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 Oregon, 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.
Fortunately, Oregon allows you to sniff-test at your local dispensary—unlike Washington, which requires all pot to be sold in sealed packages. There’s nothing wrong with letting your nose guide you to your favorite strain.
But if you’ve got a cold, or don’t feel confident in following your nose, the best way to find great weed is to rely on the advice of a budtender. 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 10 pages too long. What’s a stoner to do? I’ve found a few visual clues that can help guide you away from the shwag and toward the premium sticky-icky.
Great pot is almost always covered with white, salt-like crystals. These white dots are little glands in the pot plant that produce the oils called cannabinoids that get us high. Some experts recommend a saltier-looking plant, which usually have more cannabinoids.
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. Don’t just rely on a high number of dots—you want to make sure they’re filled with oil, too.
Some shops provide handy magnifying glasses for checking out flower in closer detail, so grab one of these and hold your pot up to it. Don’t feel bad about taking your time and using all the tools in front of you. A good budtender will never rush you into making a decision.
A specific color will never determine great pot. There are thousands of different unique cannabis strains and each one has its own natural hue. Some are bright green, some are dark purple, and some are even gold. But sometimes discoloring can be a sign of bad weed.
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. A product that has been bleached by light exposure has also often lost many of its important aromatics.
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.
The size of the pot nugs in question can help tell part of its story. Pot plants put more energy into their flowers that are higher up on the plant or on its outer edges, making these nugs larger and more potent. That doesn’t mean there’s something inherently wrong with small nugs—often called “popcorn nugs” in the industry—but picking larger flowers over smaller flower tends to be a good way to hedge your bets.
“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,” says Jackson Holder, a product buyer for Seattle pot shop Dockside Cannabis.
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. (Those smaller, one-gram nugs usually come from the lower buds on the plant.) Back in the days of the black market, the growers would often keep the biggest colas for themselves. Now you get to try them.
Paying attention to the shape of the nug is also a good way to find quality pot. Growers must trim leaves off the pot flower before it is sold—the leaves don’t contain those oily glands that get you high—and some farms use automated machines instead of hand-trimming their pot. These machines can damage the flower and shake off those precious trichomes. Machine-trimmed pot tends to have uniform edges, whereas hand-trimmed pot tends to look asymmetrical. So those irregular edges usually mean more care has been taken during the trimming process.
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.
Oh, and if you ever see someone shaking a jar of weed? Tell them to stop that—they’re shaking off all the best parts.
If you’re buying your pot at a legal weed shop, you shouldn’t concern yourself too much with the little hairs that you sometimes see on strains. They can be white or orange or even brown, and they have an aesthetic appeal, but they have more to do with the genetics of the plant than its quality. Some strains just naturally grow more hairs than others.
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 says. “If the hair is making it to your pipe [in the black market] it is likely that the product was taken care of.”
Nowadays, though, you don’t need to worry about the hairs.
Oregon, 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 are still some problems with the testing industry in Oregon, too: Some growers could shop around to find whoever will give them their highest THC percentages. Relying solely on these numbers is a fool’s game.