My Experience Judging the High Times Cannabis Cup
In the summer when I heard High Times was hosting an Illinois Cannabis Cup, I was ecstatic. When I read High Times was opening it up to the public, I’d wanted to judge all seven categories: Indica Flower, Sativa Flower, Hybrid Flower, Pre-Rolls, Concentrates, Vape Pens and Cartridges, and Edibles. So I followed each step from beginning to end.
Did participating as a cannabis cup judge turn out the way I imagined? Not really.
HT billed the “High Times Cannabis Cup Illinois: People’s Choice Edition” awards as the first-ever competition open to the Illinois public with the largest pool of judges in history. During a pandemic, I thought the adjustment to allow the public to judge was more than appropriate. Here’s how the process unfolded for me.
The first step, I pre-registered as a judge on HT’s website. I imputed my name, address, phone number, and categories in which I was interested in judging. Easy enough.
Next, I had to pick up the kits from the participating dispensaries, though I had no idea of the costs. My best choices for pick up included a seventy-minute drive to Rise Effingham or an hour drive to Beyond/Hello Normal.
When the pricings for the cannabis cup kits were announced, I was disappointed. I assumed HT had me pre-register to be a judge so Illinois brands could better estimate how many kits would be needed and that Illinois brands would be able to sell a large amount of basically presold product in a short period of time. I didn’t expect half-priced products, but I figured HT and the Illinois brands had worked out a deal to make the kits more affordable to the public. No such luck.
The three flower kits had between 10-12 1-gram entries and cost $20 per gram. The pre-roll kit, which had 13 entries, was $260. The concentrates and cartridges each had 10 entries with .5g samples for a total cost of $300. The edibles were the only category that cost less than $200. Edibles had four entries for $80.
As a medical patient, these prices were equal or more expensive than I currently paid. Again, I’m not arguing that Illinois brands should lose money, but if this really was about the contests and awards, do the brands have to make such a profit margin? At that point, the dream of judging each category instantly faded.
I had no desire to wait in line for a kit, and the day the cannabis cup kits went on sale, I had to work. It wasn’t long before I started receiving direct messages about pricing and other questions. One of the main concerns was about taxes for medical patients. I had reports of Rise Effingham charging medical patients recreational-use taxes for each kit. Meanwhile, Beyond/Hello Normal was charging patients the standard medical taxes for each kit.
After calling and confirming that the reports were true, I had an easy decision where to purchase my kits.
For my trip to Beyond/Hello Normal, I’d brought enough money to purchase one flower kit, the concentrates kit, and the edibles kit.
My real motivation, at this point, was to purchase the kits to help boost Illinois News Joint’s review pages. Even though buying a kit was not an economic bargain, the opportunity did allow me to purchase a 1-gram sample of ten strains or a half-gram of ten concentrates, instead of buying more expensive eighths and grams separately. Sure, I planned on doing a good job judging the HT Cannabis Cups entries, but I also wanted a better variety of top products to review for ILNJ.
Beyond/Hello, along with many other participating dispensaries, was out of the edibles kit, which I assume was because the edibles kit was the cheapest. And HT warned if you pre-registered as a judge and didn’t complete your duties, you would not be able to sign up to judge next year’s competition.
I wasn’t sure which flower kit to purchase and review, but when followers and friends started posting photos of the kits, I was extremely disappointed the judging was not blind. In fact, each product was in the brand’s regular packaging and containers.
Along with lowering kit prices, I believe blind judging is one of the biggest adjustments HT and Illinois brands have to make for the 2021 cannabis cup awards. Though Illinois law mandates the sticker labeling of each container and the logistics of packaging all products in generic containers would be a nightmare, HT and Illinois brands need to figure out how to make blind judging happen for 2021. Because what I noticed was that the winners were (in general) well-known strains and brands. Most judges, I assume, were not experts in the growing or cultivating cannabis and often times not regular cannabis users (some of the comments during the awards announcement proved that).
I believe the brand labeling encouraged each judge to search and read reviews for each strain before reviewing it. One judge admitted this in his comments read during the awards ceremony. Once a judge has read a review before sampling the product, the judge’s review is going to be altered in some way, for good or bad.
Our webpages for previously reviewed products included in the cannabis cup kits increased after the kits went on sale. For example, I reviewed Gorilla’d Cheese by Revolution in late March. The published review page and social media interaction performed well, but as soon as the cannabis cup kits went on sale, our Gorilla’d Cheese review page shot up to a couple hundred visitors a day. When Gorilla’d Cheese won Best Hybrid Flower, our Gorilla’d Cheese review page again shot up to a couple hundred visits a day.
Now, I’m not saying that my raving review of Gorilla’d Cheese altered judges’ opinions to help the strain win the top prize for Best Hybrid Flower. Gorilla’d Cheese flower speaks for itself and deserves all the accolades it receives. What I am saying is that blind judging would eliminate any preconceived notions and biases. Judges would have only the product itself to review, which is how the judging process should work.
Because I’d already reviewed a few strains included in the hybrids and indica kits, I purchased the sativa kit to review for ILNJ’s “Work Sativa” series and the concentrate kit to help boost our newly started “Concentrates”review page. Once home, I created a spreadsheet that listed each sativa and concentrate entry and judging category: appearance, aroma, flavor, effect, and burnability.
For the next two weeks, I properly sampled the products and scored them. Once I had my spreadsheet filled, I used the code on the paper that came with each kit to enter the HT judging portal and my votes. The categories were a great way to break down the voting, but each category should not hold the same weight. For me, the effects of a strain are most important. Then taste and aroma. Then appearance. Lastly, burnability, which I’m not sure needed to be included as a flower category, or at least not a category that garnered the same weight as effects.
I adjusted the effects category with the longest range of votes from 1-5 and shrank burnability to 2-4, with nearly all votes as a 3. I mean, really, the difference between how well each strain burned was minimal at best. To have votes for this category equal the votes for effects of the strains was a miscalculation.
Burnability as a category made more sense when scoring the concentrates. Each category (flower, concentrates, carts, and edibles) needed its own specific criteria. For me, “Handability” was almost as important for concentrates as was appearance and smell. Hopefully, next year the concentrate category will have more entries and can be separated into indica, hybrid, and sativa. Judging the taste and effects of high-energy sativa against a knockout indica was difficult to compare and contrast against one another.
It also would be wonderful to have a medical patient category or have separate judging for medical patients and recreational users who are often searching for different effects. With more and more new Illinois products popping up on menus, I assume the 2021 Cannabis Cup Awards will have more entries than this inaugural contest. An RSO category would be interesting. Though if Shelby County Community Services submitted entries, SCCS would probably sweep the category.
After entering my scores into the HT website, I admit that I skimped on each entry’s comments section. I wrote the simplest critiques based on effects, taste, and flavor. It was a bit anticlimactic.
Did I think that the products I scored the highest were going to win? Nope. In fact, I was pretty sure they weren’t. But I’m good with that. Again, I am a medical patient and am searching for specific effects to improve my health. It’s essential. Not recreational.
September 27, the day HT announced the cannabis cup winners, I’d actually forgotten about the virtual ceremony and thought I’d missed it. When I sat at my computer, I found the winners of all categories listed on the HT website. So ILNJ published and shared the winners on social media. Then the messages started coming in. How do you already know the winners? Where did you get this information? Thanks for the spoiler alert. What I didn’t realize was that the virtual ceremony had just started and that HT allowed me to scoop its own virtual ceremony announcements.
Overall, judging the Illinois Cannabis Cup was worth the experience. Will I participate next year? Probably. Not because I want to have my say about the winners of the cannabis cup. I don’t care about that. I want the access to the variety of products the kits provide so I can review them for ILNJ. If the cannabis cup kits were cheaper next year and entries were able to be judge blindly, I would participate in each category. As it stands, I’ll probably check out whichever kit offers the most products that I have not yet reviewed for ILNJ.
Until then, keep an eye open for the Illinois New Joint Cannabis Cup Awards in December.