertones.

Bud Structure

As a general rule of thumb, indica buds should be tight and dense, while sativa buds are often more light and fluffy. However, when grown carelessly, indica buds can take on sativa-like appearance, with open, incomplete buds and visible stems. Hybrid strains often share structural traits of both indicas and sativas.

For reference, sativa buds are typically covered in more pistils (little orange/red hairs) than indica buds. The pistils should be dispersed throughout the bud, not clustered in some areas and absent from others.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid buds with loose, open structures and visible stems

Indicas are generally tight and dense, while sativas are fluffier with more pistils

Trimming

Following the harvest, cannabis buds must be trimmed in order to eliminate the leaves surrounding the bud. Quality cannabis buds should be tightly hand-trimmed as opposed to machine-trimmed.

Trimming machines tend to mangle buds and disrupt the fragile trichomes they harbor. Avoid buds that have been machine trimmed or untrimmed buds with excessive leaves; typical indications of rushed cultivation practices.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid buds that haven’t been trimmed well, or are visibly mangled by a trim machine

Quality cannabis is trimmed by hand to preserve trichomes and buds

Trichomes

The goal of properly grown cannabis is to produce buds densely packed with ripe trichomes, the visible crystals on the surface of the buds. This is because trichomes are where the cannabinoids and terpenes are stored.

Trichome density is relatively easy to distinguish with the naked eye; i.e. how ‘frosty’ is the bud? Quality buds will be covered in trichomes that sparkle like crystals, whereas poor quality buds will lack trichome coverage.

Trichome ripeness, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult to assess without the aid of a magnifying glass or jeweler’s loupe. The question at hand; was the plant grown to maturity, or was it harvested prematurely (or even late)?

Usually, the problem is prematurely harvested buds as opposed to those which are over-ripened (especially with sativa strains, as they have longer flowering periods). Premature harvesting is especially common in illegal states where the underground cultivators seek to complete more flower cycles in a year to maximize yield (at the expense of quality).

The color of the glandular trichome head is the easiest way to determine trichome ripeness. Ideally, the trichome heads should be milky white, possibly with a hint of amber. If the trichome heads are clear, the plant was harvested prematurely, and if all the heads are amber, the plant was harvested after peak ripeness.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid buds that don’t look ‘frosty,’ as they were not grown to peak ripeness

Quality cannabis is dense with cannabinoid-rich, milky-white trichome heads

Hermaphroditic Traits

Quality buds are only produced by female cannabis plants – males produce pollen sacks, which you don’t want to smoke! Strong female genetics remain female even through the potential stresses encountered while growing.

The key here is strong female genetics; some more finicky strains will produce female plants with hermaphroditic traits. This means that, with enough stress or time, the plant has a tendency to produce either male flower sites or “bananas” (also called nanners).

These are generally not desirable characteristics and buds showing these traits should be avoided. This is a plant’s final attempt to self-pollinate and reproduce after being stressed to a point where it views death as imminent. All that stress means that the plant hasn’t had the energy to devote to becoming potent — it’s been in survival mode. Thus, the earlier in its lifecycle the plant shows hermaphroditic traits, the higher likelihood the bud is seeded.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid cannabis with seeds, male flower sites, or “bananas.”

Quality cannabis is only produced by the female plant – male characteristics indicate the plant was cultivated under stress and the quality of the buds will be substantially lower.

Mold and Pests

It should go without saying that quality cannabis buds are free of mold and pests, but these issues can sometimes surface in cannabis purchased from a source outside the regulated legal market.

Mold manifests itself as white, powdery mildew (distinct from the crystalline trichomes) or a grey, fuzzy mold, depending on the particular fungal pest. Insects like mites, gnats, thrips, and aphids can leave fecal matter, eggs and even dead friends behind on your buds — ew. If any of these critters, or traces of them, are in your herb, don’t smoke it!

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid cannabis with any evidence of mold and pests

Did You Know?

Aside from the obvious (not wanting to smoke bad weed), those same buds pictured above comprise the starting material used to make all other forms of cannabis. Whether you prefer vaporizing concentrates or consuming edibles, every form of cannabis consumptionstems from the flower the plant produces.

Healthy plants have the best chance of producing a robust cannabinoid profile, and while most people are looking for maximum THC content, one of the most beneficial cannabinoids is called cannabidiol, or CBD.

Though it doesn’t get you high (unlike THC, it is non-psychoactive), athletes and travelers find CBD incredibly helpful for pain relief. Others find help with anxiety and stress, and it is used to treat drug-resistant epilepsy and other inflammatory disorders.

Commonly sold in concentrated forms such as tinctures or softgels, CBD can also be found in high concentrations in organic hemp flower (Lifter strain from Canna Comforts shown below), the source material from which those concentrates are extracted.

Recently, TSA released guidelines on how to take your vape pen on a plane, the rules for flying with weed so that people can make appropriate plans for safely taking their medication on the go.

The era of weak, brown "brick weed" is long over, but that doesn't mean that all flower is created equally. Here's our guide on how to evaluate the quality of your weed.

Leafly’s Visual Quality Guide to Selecting Cannabis

You’ve learned the visual difference between cannabis quantities and how to properly store your cannabis, but can you tell the visual difference between poor and high-quality cannabis? At Leafly we constantly receive questions from our community about how to tell the quality of buds based on photos or their appearance alone. While there isn’t an exact science for selecting cannabis (most of it comes down to personal opinion), there are a number of visual cues you can look for when scanning the selection of buds at your favorite dispensary.

Picking out cannabis is a lot like selecting fresh produce or flowers — you’re looking for something that looks appealing, has a good color, and produces an enticing aroma. Additionally, you want to avoid any glaring defects like mold and mildew, insects, and discoloration. Different qualities can come from the same plant; for example, I’ve seen many dispensaries that separate the prized colas from the small wispy buds found on low- hanging branches (I call these “popcorn nugs”).

Keep in mind a few key points when assessing the visual quality of your cannabis:

  • Quality standards vary based on your location and access to cannabis, your personal experiences with the plant, and local cannabis laws.
  • There are many other attributes to consider when choosing the best strain for you, including the price, the smell, desired effects, and quantity available.
  • A high concentration of trichomes indicates a strain with advanced cannabinoid production, which leads to potent cannabis. However, potent cannabis is not necessarily indicative of high quality — it could be lacking the flavor profile you are looking for, or, for example, it may be a stimulating sativa when you prefer a mellow indica.
  • Test data can go a long way in visualizing and understanding the various attributes of each strain, so always look for current and accurate test results from a trusted third-party laboratory.

Let’s check out some examples of low, medium and high-quality cannabis so you can better assess the quality of the buds you’re acquiring.

Examples of Low-Quality Cannabis Buds

Also called: Shwag, shake weed, bottom shelf, popcorn, dirt weed, brick weed, ditch weed, Bobby Brown, and more

Low-quality cannabis is often transported as compact bricks, resulting in a mix of shake, stems, and compressed buds. Typically only found on the black market, shwag tends to be less colorful than your average cannabis, often more brown than green (thus the nickname Bobby Brown — no relation to the former member of New Edition). It is dry and earthy in aroma with a taste that can be harsh and spicy, as opposed to the sweet and floral notes of top-grade cannabis.

When it’s not compacted into brick weed, low-quality buds tend to be light, leafy, and wispy. The concentration of cannabinoids is likely to be very low due to extreme environmental factors, like excessive heat or other variables, which cause trichomes and other crucial parts of the plant to under-develop. The harsh growing conditions typical for low-quality, improperly cared-for cannabis has a tendency to be high in CBN, a byproduct of degradation. Advanced levels of CBN are often attributed to poor or improper storage and handling during transportation.

The effects from low-quality cannabis tend to be mellow, relaxing, lazy, and sleep-inducing (thanks to the CBN). It’s not uncommon to experience headaches and other adverse side effects from poorly grown and cared-for cannabis. The lack of quality standards at the street level also opens consumers up to contaminated flower that has been tainted by dirt, mold, mildew, insects, and even pesticides.

One glaring advantage of low-quality cannabis is that it is usually available at discounted prices. While I wouldn’t normally recommend consuming sub-standard buds, some cannabis consumers prefer to bargain hunt and turn their shwag into affordable and effective edibles.

Examples of Medium-Quality Cannabis Buds

Also called: Mids, middle shelf, regs, Reggie, beasters, B+, work, and more

Medium-quality cannabis is where most domestically-grown US cannabis lands on the quality scale. Northern states also see an influx of mids and regs from commercial Canadian cannabis, known as Beasters or BC Buds (though the influx is starting to dwindle now that the US is shifting towards legal access).

Mids can be identified by their spectrum of green hues and the presence of colorful pistils. Solid middle shelf genetics showcase purple tinge, moderate flavor profiles, and sugary trichomes. Seeds and stems are minimal-to-none, but the buds can suffer from a number of quick-to-market techniques like improper flushing of nutrients, quick curing methods, and sloppy trim jobs. Pricing for middle quality is somewhat standardized based on your region, and oftentimes bulk discounts become available when buying more than a ¼ or ½ oz at a time.

Experiences with Reggies can vary across the board, but generally if the genetics are strong, the resulting effects are potent and enjoyable. Unstable genetics or stressful environments can cause hermaphrodite plants that begin to show both sexes. These partially-formed seeds are often referred to as bananas for their elongated shape and yellow hues.

Examples of High-Quality Cannabis Buds

Also called: Fire, primo, top shelf, loud, kill, chronic, dank, headies, flame, kine, kind, and a host of other regional naming trends

Everybody claims to have high-quality cannabis in stock, but how can you tell for yourself?

The first thing you should know is that top-shelf buds will stand out in a sea of green. Besides the diverse spectrum of colors that premier genetics show, the amazing quality and complex aromas of truly dank weed will scream “pick me!” The nickname “loud” is used for this exact reason, because the pungent flavors are often too much to contain and can draw attention to those who have it, especially when trying to be discreet. Truly outstanding cannabis has no price cap — it can be considered a luxury item like fine wine and, depending on the laws where you live, prices can reach extreme levels.

First-class cannabis will have a thick coat of sugary resin that contains the cannabinoids and terpenes, giving the plant its powerful effects and captivating flavors. Advanced potency and flavor profiles provide a diverse range of effects and individual experiences that amplify the consumer’s connection to the cannabis plant. The buds themselves are typically dense and chunky, thick from advanced CO2 levels during the flowering cycle and other innovative growing techniques.

The harvesting, drying, and curing methods used by the grower can greatly influence the end result. Truly dank herb should be sticky from the frosting of trichomes without being moist or wet. When ground, it should break apart without becoming a pile of dust, and when burnt, it should leave behind white ash (black ash is a signal that there is excess moisture in your flowers).

Proper trimming is paramount to true connoisseurs, allowing each cola and nug to be showcased and perfectly framed. If top-shelf cannabis appears leafy, it’s most often because the sugar leaves surrounding the buds are covered with trichomes too precious to discard. Seeds are extremely rare to find in the finest-quality cannabis, so if you uncover one in your stash, keep it for your own garden (providing you can legally grow in your state, of course).

Leafly's guide to visually assessing cannabis quality identifies traits and visual cues to help you recognize the difference between high, middle, and low-quality marijuana.