Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Stoner Living: A Primer on Low Grade Marijuana

This is the first Stoner Living article to explore marijuana as a product itself, so we'll start at the bottom of the quality spectrum of marijuana destined for consumption. With the advent of legalization we anticipate an increase in marijuana product quality across the board. But for now, low grade product is an unfortunate reality for millions of Americans living under prohibition.

Low Grade Marijuana from Central America
A few rules of thumb regarding product quality for smoking grade marijuana:
  • high quality marijuana is made up entirely of the unfertilized flowers of the female marijuana plant
  • marijuana leaf is not considered smoking grade by contemporary pot smokers
  • seeded product is inferior to seedless product because seeds are not smoked; seedless marijuana is always preferred. 
  • the visible presence of trichomes - appearing as white crystals on the dried marijuana flowers - is a desirable indicator of potency and quality and not necessarily an indication of product adultery
  • when crushed between the fingers, a sticky resin should adhere to the fingers and the flowers should emit a pungent skunk-like aroma which can range from fruity/herbal to acrid.
Male plants produce a relatively negligible amount of THC in their leaves and are routinely culled out of  marijuana gardens. We'll cover basic horticultural theory in another Stoner Living article, but for now we'll point out that the risk of a male plant pollinating a female plant far outweighs any potential upside for most pot growers. Male are only grown intentionally by breeders looking for pollen.

At the very bottom of the quality spectrum - actually, just off the bottom of our spectrum - lies ditchweed (hemp). Proud stands of this wild hemp spring up each year along the biways of the American midwest, where their ancestors were once grown for rope making. As I-80 crosses Iowa and Nebraska, a skunky fall cloud stenches out over the highway luring bystanders into towering patches of seedy, headache inducing ditchweed (and some of the meanest law enforcement outside of Texas). Ditchweed isn't smokable or saleable, outside of pranks and cases of woeful ignorance.

Marijuana Quality = Genetics + Growing Quality + Processing/Handling Quality
The biggest challenge in assessing marijuana quality is understanding the independent contributions of nature (genetics) and nurture (growth, curing & handling). The best marijuana has good provenance -  it is the culmination of desirable, carefully selected genetic traits which are grown, cured and processed under the best possible conditions. A low THC strain can be carefully grown to produce seedless, cured green product, but it will remain a low THC strain. Likewise, an ugly brick of compressed, seedy marijuana can provide quite a high when grown from high THC seeds. Looking at and handling the finished marijuana provides many cues about how the plant was grown, cured and handled - but won't ever provide a full picture of what the product experience will be.

Lower grades of marijuana are often compressed for ease of transportation, resulting in irreversible changes to the structure of the product. Compression is achieved by methods ranging from hand packing to large hydrolic presses. This type of handling, coupled with improper curing procedures, leads to the key product defect found in 'bricked' marijuana: mold. The typical musty character of compressed marijuana - that classic 'mexi' aroma - is the smell of mold. Low levels of this mold do not render the product unsaleable, and many consumers of commercial grade marijuana may not realize that their product is slightly moldy.

Low grade marijuana re-packaged for the retail market (RAAS, Nicaragua).
Outdoor marijuana plants often receive less care than indoor plants and consequently produce flowers that aren't as well kempt as their indoor sisters. Marijuana of exceptional quality can be grown outdoors, and some connoisseurs argue that the best marijuana is grown outdoors. But outdoor plants face a wide range of abuses which can take their toll on product quality, from pests to light pollution. Worst of all, outdoor plants are subject to unwanted pollination, resulting in a seed crop. Plants grown outdoors often produce looser floral clusters than the same strain grown indoors. The seasonal nature of outdoor marijuana growing leads to huge volumes of product that must be processed at once, leaving less attention to detail to go around during harvest, curing, trimming and processing.

As large scale greenhouse operations proliferate, the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is becoming a concern for marijuana consumers. Legalization and regulation of commercial operations will provide opportunities for consumers to be informed and protected in this area. Marijuana tax revenue can be allocated to develop best practice guidelines for state licensed producers.
Low grade marijuana won't go away, but standards and tastes will change with time. Consider the photo of the Central American marijuana featured above - product of this quality would be below the standards of any medical dispensary in Washington state. Legalization will lead to new products and product experiences, and the degree to which future marijuana connoisseurs will be familiar with unprocessed cannabis remains to be seen. After all, what percentage of cigarette smokers could identify a tobacco plant in full bloom if they passed one in the street? Could you?

(c) 2012  Stoner Living


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