Not so long ago, acquiring a small quantity of marijuana was a sketchy proposition for countless casual pot smokers.
"Buying from the black market was a drag — and you never knew what you were going to get," said Karen Webster, a longtime recreational pot smoker. "I was always relived when I scored something nice for a fair price."
Nowadays, with the industry basking in the light of legality, anyone older than 21 can waltz into a recreational marijuana dispensary and select from a vast array of cannabis-related products.
"The first time I saw all those rows of glass jars filled with primo weed, I thought I had died and gone to heaven," Webster said. "I started salivating like one of Pavlov's dogs! But all those choices made my head spin."
Picking out pot is more complicated than choosing a new microbrew. While an alcohol buzz is pretty much always the same experience, different weed strains produce different psychotropic effects. Some strains are mild, while others can nearly knock you out — plus there's a huge variety of tastes and smells.
And there are so many ways to ingest marijuana. Beyond smoking, you can eat, drink, vaporize or dab the stuff. There's candy, bakery, drinks, oils, lotions, tinctures and more — and pot shops are cropping up everywhere.
Webster is an accountant in her 40s who moved from Idaho to Southern Oregon last year, in part, because she was "sick and tired" of being considered a criminal by the state.
I enjoy catching a buzz after work to relax and get rid of my eye strain," she said. Now, she's having fun becoming a cannabis connoisseur. And the budtenders who staff marijuana dispensaries throughout the state are more than willing to help people like Webster navigate the strange morass of modern cannabis lingo.
What's in a name?
There are strains called Cinderella, NYC Diesel, God's Gift, Bubble Gum, Pineapple Kush, Chronic, Catatonic, Purple Trainwreck, Fruity Pebbles, Girl Scout Cookies, Great White Shark, Amnesia, Moby Dick, Northern Lights, Sky Walker, 9 Pound Hammer and, oh, so many more. While highly entertaining, these names don't always say much about the product.
Some names are rightly descriptive: like Death Star. Yeah, you guessed it, you get really baked.
But others, like Electric Dog Shit, make you wonder. According to Leafly, an online cannabis resource, the strain is aptly named for its nasty odor, but the weed itself is said to produce an "uplifting euphoria that elevates the mood while crushing stress."
Leafly, billed as the "world’s largest cannabis information resource," provides a user's guide that rates products and dispensary locations found around the globe. Leafly's search tool provides crowd-sourced information on countless cannabis strains. Another popular resource on all things cannabis-related is the decades-old High Times magazine (www.hightimes.com).
Types of Marijuana
Most pot shops in the region sell between 25 and 50 different strains of marijuana, and there are basically two types: sativa and indica, with various hybrids of the two.
"Generally speaking, sativa is more uplifting, it's more cerebral," explained Forrest Walker, a budtender at Sensible Cannabis Company, located at 3338 N. Pacific Highway in Medford. "Sativas give a more energetic, talkative high. They're a popular choice for daytime use. It can make your heart a little racier, but that doesn't last too long."
Sativas are a popular choice for parties, dancing, singing and sparking creativity, although some budtenders caution that sativas are more likely than indicas to cause problems for those who experience marijuana-induced paranoid or anxiety.
"Indica is more sedating. It helps you sleep and it's better for pain management, anxiety or insomnia," Walker said. "It's not as motivating as a sativa."
Indicas are renowned for a relaxing body high and the infamous "couch-lock," effect. Many like to watch movies and listen to music after ingesting indicas.
To help people remember the difference between indica and sativa, Walker uses a play on words: "In da Couch" for indica.
"Each person's endocannabinoid receptors are unique to their own physiology, which is one reason why individuals react differently to any given cannabis strain," Walker added.
Cannabis breeders can spend years perfecting hybrid strains, often crossing sativas and indicas to create unique blends that fall somewhere between the two extremes, to suit different purposes and needs.
"Most strains are hybrids now," Walker said. "They've been bred and re-bred so many times, so the original strains are lost to time."
THC and Terpenes
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is largely responsible for "the buzz," explained Peter Gendron, president of Omnibudsman Enterprises and head of Oregon SunGrowers Guild, an Oregon advocacy organization for cannabis development.
THC is a cannabinoid, a chemical compound found in the plant that interacts with receptors in the brain and body to create various effects.
"There's maybe more than 100 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, but THC is most widely known because of its psychoactive attributes," Gendron explained. "But very few people understand about terpenes — the fragrant oils that give pot its aromatic diversity. They're what gives Blueberry its signature berry smell, Sour Diesel its funky fuel flavor, and Lavender its sweet floral aroma. These oils are secreted in the flower's sticky resin glands, the same ones that produce THC, CBD, and the other cannabinoids. And terpenes have been isolated and found to have particular health benefits.
"Take Headband Kush — it gives you that feeling across the temples — a particularly potent psychedelic high with a quick onset, so for folks dealing with migraine-type pain, it's terrific," Gendron said. "And that potency comes from the terpenes, a high THC content combined with the terpene profile. So you want to stay off the ladder with this stuff, OK?"
"A lot more people are catching on about terpenes," agreed Walker, adding that his store features a chart that lists all the terpenes and what they do. "They play a big part."
Understanding Cannabis Labels
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission licenses marijuana testing laboratories, and currently about one quarter of an ounce per 15 pounds is randomly tested for presence of pesticides not allowed for use by the state, water activity/moisture content and THC/CBD levels.
"This is exponentially more strict than any other crop," Gendron said. "And the cultivator can't choose which samples will be tested. The lab sends a representative with locked bags and tags."
Recreational pot labels should display the producer's business and/or trade name, name of the pot strain, the batch number and the harvest date. The name of the lab that tested the weed should be visible as well.
"Most consumers look for the highest THC levels, the first number on the label. They're looking for about 20 percent," Walker said. "Hardcore heavy indica like Mr. Majestic is like 24 percent; and Indica Fennel Fish (Jaeger) is 22 percent."
Popular sativa hybrids in Walker's shop include Super Widow at 21 percent and Sour Diesel, about 22 percent.
"The older crowd and casual consumers may seek the less potent stuff — like Game Changer and Liberty Haze Space Candy — which is in the 13 percent range. That's still a real nice buzz," Walker said.
CBD cannabidiol is usually the second number on labels. CBD is not psychoactive, but it's well recognized for pain relief, Gendron explained. With recreational cannabis, you might see something like 20 percent THC and 1 percent CBD.
Many dispensaries don't list terpene levels on labels, but Gendron and Walker both think they should. Terpene numbers are quite low compared to THC percentages: under one percent.
"So a solid terpene number could be just above .1 percent in most cases," Walker said.
Finally, labels may indicate whether the weed was grown indoors or outdoors, and naturally, there's a whole debate over which is better. Some believe "sun grown" is superior because it's more natural and uses fewer resources.
"There's at least anecdotal evidence that terpene profiles tend to be more robust when the plants are exposed to natural environmental stresses of low nighttime temps at the end of flowering cycles," Gendron said. "We see both enhanced color and enhanced terpenes."
Walker, on the other hand, said growing weed indoors means increased control over many growing factors, and this translates into better flavor and more aroma — a better terpene profile.
Does color matter?
While consumers are often drawn to purple, orange, black or even darker green bud colors, Walker said those hues don't correlate to potency. Both deeply colored outdoor-grown bud and indoor bud that lacks these color variations can have similarly high THC numbers.
In fall, when temperatures drop at night, Gendron explained, cannabis flowers take on color "if those genetics are in the plant's strain. Soils and plant nutrition also play a role."
Lacking that autumn nighttime cool down, regardless of strain, indoor cannabis buds tend to remain green, and Walker says that's an advantage, because a stable indoor environment can prevent molds that might compromise the plant.
So while color may not play a role in THC potency, Gendron said those deeply colored buds are known to contain powerful antioxidants and can have analgesic, anti-inflammatory and neuro-protective properties.
Gendron said consumers should look closely and select buds that aren't too dried out — the dryer it is the harsher it'll be — and avoid any that have any white splotches on buds or a moldy aroma.
"Stickiness is a good sign of it being fresher."
There is wide variability in cannabis pricing throughout the state. Prices in the Medford area last fall ranged from $3 to $20 per gram.
Some dispensaries, such as the Sensible Cannabis Company, supply their own marijuana.
"We source our own flower, from both indoor and outdoor grows, so this helps us keep our prices down," Walker said. "Our top price for premium weed is $14 per gram before tax, and some strains are as low as $5."
"People should shop around," Gendron said. "Some dispensaries are charging too much because they can."
Consumers can utilize online sources such as Leafly, and browse dispensary websites to check out products and prices.
— Annette McGee Rasch is a freelance writer living in Cave Junction. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.