Ask the Marijuana Expert: 9 Questions to Make Sure You’re Buying Quality Cannabis

A man smokes marijuana at a cannabis competition in Portland, Oregon.

A man smokes marijuana at a cannabis competition in Portland, Oregon. | Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Just how safe is your marijuana? This seems like an odd question, given that the federal government deems cannabis so inherently unsafe it should be outlawed. But evidence suggests otherwise. Although there are still a lot of questions to be answered, it’s becoming clear that marijuana is, in many ways, a much safer alternative to other, perfectly legal substances.

That’s not to say you can’t end up with some bad bud. Marijuana, like any other product, can reach the consumer in a tainted state. It might be related to contamination from chemicals or pesticides or from organic issues related to mold or mildew. If you’re not careful, you can get sick from ingesting poor-quality cannabis.

But how can you tell what’s good and what isn’t? Are the labels and sellers trustworthy enough on their own?

Alan Hirsch, principal at Diagnostic Lab Corporation, recently talked with The Cheat Sheet about safety and quality regarding products sold in legal marijuana markets. The company’s main goal is to ensure cannabis is not only safe but of the highest possible quality by the time it reaches the user. The company offers certifications to marijuana companies and tests for chemical contamination, including pesticides.

We asked Hirsch how consumers can be sure they’re buying products that are not only high quality but safe to use. Let’s take a quick look at nine key questions and answers.

1. What should be the biggest concern be when buying cannabis?

A marijuana plant in a Portland retail shop

A marijuana plant in a Portland retail shop | Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Buying marijuana from a retail shop is, for the majority of Americans, going to be a brand new experience. For that reason, you might not know what you should look for. Hirsch told us it really comes down to a few key attributes, including “reliability of product.” He added that consumers should also do some research to determine whether “what they are purchasing really is what it is.” Also, look at the “THC level, strain, and potency,” he said.

2. Are mold and mildew a concern?

Containers of medical marijuana are seen at the Alternative Herbal Health Services cannabis dispensary in San Francisco

Containers of medical marijuana are seen at the Alternative Herbal Health Services cannabis dispensary in San Francisco. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You might be surprised to learn cannabis can get moldy like an old loaf of bread in your cupboard. But how concerned about mold (and mildew) should you be? “Both are big concerns, especially if you are a medical patient and have suppressed immune systems,” Hirsch said. “In some cases, mold or microbial contamination could result in death.”

3. How about pesticides?

A farm worker handles a common pesticide

A farm worker handles a common pesticide. | USDA/Getty Images

Cannabis is a plant. And pests attack plants. To keep insects away from marijuana, growers use pesticides. Just as you wouldn’t want to eat fruit or vegetables that are covered in chemicals, you don’t want to ingest pesticides through cannabis. “Pesticides and other chemical risks can cause sickness and nausea, as well as other nasty side effects,” Hirsch said. “Growers in most legal states are not supposed to use pesticides, but they often do.”

4. What are common red flags when it comes to quality?

A retail cannabis worker packages medical marijuana

A retail cannabis worker packages medical marijuana. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Again, if you’re new to legal pot shops, you might not know what you’re looking at. Using some basic consumer detective skills, you’ll be able to make better decisions to ensure you’re getting a quality product. As far as red flags go, Hirsch said to look out for a couple of specific things. If you’re buying flower (dry bud) that’s unpackaged, that should raise some concern. And if you’re buying pre-rolls, or joints, be aware they were probably made with leftover trimmings and might not provide the most bang for your buck.

5. Is there an easy way to know whether you’re buying quality marijuana?

packaged marijuana

Packaged marijuana | Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The easiest way to know whether you’re getting a good product? Be a good consumer. And you can start by purchasing from a reputable retail store, Hirsch said. Also, “asking questions about testing or grading” will help you sift through the options. Unfortunately, we still have a ways to go before there are foolproof testing and grading systems in place. “Until safety standards that exist in food are utilized in the cannabis sector, it is a still somewhat of a crapshoot,” Hirsch said.

6. How can you tell your purchase comes from a reputable source?

A production worker trims plants

A production worker trims plants. | Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

“There is no sure way to determine quality; however, buying in small amounts over a period of time if you can find consistent results, then chances are the labeling and product are good,” Hirsch said. But that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed anything. “The biggest compliant from medical users, though, is inconsistent results from the ‘same’ product purchased or used,” he added.

7. What’s more important: a reputable seller or the producer?

Customers shop for marijuana at a shop in Washington

Customers shop for marijuana at a shop in Washington. | David Ryder/Getty Images

In the marijuana industry, like many others, there are two basic elements at play: the producer and the seller. Sometimes, they’re one in the same. Other times, there’s another intermediary — a processor, perhaps. But when it comes to marijuana specifically, what does Hirsch think is the most important? “In the supply chain, the storefront is more important,” he said, adding that “the producer is more essential.” Once again, make sure you find a reputable shop you trust, and stick with it.

8. Are there side effects when using poor-quality cannabis?

A joint

A joint | iStock.com

Say you do get some bad bud. How can you tell? Are there side effects? There isn’t an easy answer, unfortunately, as everybody’s going to experience it a little differently. You will, however, learn to tell with time.

“All medicines have subjective experiences. Take pain relief, for instance. Some might take a small dose of Tylenol, and it will have no effect; however, it should not make you sick,” Hirsch said. “Most side effects are from impurities in the cannabis, not the cannabis itself. If it’s poor quality it might make you ill, but it’s very subjective.”

9. What’s the best question can you ask your budtender about a product’s quality and safety?

Medical marijuana patients attend a Los Angeles farmers market

Medical marijuana patients attend a Los Angeles farmers market. | Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re short on time or patience and need a quick answer from a budtender that will clue you into the quality or safety of a given product, Hirsch has one question you should ask: “Do you know the grower and origin of the product?”

As discussed, it all really comes back to the source. If you’re buying from a sketchy retail shop, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with some lousy stuff. If you’re buying from a retailer you’re familiar with and trust, you’ll be much better off. You’re the consumer. Do your due diligence, and research not only sellers but the producers you’re finding in local shops. Before you know it, you’ll develop a sixth sense for quality cannabis.

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