I Tested the Best Weed in the World in Amsterdam
Steep Hill Laboratories want you to know what you're smoking.
This post first appeared on VICE Benelux
If you think the jury panel for the official High Times Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam is made up of connoisseurs who spend a few days smoking the best weed in the world, then you're absolutely right. Their tests are still subjective because the Cup is all about the experience that the hyperpotent strains offer the user. It is all very well that your weed strain has a CBD value of 4.3 percent for example, but that doesn't mean anything to the average stoner.
Still, after a few microbrews of 10 percent alcohol you do know you're a shitty driver, and that the next morning you'll wake up with a hangover. So wouldn't it be useful to know a bit more about the contents of your weed before you put it in your pipe and smoke it?
The guys from Steep Hill Laboratories in Oakland certainly think so. They want you to know what you're smoking, whether it's for recreational or medicinal purposes. They integrate cold hard science into cannabis culture, hoping to close the gap between the two that still exists today. Scientific weed analysis right now is expensive and time-consuming, but Steep Hill is out to change that.
This year Steep Hill are testing all submissions to the Amsterdam Cannabis Cup in a with a test that only takes less than a minute per sample. The results are then presented to the members of the jury, who will have to take them into account in their final assessments of the strains – meaning that this year the Cannabis Cup will go to the strains that are truly outstanding.
Steep Hill invited me to their makeshift lab to test the official Cannabis Cup samples myself, so one morning I rang the doorbell of the 19th-century building in the centre of Amsterdam where they've set up shop. Inside, I found three employees that had been flown in from the US to do a blind test of all the samples. That meant the samples were numbered but not named – no one had been blindfolded with a hotel towel. They were processing about sixty samples a day, and had been up until 5AM the night before to test all the strains.
As two of the employees continued testing, Mateo Hernandez, Vice President of product development, talked me through the testing process. "Even though this new technology is super fast and user-friendly, you have to make sure everything is accurate. All the results are checked by our people in Oakland. Preparing the samples and processing the results is what takes up the most time."
The machine they're using is called the QuantaCann2 and it's supposed to quantify the main values of cannabis. There are only a handful of these machines in the world, because the QuantaCann2 was only released recently and Steep Hill is having trouble keeping up with the demand.
"The technology we use is based on the best agricultural technology that's available right now," says Hernandez. "A regular farmer also has to know if his crops contain enough nutrients in order to sell them for a reasonable price. We've adapted that technology for cannabis. We put the ground-up weed in a container made of special crystal glass. Then we shine a light through it, and from the way that light is reflected, we can map the basic properties."
And it's not just the way in which the company harvests the data that proves that science is making big strides in the world of weed. All the data that the company has ever collected is also stored in one of the biggest databases in existence." The machine is connected to the internet and matches the data from the test to results that we gathered in the past. If you've entered into the system that you'll be testing OG Kush, you can immediately see how your OG Kush compares to the average, whether you're a user, a buyer or a grower."
The Cannabis Cup is however not the only place that combines hard data with user experience. Steep Hill Labs recently entered into a partnership with Leafy, the company behind the app for the largest user-generated database for cannabis in the world.
The Netherlands is currently debating a proposal that will make any weed strain that has a THC-content over 15 percent illegal – even though it would be impossible to implement that rule right now, because these tests can only be done by certified scientists. I asked Mateo if easy-to-use technology like the QuantaCann2 would make it possible for the Dutch authorities to implant their 15 percent law.
"That percentage seems pretty random. Besides, the THC content doesn't tell you much about quality or anything else. It is a much more complex matter, because cannabinoids like THC and CBD reinforce each other. Using our technology to implement a repressive rule is the opposite of what we want. We would never cooperate with something like that."
"You can view it as the nutrition facts on a can of soda, or any foodstuff really," says Ben – one of the testers from Steep Hill that came to Amsterdam for the Cannabis Cup. "At some point, consumer associations forced food manufacturers to list the main ingredients of their product on the packaging. That forced the manufacturers to take a better look at their production. You can't just add all kinds of junk because the data makes sure that the rules can and will be followed. Then the consumer can make an informed decision. That was a major step, and we're trying to make that possible for the cannabis industry now. Waiting for an official association to step in is a waste of time, especially in an industry that is booming right now."
Steep Hill also let me prepare and test a sample myself. The height of my scientific career so far has been putting a pack of Mentos in a coke bottle yet within a minute of preparing the "sample H-8" I could tell it is guaranteed to make your night in on the couch in front of the TV that much more enjoyable. It also made me think this: Knowledge is power, and when that knowledge is handled correctly its power grows. Maybe it can grow enough to make the powers that be rethink their outdated policies.
Or maybe I'm just a stoner. If any of you are wondering what happened to the samples after the tests: they were destroyed in a completely recreational manner.
More on weed: