I’ve never been one to rule myself, as evidenced by the collection of camera parts, mechanical keyboards, and game consoles crammed into pretty much every corner of my office. Hell, my cannabis gadget collection has fed a steady stream of reviews for this magazine.
So when I walked up to the counter at Enlighten Alaska during the store’s early morning opening on August 27th, I couldn’t help myself. I was there to cover the launch of the High Times Cannabis Cup People’s Choice Edition – Alaska, a novel approach to cannabis competitions that gives ordinary people a chance to try their hand at judging.
It was a gray, rainy morning in Anchorage without the long line of customers that attracted out-of-state product launches, so I snapped a few photos, chatted with the few buyers making the morning trek, and eyed the list of evaluation kits, which ranged from $119 to $279, with some pushing the limits of what you’re allowed to buy in a day.
Why not? I figured. Why shouldn’t I also buy a straightening set?
I’ve covered Alaska’s marijuana industry for years now. I’ve taken many grow tours, hiked through jungles of cannabis plants, marveled at mind-blowing scientific gizmos in concentrate labs, and spoken to many master breeders who turned a long-standing passion into a career. However, as I quickly found out, my many years in the industry – and all the knowledge I had acquired about tax and regulatory policy – hadn’t exactly prepared me for the rigors of judgement.
My eyes were bigger than my lungs on the first of several missteps in this adventure.
As is often the case when I’m overwhelmed by menus full of wild names and high THC percentages, my eyes glazed over as I perused the list of nine different kits available that morning. Then they joined the numbers. Before I could think twice, I heard myself saying, “I’ll take the hybrid kit, might as well do it at 21 grams!”
The surprising weight of the tie-dye Mylar bag should have been a red flag, but I was caught up in High Times event organizer Mark Kazinec’s enthusiasm and what felt like a steal in terms of value. As more prospective judges filtered through the doors to collect their kits, I chatted with Kazinec about the competition and we took a picture in the special photo booth to commemorate the occasion.
On the way out, Kazinec put an arm around my shoulder and reminded me to take judging seriously. I told him I would do it. And with a High Times rolling tablet in hand, I set off.
What I didn’t know was that I was going to get in serious trouble.
It wasn’t until I got home and unpacked that the enormity of the task at hand dawned on me. It was like emptying a clown car and pulling flower sample after flower sample out of the bag until there was no more space on my table. As I looked at the strains—many from breeders not stocked by my favorite retailers—I began thinking about how I was going to compare 21 strains by early October, not to mention the basic logistics of trying out nearly two dozen strains.
First, I knew that taking written notes would be crucial, which turned out to be a good thought because it didn’t take long for my short-term memory to fog up from all the smoke. Luckily, my aforementioned gadget hunt brought Uncle Herb’s Connoisseur’s Notebook into my life, giving me a handy way to keep track of each strain’s appearance, smokeability, smell, and effects.
Second, I thought it was only fair to use a consistent consumption method. I bought a grav-spoon just for this purpose, but after a couple of particularly hard hits I was quickly reminded that there’s a reason I don’t love spoon whistles at all. I pulled out my bong, cleaned it, and proceeded to use it for the remainder of the review. And once again, being a gadget fanatic was to my advantage as the Ahle Poker I recommended in the June issue of Alaska Cannabist proved excellent for keeping your head clean for each new strain. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a regularly used bong stay that clean.
And for a while I thought things were going pretty well.
I worked my way through two to three loads a day, giving me about three hours to experience the load and enough time to start over with the next one. Regarding myself as a connoisseur, I carefully examined the edge of the buds, inhaled the aroma of each flower, watched it smoke, and jotted down the high in my little notebook.
But whether it was my own tendency to overthink it, or the pot-induced paranoia that comes with being either high or coming off one for several days in a row, I began to worry that I wasn’t testing it as thoroughly as possible.
I’m supposed to take this seriously!
I feared that using a bong wouldn’t give me the full experience and wondered if I should save enough of each strain to make a joint too… but then, it occurred to me, I wouldn’t have enough to try everything in a vaporizer too. I also noticed that maybe the time of day affected the high…or maybe it was the activities I did afterward, whether it was cooking dinner, playing video games, gardening, going for a walk, or just hanging around. Should I also try to set a specific time of day or activity to test each strain?
Without really knowing it, I slipped from judgeship to something more akin to the scientific approach some tech sites take when reviewing graphics cards or monitors, where things like pixels, brightness, and shading can all be quantifiably measured. Was strain A 5% better than strain B? I was about to scrap everything and start over with a carefully regimented plan.
Luckily, before diving fully into the depths of blind testing and controlled experimentation, I spoke to a friend who has more experience in the world of cannabis than I do. They reminded me that so much of the experience of cannabis is personal, and that’s part of what being a judge is. Besides, it should be fun.
Eventually, after much pondering, I began to see my judging less as the expert in a lab coat and clipboard in hand and more as a stuffy-dressed, comfortably-shod judge at a dog show. Cannabis, I thought, probably resembles dogs more than graphics cards, right?
While some things can certainly fall within the realm of the quantifiable – such as THC test results – there is much more to any strain that just cannot be properly measured and reported.
A good strain, I thought, should catch my eye. A great strain should be one that I keep thinking about as I move on to the next. I decided to stay the course and give each strain a chance, and decided that I’d revisit the ones that needed a closer look on my second try.
The looser approach—still keeping track of everything that went into my notebook—meant I spent less time hyper-focused on the process and more focused on the flower in front of me, trusting myself to know when I was found a winner and when not like what i smoked in the first place.
Twenty-one samples might be incredibly daunting, but it also demonstrates the wide variety of cannabis on the market. With the hybrid strains, I experienced some with the heady euphoric highs that were so fun to smoke for the first time, while others were mind-blowing highs that are great for relaxing after a long day. They also presented a wide variety of smells: from that classic weed smell, to what I could best describe as sugary, freshly squeezed orange juice, to strains that reminded me of a cloudy IPA.
As of this writing, I have yet to test a few strains and re-test my favorites before I can say I’m finally done with this experience. But I can already say that judging has given me a new appreciation for everything growers put into cannabis. It is a complex process involving many different variables that ultimately produces a complex product.
It’s serious work, but if you have the right mindset — and don’t mind a few nights of spins — it can also be seriously fun.