Growers cite improvements but acknowledge state’s reputation for selling “schwag”
On the West Coast, where marijuana culture has long since gone mainstream, it’s not unusual for politicians to publicly spar over whose jurisdiction grows the stickiest icky (to borrow a stonerism).
Washington Governor Jay Inslee, for example, once boasted his state cultivates “the best weed in the United States of America,” while Representative Ted Lieu lauded California’s “amazing cannabis” as a marquee attraction on par with Disneyland and Yosemite National Park.
Massachusetts officials, on the other hand, may be better off avoiding the subject.
“It’s garbage,” Warren Lynch, a 47-year-old Malden resident and longtime cannabis connoisseur, said of the marijuana flower on offer at licensed stores in Massachusetts. “The market here is dominated by nasty corporate schwag” — a derisive term that enthusiasts reserve for the lowest quality pot.
Lynch is one of several dozen consumers and medical marijuana patients who shared their impressions of the quality, variety, and value of cannabis products sold legally in Massachusetts.
In interviews and social media posts, many said the marijuana here — all of which must be grown within the state — has gradually improved since recreational sales began in late 2018. But their overriding perception was a negative one, with most who responded to the Globe’s call for reviews saying the market remains riddled with mediocre or even defective flower sold at premium prices.
“People from other states don’t want our weed when they visit,” said Chandra Batra, a Cambridge resident who uses the drug to treat her fibromyalgia. “They think it’s a bad joke.”
Many of those interviewed complained it was difficult to spot low-quality pot before purchasing it because most flower comes prepackaged — an inconvenience exacerbated by COVID, which prompted many retailers to ban customers from sniffing and handling products at the counter. Several consumers said stores had refused to give them refunds even for marijuana that turned out to contain seeds or had other obvious flaws. They insist the onus should be on dispensaries to prove they offer better reliability and value than the illicit market, especially given the prevailing prices, which often start at $55 per eighth-ounce, plus a hefty tax.
Local growers, for their part, acknowledged the Massachusetts cannabis industry got off to a shaky start.
Executives and cultivation experts at six major cannabis producers (all of which also operate retail stores) said it took them months to refine their indoor growing and curing techniques to account for the state’s variable climate and strict testing standard for microbes. That could help explain one of the biggest gripes from consumers: dried-out flower that’s harsh to smoke or vaporize.
“What you saw a lot of in Massachusetts, especially early on, was people sacrificing quality to pass testing through a quick drying process” that eliminates moisture that could harbor mold, said Brandon Pollock, chief executive of multistate cannabis firm Theory Wellness.
“Some organizations use irradiation and heat treatments during the curing process,” Pollock added, “and those things have a negative effect on the end product,” especially the compounds that give each strain its distinctive flavor and smell.
Growers attributed another frequent complaint — stale, bland-smelling cannabis sold months after its harvest date — to COVID-related staff shortages and a backlog at the state’s relatively small number of licensed marijuana-testing labs that has since improved, resulting in better quality weed making it to the shelves sooner.
The literal and figurative growing pains of inexperienced operators are similarly to blame for other common complaints by consumers, the executives acknowledged. Those included buds that smell like mildew or contain seeds, a sure sign of low quality that indicates the source plant was accidentally pollinated. For example, Holistic Industries, which operates the Liberty chain of dispensaries and sells flower under the brand Strane, said it had destroyed all its plants and remodeled its Monson growing facility after customer complaints last year about mildew odor.
Overall, cannabis producers said, any negative perceptions stemming from earlier, flawed crops are quickly becoming outdated as competition and growing proficiency increase. They cautioned against romanticizing cannabis from other states such as California and Oregon, noting that those markets also feature a wide range of quality.
“I’m proud of what Massachusetts is doing,” said Meg Sanders, chief executive of Massachusetts firm Canna Provisions. “I really don’t think the quality is as Russian roulette as it’s sometimes portrayed. We grow some fire. I’ll hold my flower up against any California cultivator all day.”
Fair or not, negative perceptions of Massachusetts dispensary products risk pushing shoppers to the persistent illicit market, undermining a key goal of legalization. Several patients said they frequently made pilgrimages to Maine, where a loosely regulated medical marijuana industry of mostly smaller, artisanal-minded businesses has won a national reputation for growing excellent bud at lower prices — albeit without any lab-testing requirement.
What makes for good weed is, of course, ultimately a subjective matter. But as is the case with coffee, beer, and wine, one doesn’t necessarily have to be a devoted aficionado or trained marijuana sommelier to distinguish between top-shelf nugs and unsmokable “boof” (another term for exceptionally bad pot). And just as craft beer fans prize a balanced, well-made brew above one that is merely high in alcohol, cannabis cultivation experts and veteran tokers said they place more weight on the smell, taste, appearance, and effect of flower than its potency.
They look for dense buds that are slightly sticky, but not damp and spongy, nor dry and crumbly. The smell should be pungent but pleasant, never reminiscent of wet hay. And while different varieties may be streaked with orange, purple, or a multitude of other colors, the best flower typically features a frosting of milky white trichomes, the tiny gland-like structures that produce much of the plant’s THC and other psychoactive cannabinoid compounds.
Then again, growers and retailers argued, only a small fraction of cannabis customers are connoisseurs of the sort who might methodically sniff a sample of a classic strain like OG Kush as if it were a 30-year-old Bordeaux. The majority are content with the marijuana equivalent of Bud Light, if the price is right and the quality is consistent.
Kobie Evans, co-owner of Boston marijuana retailer Pure Oasis, said he’s noticed many shoppers are simply chasing the strains with the highest concentration of THC for the lowest price, mistakenly equating potency with quality — a falsehood many companies reinforce by marking up the strongest varieties instead of flower with more balanced characteristics.
Regardless of consumer taste, Evans said he agrees the quality and variety of Massachusetts pot is lacking. It’s a problem he confronts every time he makes wholesale purchases to fill the shelves of his shop.
“We struggle to get our hands on great flower just like everyone else,” Evans said. “Our mandate is to find the good stuff, but to be honest, that may be less than 10 percent of what we carry.”
More craft-quality cannabis could be hitting the Massachusetts market soon: A steady stream of former underground growers and other smaller producers with a “plant-first” ethos are emerging from the state’s licensing pipeline, thanks in part to Cannabis Control Commission policies prioritizing the approval of businesses owned not by out-of-state investors but local residents affected by decades of racially disproportionate marijuana arrests. Such flower may be pricey, but Evans said he’s hopeful the competition will push the larger chains that opened earlier to start growing danker weed (a good thing, in this case).
“Once you get into smaller batches that are grown with love, that’s where you get better results,” Evans said. “Unfortunately, a lot of what’s produced here in Massachusetts is determined more in an Excel spreadsheet than based on what they think consumers are going to like.”