Weed judge reveals inside scoop on cannabis contests

cannabis contests

There’s no question that cannabis is subjective. People’s preferences (and bodies) vary—a doughy Gelato strain may be fire to one person and repulse another. Not to mention the fact that product consistency is often lacking, even when looking at bud from the same producer. No plants are quite alike, so even the same strain can result in unique experiences. With these challenges, how can cannabis contests like the Emerald Cup have clear, objective winners?

It’s something I’ve thought about considerably since becoming a weed writer, and later, a judge for several cannabis contests. The key to judging cannabis is defining metrics—not just “I like the way this weed makes me feel.” A talented weed judge assesses the bud’s appearance, aroma, and even packaging on an agreed-upon list of criteria.

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Ganjier, a program designed to give cannabis the wine sommelier treatment, has worked to raise the bar in this regard. The Budist app is another platform where designated critics adhere to specific guidelines when rating cannabis products (as a Budist myself, I have to say, you love to see it).

And while these new weed standards have yet to be adopted across the industry, they are helping contest judges, journalists, and consumers to recognize quality. Want to know how the pros judge their bud? Here are some of the key metrics. 


 Many cannabis contests judge products “blind” (meaning without the packaging) to prevent preconceived notions about the brand from affecting the outcome. Others take the packaging into account when considering the overall score. The aesthetic, ease of access, available product information, and sustainability all factor into a packaging score.

Product appearance

This metric may differ slightly depending on the category—raw flower exists on a different scale than an edible. Focusing on bud, judges will typically look at the color presentation and nug structure first. The trichomes are examined using a jeweler’s loupe to ensure they’re plentiful and intact. Finally, the trim job is considered (unless the bud is a “farm cut,” where leaves are left intact). 

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One of the most memorable parts of the cannabis experience is the unique aroma and taste. High-quality weed should have a strong and discernible smell and a flavor profile to accompany it. The robust bouquet is noted when the package is open and often again after the flower is ground. Many judges will roll a joint and take a “dry hit,” wherein the J is pulled on without being lit. If you can taste the bud before it’s even on fire, that’s a good sign.

cannabis contests
A woman smells cannabis flower. Photo: FatCamera / Getty

Overall experience

When a judge finally tries the product they’re critiquing, a number of factors may come into play. How does that edible taste? Is the mouthfeel pleasant? How does the bud smoke? Is it harsh at all? Some people will factor in ash color, claiming white-colored ash is a signal the flower was flushed properly and free of excess moisture. However, it’s a hotly contested measure of quality (some feel it doesn’t matter at all, while others claim it’s the end all be all). The effects of a product may be noted but shouldn’t factor into the overall score since this can be incredibly subjective.

What if a product misses the mark?

Sadly, not all weed is trophy-worthy. In official contests, certain things may disqualify an entry, such as the presence of mold or other contaminants. For folks rating products on apps like Budist or for news outlets, honesty is the best policy. You don’t want to be harsh or lie that something is good to spare someone’s feelings; instead, remain constructive. Offer tips on what could be improved or what did stand out. If something is egregiously bad, it’s okay to remember the old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.”

The cannabis space is still emerging, and people are still learning how to critique the products on dispensary shelves. While there is no accepted standard, metrics for defining quality are slowly being shared and adopted. The qualifiers above indicate how many weed pros are getting the job done—why not try them for yourself the next time you grab a bag?


rachelle gordon

Rachelle Gordon is a cannabis journalist, Emerald Cup judge, Budist critic, and editor of GreenState.com. She began her weed writing journey in 2015 and has been featured in High Times, CannabisNow, Beard Bros, MG, Skunk, and many others. Rachelle currently splits her time between Minneapolis and Oakland; her favorite cannabis cultivars include Silver Haze and Tangie. Follow Rachelle on Instagram @rachellethewriter