How To Pick Potent Pot

A Beginner’s Guide to Determining Cannabis Quality

Shopping for the best bud in your price range can be tricky, especially when you don’t know exactly what to look for. While prices on the recreational market range anywhere from $5-$6 per gram all the way up to $15-$20, not all grams are grown equally. Despite common belief, sussing out potency is more complex than checking percentage points on each sack. Not every gram that tests at “30%” will send you to the stars. And not every gram that tests at 15% will be bunk shwag (read more about this here). How can consumers navigate this occasionally overwhelming industry and pick out the most potent products? This guide breaks down the basic cues for quality when shopping for flower.

The first and most important lesson to internalize is know the nature of the products you’re shopping for. Cannabis is a crop, similar to fresh produce or flowers (the vase kind). Different growers in different environments with different methods produce radically different results. Just like no two fujis are the same in the apple isle, no two nugs will be exactly the same.

But cannabis products, just like produce, can be assessed for quality through visual cues you can implement in the store. Here are a few tips to distinguish the shwag from the fire:

Medical Marijuana Dispensary BellinghamFrost Factor

Frost is one of the biggest indicators of quality. You should be able to see the THC. Well produced flower should have visibly evident trichomes dusting the bud. The most concentrated amounts of cannabinoids live in the trichomes. The more visible the crystals are, the more cannabinoids were able to develop.

Side tip: when storing bud, avoid using plastic baggies. The static cling can pull those precious trichomes from the bud!


Weed comes in a lot of shapes, sizes, and colors. Different genetics can produce beautiful purples, reds, and oranges in the flower. But cannabis should never be brown. Brown or blonde colored weed can indicate light damage and a degradation of potency. Exposure to light and/or air is the fastest way to ruin your stash and destroy precious cannabinoids and terpenes.


This can be subject to personal preference, but dense bud signals advanced CO2 levels during the flowering process–an excellent indication of plant health and quality.

With denser buds, you’ll likely require a grinder to successfully break it apart. Some folks may have personal smoking preferences which lean toward fluffier nugs, but density can indicate well-grown product.

However, don’t confuse density for anything related to brick weed. Brick weed–found primarily on the black market–refers to cannabis condensed into bricks for travel. It’s the toker’s condensed milk. Low potency. Super dry. All around yukers peppers.

Density refers to the individual buds. Give it a feel; when you pick it up does it surprise you with its heft versus size? Good. But it should still look like a nug–not a cube.

Harvest Date

Numbers are one of the cooler things about legalization for Washington. But I’m definitely not talking about unreliable THC percentages. Rather, the most important number on labels is the harvest date. The birthday for bud. In this market, old weed probably won’t serve you well. While it’s true that proper storage means your bud will stay fresh for a while, the conditions of a retail dispensary will likely not provide the best storage for longevity.

See-through plastic bags allow light damage and tend not to seal as airtight as jars. This exposure to light and air decomposes cannabinoids and decreases potency after enough time. Dispensaries won’t often know harvest dates of a particular lot when they place an order until the product is sitting in the store. Or maybe a product doesn’t move as fast as expected. Whatever the reason, expect older weed to have spent time over-exposed to light and air.

But fresh weed won’t be great either. Bud needs some time to dry and cure. Different processes, strains, and environments can affect how long this takes. But drying should take at least 3-7 days, plus a month or so to then cure. Fresh flower won’t burn correctly, will taste and smell like hay, and won’t have fully developed its cannabinoids and terpenes yet. All that equals less potent pot.

If a product has a recent harvest date–say, within the month–check its stems to see if it had time to dry properly: if stems feel like a cooked noodle–that’s bad. That means the bud is still too moist before it was sealed and likely hasn’t had the proper time to dry out before curing.

If a product has an older harvest date than about the last six or more months, give the bud a pinch. Is it turning to dust and crumbling from slight pressure? Hard pass. That bud is going to be old and dry. 

It’s easier to home-cure fresher bud than to reconstitute dried dust. Fresher is generally better.

Trim Job

The really high potency parts of the plant exist in and on the bud itself. While fan leaves and stems do contain cannabinoids, it’s to a much lower degree. Sometimes those little baby leaves will be so caked in trichomes, the grower prefers to leave some on the bud. This indicates a well grown product, so flavor and potency won’t be compromised from a few leaves.

Plus, the degree of trimming can be indicative of the environment the flower was dried and dured in. In very humid climates, removing as much stem and leaf as possible is critical to helping the bud properly dry. But in dry environments (like Eastern Washington), leaving some leaf can help the bud from over drying.

The biggest thing to look for here is the care taken into the trim. Was the flower hand trimmed or machine trimmed? It can make a colossal difference in potency and yield. How can you tell the difference? Machine-trimmed bud tends to all look the same–like tiny pine trees.

Why is machine trimming an issue? Machines are programmed to treat each nug as the same nug. Same size. Same density. Same shape. So while it shaves away at a nug, machines tend to shake off and trim away all those delicious trichomes that make weed so potent.

Professional trimmers know how to handle each bud with care. They know where and when to trim–making sure to leave behind plenty of crystaly frost. Trimmers assess each bud’s shape, considering things like genetic structure and size, where the machine cannot.

Seeds and Stems

We’re talking about a plant here, so stems are unavoidable. And the bigger the nug, the larger the stem has to be to support it. So the presence of a stem shouldn’t deter you too badly. The presence of seeds however can indicate a lower quality product.

Seeds appear when male plants continue to grow and pollinate female plants. When a plant starts to develop seeds it spends more time on that growth than it does growing big, beautiful, potent flowers to be dried and smoked. There’s a time and a place for seed production, but it isn’t when you’re trying to smoke. If your bag is nothing but seeds and stems, stear clear–it isn’t worth your time.


In Washington, getting your nose on a product before you take it home is virtually impossible. Due to the nature of legalization in this state, we cannot have any open containers inside a dispensary at any time. But because of this, smell becomes more of a tell for quality.

If you’re looking at some beautiful product, sniff it out! Can you smell it through the bag or container? If yes: blamo! That’s an excellent sign that you’ve got some loud bud. If not, don’t stress–packaging may simply make smelling through the sack an impossibility, so ask your budtender! They likely have already interacted with the product and have some insight on quality, smell, and flavor.

Once It’s Home

There are a few more tests of quality that can’t legally be performed inside a Washington State dispensary which may help determine the quality level of your cannabis.

Your cannabis should break apart easily in a grinder, but without becoming dust. If it’s turning to a powder, you’ve picked up some dry herb and it will likely taste harsh with a lower potency.

Sometimes you just can’t tell until you taste it. So once you’ve lit up, check it out for harshness and flavor! You’ll realize right away if it isn’t burning or burns up instantly. One more tip: if your bud burns black, it’s probably not great–perfectly dried bud should smoke down to a white ash.

When In Doubt

Ask your budtender! Ask for a review from someone you know has tried that product before (likely the person selling it to you has). Even better than a random person, your budtender likely has the experience and exposure to be able to provide an accurate, helpful qualities of a particular product–just ask them to steer to the fire!

Cannabis Research

Why I have trust issues:

If you’ve been in the weed game for longer than five minutes, you probably already know the problematic nature of cannabis research. Since the scheduling of cannabis deemed it to be a narcotic with “no medical value,” laws make it nearly impossible to do clinical research. An article in the L.A. Times reported, “Some prominent researchers complain approval is unreasonably tough for scientists whose work aims at finding beneficial uses for the drug.”

Until recently, scientists in the United States performed studies under the directive of proving the dangers of cannabis. Propaganda ensued. Regrettably, claims of lowered IQ, premature aging, lung disease, and addiction (among scads others) enveloped the plant in misinformation. The government even released a study claiming that cannabis kills braincells. However, researchers have never been able to replicate these claims and have largely debunked them. Regardless, concerned parents across the country still quote this when confronted with cannabis.

But even research that indicates cannabis can help treat symptoms of diseases should be approached critically. Because research institutions have national grants and must comply with federal law, scientists must research exclusively with the federally legal source of cannabis, provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Where does research weed even come from?

Until very recently, 12 acres of campus at the University of Mississippi has provided all the cannabis used for studies. The director of the Marijuana Project at Ole Miss, Mahmoud A. ElSohly, leads the long-time legal grow operation. The garden has begun gearing up to grow around 30,000 plants to facilitate the growing demand by researchers.

ElSohly runs the heavily regulated, out-door facility. He grows the plants for scientists seeking to research its effects after receiving special licensing through several federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). ElSohly has been quoted saying, “Pot should never be smoked. You do that to get high and there are ways to move the curative chemicals into your system without getting stoned…THC is not absorbed through the rectum,” in an article for the L.A. Times in 2014.

With regards to legalization happening across the country, ElSohly said in the same article, “The liberalization of those laws really scares me. To have marijuana available just like that? I feel sorry for Colorado and Washington state. In a few years, you are really going to see the impact of the liberal laws they have there.”

To date, Washington state has collected around $401 million from the cannabis excise tax, greatly impacting local communities.

Though ElSohly does believe in the potential benefits of cannabis, he has also admitted having never consumed it. Many long-time cannabis growers have scoffed at his admission. Some compare growing cannabis to professional chefs: how are you going to make a good sauce if you’ve never tasted the recipe?

What does that mean for research?

Basically? Research bud is bunk schwag. And a recent study out of the University of Colorado can confirm.

Using statistics provided by NIDA and lab results from Steep Hill from Denver, Oakland, Sacramento, and Seattle, researchers compared data. “Our results demonstrate that the federally produced Cannabis has significantly less variety and lower concentrations of cannabinoids. Current research, which has focused on material that is far less diverse and less potent than that used by the public, limits our understanding of the plant’s chemical, biological, psychological, medical, and pharmacological properties,” the study reported.

It’s kind of like only testing Xanax at an eighth of a dose.

And while centuries of use—spanning cultures and generations—teaches us incredible amounts about the herb, we still have so much research to do. What are the full effects of cannabis on things like tumor growth or movement disorders? We don’t yet know.

Lab Cannabis Testing

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Should we trust cannabis testing results for product potency?

Customers comment often that the coolest quirk of legalization is cannabis testing. Don’t guess which strain is fire: our consumers feel it only takes a quick compare/contrast of the tiny test results on the back of each baggie before they know which product is powerfully potent. But how effective is that?

Experts across the state have raised their collective eyebrow, questioning the accuracy of these tests by up to 10%. Any budtender will tell you, if you have four different grams for sale, it doesn’t matter if gram A is the frostiest. The highest testing will sell out first.

Customers rely heavily on printed numbers,” a Pot Shop budtender explained. “I’ve looked a customer in the eye and explicitly said, ‘I’ve tried all of these. Don’t believe the numbers. This one is the most potent,’ only to have them nod along and grab the highest testing anyway. Even when it clearly won’t look, taste, or smoke as good.” This attitude proliferates through the cannabis community.

But I thought numbers don’t lie?

Due to regulations, most consumers put blind faith in the numbers on each bag, but mounting evidence suggests we shouldn’t. “There are clear indications that a large number of potency values are higher than reality,” Donald Land, a chemistry professor at UC Davis and part-owner of Steep Hill Labs, told Seattle Weekly. “That’s not because of errors, that’s intentional.”

The issues stem from laws requiring regulations, without laws clearly defining regulatory standards. That means Washington says that cannabis must be tested, but doesn’t yet specify how. Through this grey area, laboratories around the state (and in other cannabis-friendly states) can pad their numbers, ensuring growers return to that lab for more fast-selling lab results.

Not only that, but the natural variations of a plant means that differences will occur flower-to-flower on the same plant. Just like how one rose bush could produce five flowers. The top flower might grow to be enormous and fragrant. But another flower could look sickly and only half bloom, from the same plant. That happens with cannabis too. The plant’s biological components vary enormously. Yet the state only requires tests of one bud from one strain. This leaves space for natural variability and major inaccuracy.

So what is WA State going to do about testing?

In light of testing inconsistencies, the WA Liquor and Cannabis Control Board have proposed requiring labs to test three samples of each product. According to Joanna Eide, the coordinator for the LCB: “The hope is that [average] is a more accurate potency of the plant.”

But Land has reservations about this change. “Just doing the three samples alone won’t solve the problem of bad actors. Bad actors can manipulate three measurements just as easily as they can manipulate one,” he says. And he’s right. Since nothing stops labs from using “business-friendly” results currently, nothing would stop them continuing that practice.

Others have suggested that the three samples be tested by different labs, ensuring independent numbers, and (theoretically) more honest averages. The conversation, however, is ongoing.

Currently, the LCB has opened up the topic of cannabis regulations to the masses. A public hearing will be held 11 January 2017, before a vote on 25 January. If you have opinions on the validity of cannabis testing (and as a consumer, you should), contact the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Control Board.