How to distinguish bad weed from good weed
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- What is top-shelf weed?
- What to look for in good weed
- How do I know if it’s bad weed?
- Is expensive weed always good?
- Bottom line
What is top-shelf weed?
First, let’s cover our bases and go over the common terms used when shopping for good weed. “Flower” refers to the dried and cured female cannabis plant’s blooms, often called “nugs” or “buds.” Flower is typically intoxicating — THC content is the primary indicator of euphoric potency — but some flower has high CBD content and will produce less intoxicating effects.
“Flower” refers to the dried and cured female cannabis plant’s blooms, often called “nugs” or “buds.” Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
The best smoking experiences, edibles, tinctures — even CBD oil — often come from the best source material, or “top-shelf bud.” In terms of slang, premium weed is also commonly referred to as the “loud,” “fire,” “dank,” and “Private Reserve.” Low-grade weed is often referred to as “schwag,” “brick,” “ditch,” and “bunk” weed.
Identifying high-quality flower can throw even the most experienced cannabis connoisseurs for a loop, but the key traits that separate good weed from bad weed are smell, appearance, feel, and flower structure. In this article, we’ll break down all four and offer tips for spotting the good stuff and avoiding the bad.
What to look for in good weed
1. Smell: Cannabis cultivated and cured to the highest standards typically exhibits a pungent and pleasant aroma. Flowers emitting a strong fragrance are commonly referred to as having a “dank” or “loud” odor, indicating the overall quality of the flower. There are a variety of terms for the types of aromas high-quality cannabis emits, including skunk, diesel, and pine. The common denominator is that a good-smelling flower is distinct, pungent, and unmistakable. The stronger the fragrance is, the more nuanced the experience is likely to be.
2. Look: High-end flower, like fresh, healthy produce, provides a few visual hints to help you determine its quality. While all good cannabis should be visually appealing, a top-shelf strain can easily display a vibrant array of colors. Good-quality flowers are often a deep green with flaming orange or red hairs. They can also express colors from deep purple to bright blue.
While all good cannabis should be visually appealing, a top-shelf strain can easily display a vibrant array of colors. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
Another important visual indicator of good weed is the amount and viability of trichomes. Trichomes are the tiny, glimmering crystal-like appendages on the plant’s surface that create and hold the compounds responsible for the flower’s smell, flavor, and effects. The more frosty trichomes you can see with the naked eye, the better indicator of the flower’s intoxicating and therapeutic potency. If your eyesight has seen better days or you want to get up close, use a magnifying glass to get an even better sense of a nug’s trichomes.
3. Feel: Top-shelf flower should be sticky and slightly spongy when you touch or gently squeeze it between your fingers. Stems should snap and the bud should be relatively easy to break apart, but shouldn’t be completely dry or crumble when you touch it. Alternatively, buds shouldn’t be too wet or soft, since these have a higher chance of developing or containing mold or mildew.
4. Flower structure: Skillfully cultivated and cured sativa-leaning flowers tend to be light and fluffy in shape and composition, while indicas tend to be tighter and denser in flower structure. Though the structure and the experience you end up having usually have little to do with each other. Rock-hard flowers are a sign that cultivators may have used plant growth regulators, which can lead to an unpleasant taste. Extremely fluffy flowers could be a signal that the plant was not grown under sufficient light intensity and was not cultivated to its potential.
While top-shelf flower is the hallmark of a great dispensary, good flower comes in many shapes and sizes and has more than a few nicknames.
Other qualities to look for in good weed
There are a few other quality benchmarks to consider when tracking down the best weed. Dr. Adie Rae, a neuroscientist at the Legacy Research Institute in Portland, Oregon, and scientific adviser to Weedmaps, pinpointed three more key indicators of weed quality: ethical cultivation, ethical companies, and diverse chemistry.
1. Ethical cultivation: Rae emphasized that ethical cultivation avoids synthetic fertilizers, uses living soil, and practices sustainable agriculture. “Look for Clean Green Certified, Sun+Earth, or other organic products and producers who use regenerative agricultural practices. Sungrown cannabis often ticks all of these boxes,” Rae advised.
2. Ethical companies: Small, craft producers and family-owned businesses are often the most ethical, according to Rae. “Look for women-, Black-, and minority-owned producers… large corporations are paying more attention to yield and profits than plants,” she stated.
3. Diverse cannabinoids: A diverse cannabinoid and terpene profile is desirable in CBD products. Rae recommended that consumers ask to see the Certificate of Analysis before making a purchase. The certificate provides a comprehensive list of cannabinoids contained in the product in addition to therapeutic terpenes and any potential contaminants such as pesticides or heavy metals.
How do I know if it’s bad weed?
1. Smell: Low-quality flower can take on a variety of quirky fragrances, which typically means a batch of bad weed. Often referred to as “schwag” or “bottom shelf,” these low-end buds can reek of a musty or mildewy aroma. A musty or straw-like aroma is a clear indication of aged or compromised cannabis. Typically, when stored away from light and heat, cannabis has around a one-year shelf life before starting to really degrade. Unpleasant aromas are generally a sign of mishandling, poorly cured cannabis, or advanced age.
Unpleasant aromas are generally a sign of mishandling, poorly cured cannabis, or advanced age. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
2. Look: The appearance of low-quality flower is distinct. It can come in the form of discolored flower or an abundance of stems and seeds. There are many reasons flower can become discolored ranging from mold and age to pesticides and chemicals. The bottom line is that you don’t want to buy it, let alone smoke it. One very important indicator of bad weed is the appearance of amber-colored trichomes. With time, light, and heat, trichomes turn from clear to an amber hue. This is a dead giveaway that you’ve been swindled into last year’s harvest.
A sad sight, low-quality cannabis is seen in many shades of degradation. From dirt brown to an immature lime green flower, nature provides several visual clues when you’re looking at a good plant gone bad.
3. Feel: When flower is of a lower quality, it will often be dry or brittle to the touch. Dry bud will feel light and airy with no weight behind it, unlike dense, sticky flower. Additionally, bad weed will easily crumble when handled, or might even be falling apart. Loose, undone flower is called “shake” and should be avoided.
Overly “wet” buds have stems that don’t snap and tend to stay put when squeezed. The extra moisture content makes for the perfect breeding ground for mold and mildew. Wet nugs that tear apart rather than break apart are a sign that a cultivator didn’t properly dry and cure their cannabis.
4. Flower structure: Poor flower structure can be easily detected with a discerning eye. While a properly cultivated flower will often be aesthetically pleasing, a carelessly grown plant can produce inferior-looking flowers. Though a plant’s structure really says nothing about its chemical composition, it can still tell a story. Improper lighting or growing conditions can lead to “fluffy” or “airy” nugs, and while they may contain high levels of cannabinoids and terpenes, their density is still widely and harshly dismissed by the cannabis community.
Other indicators of bad weed
You may think you’re getting better quality bud with a sky-high THC concentration, but Dr. Rae dispels this myth. She cited THC levels above 20% as a red flag and told Weedmaps, “Lab tests are not as accurate as they may seem, and there are financial incentives for labs to produce increasingly higher THC values. Especially with flowers labeled around 30%, be very wary of fraudulent lab results.”
Rae also pointed out that there is not necessarily a relationship between enjoyment and THC potency. Distinguishing between enjoyment and intoxication, Rae asserted, “You can still have a very nice experience with 5-10% THC.”
Is expensive weed always good?
And is cheap weed always bad? Rae suggested that a low price point could indicate an older product past its shelf life but said that sometimes, “You can often get a nice-smelling, fresh flower for a good value. Beware if a pricey flower has a high THC level, but often a high price reflects the extra care and attention required to make a truly craft product.”
Check the harvest date and test the aroma before buying weed that appears unreasonably cheap. Marijuana that doesn’t pass the smell test just might be dirt weed. The bottom line, however, is that finding good weed depends on your personal taste.
The search for high-quality flower doesn’t have to be complicated. With a discerning eye (and nose), even novice cannabis smokers will be able to easily separate the high-quality buds from the bad.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about what you like when you smoke weed. What you prefer might be different from what the local budtender, delivery driver, or your friend likes. There are hundreds of strains grown by thousands of cultivators. The goal is to find the right strain for you. It’s simply about finding the right product that works with your personal chemistry by a brand or cultivator that you like and can thus enjoy over and over again.
So get out there, look for the four main indicators to understand what you’re getting — smell, look, feel, and flower structure. Then you’ll find a quality weed strain that best suits your personal taste.
How to distinguish bad weed from good weed Copy article link to clipboard. Link copied to clipboard. Contents What is top-shelf weed? What to look for in good weed How do
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
Mold and Pests
Did You Know?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Avoid buds with loose, open structures and visible stems
Indicas are generally tight and dense, while sativas are fluffier with more pistils
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.