What Weed Wins? A Look at Cannabis Cup Judging

Don't be too quick to judge the cannabis judges.

Back in the mid '90s, Big Brother skateboarding magazine hosted a weed-smoking competition called "The Bong Olympics." While I struggle to remember what the “events” were, one thing I clearly remember is that after the MC kicked off the competition and waved the green “GO!”  flag, no one could find a lighter. Stoners are hilarious. 

Now we have cannabis cups. Which I believe are designed to be a destination for like-minded marijuana enthusiasts to meet up, sample some weed, and have a good time. And, after attending the High Times Concentrates Cup in San Bernardino a few weeks ago, I think, for the most part, that’s exactly what it was. At the same time, there was a competition going on. While The Bong Olympics was a contest pitting stoners vs. stoners, and thus a mockery of jocks and sport, these cannabis cups are competitions between products—much like a wine tasting, or a BBQ cook-off—and the results are being taken quite seriously.

At the event in San Bernardino, which was dedicated to concentrates, all the entries for the various divisions (extracts, vapes, CBDs, hash, etc.) were displayed in two glass cases at the front of the event hall. I asked the man standing behind the case (guarding it?) how the judging worked.

“Are they going to smoke and eat all this stuff in one day?” I asked.

He didn’t know. Nor was he a judge himself. This got me very curious about the Cannabis Cup: Are judges judging this stuff stoned? That seemed a ridiculous prospect, but how can a judge evaluate an entry except by comparing and contrasting it with other entries? The image in my mind of a bunch of stoners sitting around smoking/ingesting all of those concentrates, and then trying to provide a serious evaluation of the quality of each, was comical. When I get high, I can barely count the number of fingers on my hands.

Dave Carnie / The Kind

I reached out to Nico Escondido, High Times’ Competition Director, to help explain who is judging these contests and by what criteria.

“Because of logistics and time restraints in running a competition of this size, judges have approximately eight days to judge their kits,” Escondido tells The KIND. “Each judge judges only one category. Each category is capped at 50 entries. So, on average, they sample six or seven entries per day. We give them a Judges’ Manual that aids them in their testing. We state that they should be taking in very small amounts. Again, they do not need to tell us how strong a particular sample is. We have lab testing for that. We tell them to look for the feel or effects of the high. If something cuts through their current high, that sample should be saved and sampled again the next day as their first sample to give a clean review with no interference from other samples.”

I also spoke with Max Montrose, the president of the Trichome Institute in Colorado, a school dedicated to cannabis education. Trichome claims to have developed “the most accurate, reliable, and objective cannabis flower quality assessment system of its kind.” Montrose is blunt in his assessment of marijuana competitions. 

“Cannabis cups are complete bullshit,” the Trichome Institute president tells The KIND. “From the top to the bottom, they’re fake. It’s more like a party. There are no parameters around anything. The first question that should be asked is, 'Who are the judges, and what qualifies them?' I can’t say which cannabis cup, because you’re a reporter, but I can say that probably the biggest cannabis cup you can think of comes to Colorado every year and whoever is judging whatever category calls me to help them because they don’t know how to judge the category. And they’re the judges whose job it is to judge these categories! Keep in mind the results can make or break multi-million dollar businesses. It’s in the hands of unqualified stoners.”

The High Times Cannabis Cup web page provides a publicly accessible PDF titled, “SoCal Medical Hash & Concentrates Cup - July 2016, All About The Competition, The Official Rules, Regulations & FAQ.” From a section titled “Who Are The Judges & How Are They Selected?”:

“All Judges are experts or professionals from the cannabis industry. We go to great lengths to ensure that the Judges selected have demonstrated exceedingly high levels of cannabis knowledge and are extremely dedicated to both the cause and the task of judging.”

My first question for HT was how do prospective judges demonstrate their exceedingly high levels of cannabis knowledge? Is there a test? Is accreditation involved? Or is this more of a bro-brah selection process? HT's Escondido only says that the judges are publicly sourced. “We deploy an online application process and carefully review the applicants for their knowledge, qualifications, industry affiliations (to ensure no conflict of interest), etc..” There’s little doubt that the HT staff boasts some of the most knowledgeable experts in the field, but publicly sourcing judges sounds like a less than ideal approach. Especially considering the amount of money resting on these decisions. More importantly, the substances being evaluated are also medicines.

“It’s totally ridiculous to judge anything intoxicated,” says Montrose. “The mere concept of judging something intoxicated is an oxymoron. We [Trichome Institute] don’t judge anything intoxicated. Nor do we care how high the product got us. You smoke weed, you get high, whatever. What we care about is, is the weed good or not? And getting high from it doesn’t tell you that.”

The High Times Official Rules provide a description of its scoring procedure: “HIGH TIMES scoring system for cannabis competitions,” it reads, “employs a two-tiered digital score sheet … that includes a Qualitative score and Quantitative score.” The quantitative score is worth 25 percent of the final grade and comes from a lab report: It measures the THC, CBD, and residual solvent levels. A possible five points is awarded to each lab measurement. The qualitative score accounts for 75 percent of the final grade and is determined by the judges using five categories: “Visual aesthetics, taste, aroma, effect (i.e., good sativa, good indica, etc.), and burnability/purity.” Each of these qualities receives a score between 1 to 5. Fair enough, but what are the criteria for those qualities? What, for instance, qualifies an entry as visually 2 versus visually 4? 

Image via Twitter

“As we tell judges,” says Escondido, “there are no right or wrong answers. Every stoner, from the expert daily smoker to the new patient, has an opinion. That opinion counts just as much as the next guy’s. Still, there is an element of common sense. For example, with visual, the trim and manicure of the buds is obviously important. You don’t want to be sampling an overly leafy bud, or a bud with botrytis (mold) on it. Cannabis is for everyone, not just experts. Our digital scoring system and algorithm (the High Times Scorebook) takes all of the judges’ scores into account evenly and averages their scores together before adding in the lab scores.”

Montrose, on the other hand, feels the cannabis industry is woefully incapable of providing accurate analysis of its own product because it is steeped in a stoner culture that has been recycling unreliable information for many years. He believes that cannabis cups continue to measure and grade cannabis using faulty standards.

“Most cannabis cups judge based off the cannabinoids,” says Montrose. “They think that the highest THC is the best flower, the best bud. To us that’s really silly. Because you might have the highest THC, and you may have the most diverse terpene profile, but if the grower didn’t flush the bud, then it’s going to be of a very low quality. It’s going to be painful when you smoke it because you’re smoking salt. Also what if [the bud] is full of spider mites, spider mite eggs, webs, fecal matter, exoskeletons, and powdery mildew? Those are quality factors that chemo tests don’t measure.”

"Every stoner, from the expert daily smoker to the new patient, has an opinion," says Escondido. "That opinion counts just as much as the next guy’s." 

Escondido admits that improvements can be made to the process, and High Times has always welcomed feedback. “One obstacle for us, in terms of consistency, is lab testing,” Escondido says. “There is currently no standard for labs in regard to being consistent across the board. They all have different equipment and processes. The cleaning and sterilizing practices are different. The equations they apply to the raw data vary, and so on. This doesn’t affect judging at each competition really. The same lab provides the results for all the entries; so the playing field is level. But for me, in terms of comparisons and conclusions drawn from our massive database, these are the inconsistencies that make it hard to make broader evaluations.”

In talking about cannabis competitions and evaluations, Montrose and Escondido both reference wine tasting and wine sommeliers.  When he took over the High Times competition in 2010, Escondido modeled it after wine and beer competitions. An interesting difference, however, is that sommeliers generally do not consider a wine’s ABV content in any other way than how it affects taste—wine snobs certainly don’t describe the buzz—while THC levels are of the utmost significance in cannabis assessment. Wine somms are mostly concerned with the areas listed in the qualitative score: The color, the smell, and the taste, as well as the mouth feel, the terroir, etc. of the wine.

“The world of drinking wine is all about pleasure,” Montrose explains. “It’s not about pleasure and medicine. So when wine sommeliers assess wine, it’s more of an art. They paint a picture: I know this grower; I can taste the weather pattern; I can taste this year in this geography. And when you drink wine, you feel really good. There are types of alcohol that are more uplifting, like tequila, and types of alcohol that are more sedating, like wine. But cannabis is a drug that can be a sedative, a stimulant, a hallucinogen, or a combination of those things. So it takes much more analysis and science to gauge how you’re about to feel when consuming this flower. Much more so than what wine sommeliers go through. It’s very different.”

Montrose is clearly very passionate about the Trichome Institute’s procedures for grading the quality of cannabis products. At the same time, all the emphasis on the quality of the actual product seems to leave little attention to its effects and performance. “But,” I object, “I would think most people care about one thing: Getting high.”

“Do we care about getting high?” Montrose asks. “Of course we do. Just not when we’re judging. We consume product to grade the flush and the burn, not how high it gets us. Everyone has a different tolerance level. That’s too subjective of a thing to be grading. Plus, you’re going to get high. Like, no shit. We care about the degree of being medicated and for what. We care about the quality of the bud first, and then how it’s going to make us feel.”

Image via Twitter

Cannabis cup results are probably good first reviews and rough assessments of the quality of marijuana-based products. Until the industry implements universal standards, and quality assessments are reviewed and approved by certified cannabis experts, it’s hard to recognize these results as much beyond opinion.

Unlike the wine world, however, the burgeoning cannabis industry is in a potentially better place to provide a more accurate assessment of cannabis than wine sommeliers can for wine. Marijuana has more science available to it to help identify strains and provide accurate quantifiable measurements about the products. Ideally, a marijuana sommelier could paint a lovely, romantic picture of the product being served and offer his/her opinion on it, much like a wine somm, but the weed somm will also be armed with actual scientific data—something relatively foreign to wine reviewing.

Will the marijuana industry be able to unite and create these standards itself, or will the guidelines be written by The Man? It’s a subject that will generate a lot of debate as the industry moves toward legalization and more complex government involvement. I hope they get it together soon because I would like to see marijuana become an Olympic sport during my lifetime.