How to review cannabis: a complete guide

Everyday, without fail, I get some variation of the following message:

“Wuz up bro I want to smoke ganga for a livin how do I get yer job?”

There are more articulate versions, but that’s the aggregate. I’ll admit I’ve had the benefit of working under several miracle workers/editors during my stint here, but being a cannabis critic is more than finding the headiest nugs in town and getting high on Instagram. You have to, you know, write.

If you’ve never written about strains, start today. I had years of experience before my first column for The Cannabist, even if I wasn’t particularly proud of the paid schilling I had to do to get my reps in. To succeed, you’ll need to know two things: how to review cannabis critically and how you present what you’ve learned. Let’s tackle the former first.

Strain Selection

Any strain you’re considering should be known from Amsterdam to Anaheim. Colfax Kush might be a pantheon-level strain, but it’s unlikely your readers will travel hundreds of miles to find the one dispensary that carries it. People are Googling “What is a Colfax?” right now. You can drill down to boutique genetics after you’ve knocked out the classics.

Grab Your Camera

Treat your sample with kid gloves and get a high resolution, properly lit shot of it before you do anything, as well as second photo of the label. Invariably, you’ll lose the jar, forget something you saw on visual inspection, or your significant other will roast the rest of it without giving it a second thought. You’ll thank me when you save yourself a trip back to get a second photo gram.

Clean Your Piece

I’m talking the whole enchilada. I wish I had found Resolution Gel before Dakota Wesley was a guest on The Cannabist Show, but giving your pipe a soak in iso works, too. (Cleaning your bong? Don’t forget to add kosher salt.) It sounds like a pain, but it’s critical to this next step.

Don’t Smoke It

Taking dry hits of samples absolutely altered how I judged the flavor of strains. Load your pipe and pull through to get an idea of the flavor before you add any combustion. You’ve released a lot of terpenes (hopefully) through whatever process you grind up the sample, so take a moment to enjoy those subtle notes before you’re adding raw plant matter into the mix.

Don’t Inhale It

Before you call me a narc, this was a solid tip from former Westword critic William Breathes: let it roll around in your mouth for a minute, like smoke on the bouncy castle of your tongue. I barely let the flame touch the flower on my first hit so the terps have a chance to shine. If this seems wasteful, remember you’re about to have a veritable treasure trove of cannabis in your life.

Take Consistent Hits

Part of what you’re analyzing is potency, so comparing three bowls of Flo to two hits of The White isn’t fair. I’ve made it a goal of keeping my tolerance low so my experience mimics that of someone who is an occasional smoker here to visit a few dispensaries. Whatever you choose to do, make sure it’s regimented.

Put It On Paper (Or Your Phone)

When does weed hit you? How long is the average duration of your high? Do you smoke so much that the average duration is “today”? Being able to quantify such a personal experience involves an attention to detail that runs contrary to the effects of some strains, so take notes as you go without worrying about putting the whole column down as your mind races on some Haze. You’ll occasionally pen a column stoned, but ideally you’re not writing about writing unless your goal is to be as solipsistic as possible.

Related: Jake Browne’s Mount Rushmore of Marijuana

Now, for the philosophical points of cannabis criticism.

There’s no right answer when it comes to any of this, only my meandering thoughts about what it means to write about this one-of-a-kind plant. On my first day in a dispensary in 2010, I poured over Jason King’s “Cannabible” and Jorge Cervantes’ “Big Book Of Buds” as my introduction to strains. William Breathes became a massive influence when his column debuted. Finding my own voice in the space has been a work in progress, but I believe any substantive columnist needs these three attributes:

You’re Knowledgeable

With all due respect to the guy in Missouri who hit me up this morning and said his guy always has “the bomb kushes” you need experience working around genetics, and a lot of them. This is truly an industry where you can’t fake it ’till you make it. One of my favorite examples was when we were playing the game “Pot or Not” on The Cannabist Show with two local DJ’s who launched a cannabis radio station and neither knew if Jack Herer was a real strain or something I made up. Not knowing who Jack was, his impact on legalization, or his eponymous strain is egregious.

You Love Writing

I used to joke that reviewing cannabis was like reviewing a different Hardy Boys book every week: as much as it changes, it’s always the same. At some point, it becomes a grind to come up with a fresh term for the color green or the smell of rubber. If you want any kind of longevity, there has to be a passion for this plant and it must show up on the page. There will be people who read you that have never smoked a hit of herb in their life, so how will you put such a singular experience into words? Your descriptions need to jump off the screen and into their lungs.

You’re Honest

Anyone can put together a Wikipedia article breaking down the lineage of a strain, flowering times, and an indica/sativa/hybrid designation. It’s much harder to talk about how ReCon made you feel while trying on dad jeans in a Ross Dress For Less. If your writing isn’t personal, it’s already been done a thousand times over. There is no room for a comfort zone, whether you’re trying strains that are outside of what you’d usually smoke or seeking out new experiences after puffing them. My goal has always been to give readers a context for my reviews by giving them a piece of me in every column, and I’m still here four years later, no worse for the wear.


Never read the comments.

Editor’s Note: Think you have what it takes to be The Cannabist’s next cannabis critic? Study the collected works of Jake Browne and then email us with the subject line “The Cannabist’s next strain reviewer”. Don’t forget to be over age 21 and live in a state where it’s legal for adults to purchase and consume medical or recreational marijuana.