Lorena Cupcake, voted “best budtender in Chicago,” has answered hundreds of questions from cannabis shoppers and patients during their time as a budtender. And now they're turning that experience into a monthly advice column, Ask a budtender. Got a question for Cupcake? Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm a frequent smoker, but by no means an expert on strains, genetics, THC percentages, etc. Budtenders and manufacturers alike aren't using the terms indica or sativa anymore, but they end up swapping in vague synonyms instead, like "sluggish," "buzzy," or "cerebral."
What's the best way for me to know what strains I'd like without having to track my consumption like the most dedicated craft beer nerds?
Buying cannabis has always been a gamble, and all the color-coding and branding buzzwords don't seem to be making it any easier. Differentiating Ghost Cookies from Mystery Cookies, spliff unsparked, will always involve a fair amount of guesswork. However, learning more about how cannabis affects you in general will allow you to make educated guesses as to how different products will affect you.
I shared your letter with Dr. Adie Rae, Ph.D., a neuroscientist based in Portland, Oregon. Smart Cannabis, a company she co-founded, produces a scientifically rigorous cannabis cup that weighs lab tests against unbiased, double-blinded reviews.
“This is an incredibly important question, especially for medical patients who are looking for a very specific outcome,” she said. The problem? Four years of running the Cultivation Classics have taught her that individual experiences, even with the exact same flower, are wildly inconsistent. Products that produce the same effects, over and over, are so rare that the Cultivation Classic team have given those strains a coveted label: “Credible Cultivar.”
While one man's sleepy may be another man's cerebral, there are two major questions you may be able to answer by evaluating lab tests and reviews. “We know that some products are going to cause more impairment than other products,” Rae explained. “If you smoke, you know, a 10% THC joint versus a 30% THC joint, that's going to cause different levels of impairment. So that's one thing — 'how much impairment am I going to experience?'”
The other question, she said, is, “'Am I going to experience any unwanted effects?' We're talking about dry eyes, dry mouth, munchies, those kinds of things. Some kinds of cannabis, or some products, are more tolerated than other products.”
Find what works for you
To discover the unique way cannabis affects you as an individual, simply pay attention to your high, and cultivate a curiosity for the biological mechanisms behind it. If you enjoy a strain, evaluate the reasons why you liked it. Was it the fruity flavor? The full body relaxation? The burst of nervous energy? What potentially caused that to happen, and how can you find another strain that would cause a similar effect?
I'll share my personal experience trying high-CBD medical cannabis. Many people skip past these strains on a dispensary menu; some even think that CBD prevents you from getting high. But for me, the high-level of cannabidiol in strains like Orange Herijuana and Harlequin only prevent the unpleasant, anxiety-related aspects of being high. I feel an incredible sense of calm well-being, like being wrapped in a fluffy blanket right out of the dryer. Despite the folklore, I also get incredibly high.
While I've never come across high-CBD strains like Sour Tsunami or Ringo's Gift, I can use my previous positive experiences to know that they're likely worth my while. In the same way, you can use trial-and-error to tease out what similarities — lineage, terpene profile, CBD/THC ratio — in strains you have had that you enjoy, and use that information to predict your response to strains you're unfamiliar with.
Maybe you like to unwind with a bowl of Lavender. After doing a little research, you learn that the floral terpene linalool can be stress-reducing. From there, you can start looking for other linalool-rich strains like Pink Kush and Amnesia Haze.
Maybe you like how the sedating qualities of OG Kush help with your pain and insomnia. When you look at a dispensary menu, if you spot Pre-98 Bubba Kush and Kosher Kush, you might be able to guess that they may have similar effects on you.
Trust your gut, not the label
Over time, you'll get a gut sense of what works and what doesn't work for you. Learn to value that intuition, trusting it more than any cultivator's chosen label. For example, I once picked up a gram of Twisted Lime OG live resin based on the fact I had never seen a citrusy strain labeled as an indica. I was looking forward to unwinding with a terpene profile I usually find euphoric and invigorating; however, the lemonade-scented limonene fueled my racing brain as much as any sativa. At the end of the day, the label doesn't really matter, what matters is the way your body responds.
“All of those terms like indica and sativa are utterly meaningless. Rather than shopping for that, you can shop for the other important features of a flower,” Rae said. It's hard to conclusively determine whether an eighth is calming or creativity-sparking. However, it's easier to determine if that flower is organic, was harvested recently, or was grown by a minority-owned company.
Different grower, different effects
During your research, prioritize recent first-hand reviews from people in your geographic area. I'm lucky enough to live in a community with a high volume of reviews on subreddits like Illinois Trees; in other areas, look for forums with “trees” or “ents” in the name. Since posts usually include photos of packaging and information about where and when products were purchased, you can confirm their notes refer to the same phenotype you're researching.
After all, Wedding Cake purchased in Los Angeles in June 2019 might bear no resemblance to Wedding Cake purchased in Michigan in January 2021. The two eighths may have different potencies, different physical characteristics, and even different genetics depending on which breeder supplied the seeds or clones. “Even if you have genetically identical plants with a totally identical name, if they are grown in different environments, they're going to produce different chemistry,” Rae explained. “That whole orchestra of chemistry is going to produce a different effect.”
While there might be no way to avoid tracking your experiences, the good news is that getting high isn't particularly harsh homework. Use the data from lab testing to determine how impaired a product is likely to get you, and research whether others in the community flag the strain as likely to produce undesirable effects. Tease out the similarities between different strains you've liked in the past and use that information to find similar strains you might also enjoy.
You should utilize reviews on platforms like Weedmaps, but take them with a grain of salt — even if that person bought the same harvest from the same grow-op, their individual physiology means their experience will be unique. When you find a strain or product that works for you, favorite it on your Weedmaps profile to get notified when they go on sale or are in stock at nearby retailers.
Hopefully, you'll be able to use some of this advice to start predicting whether you'll like strains you haven't tried, meaning that you don't have to haphazardly try everything on your local dispensary's menu — unless you want to.
Featured image by Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
Need advice on how to incorporate cannabis into your lifestyle? Write Cupcake at email@example.com for April's column.