Summer plans have kicked into high gear, and that means ready-to-go pre-rolled joints for pit stops, dog walks, inner tubing—you name it.

But getting a good pre-roll is as dicey as getting a good hot dog. There’s a lot of low-grade stuff out there, and most folks struggle to make better choices when everything’s all shrink-wrapped in a pretty package.

Fear not, Leafly Nation. Your editor hit 60 pre-rolls as a 2024 Emerald Cup pre-roll judge this month—for science and the good of mankind. The results are in for the Emerald Cup Awards Show in August in Oakland. Tickets are $65, but you need not wait to start cutting the line of trashy joints and share a puff of something good.

Nearly everyone asked me this month: How do you even judge all those pre-rolls? They learned a lot about how they, too, can smoke at a higher level. 

So now it’s your turn to upgrade your pre-roll buying game and win the summer sesh. Here’s seven key judging tips, with associated picks.

Some non-infused joints to judge. For science. (David Downs/Leafly)

Pass on old rolls

A joint with a packaging date from a year ago might have some value—but the odds are stacked against it. Weed is a plant that loses potency and flavor over time. Maybe that year-old doob tube has been kept in cryo-stasis like a space marine. But if it’s been sitting on a shelf at room temps for months—that’s a Dead Sea Roll. Musty and dusty.

A group that has to pump out affordable rolls on the regular is Sunset Connect here in San Francisco—famous for their “fivers” which are just $5. Sunset Connect is one of the biggest pre-roll sellers in California, and that velocity equals freshness. Even fresher, they’re starting to grow their own.


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Check the seal

The best parts of weed are the flavorful, volatile, essential oils called terpenes that boil off at room temperature. An astoundingly large number of pre-roll containers do not fully seal—meaning that pack is leaking your terps all over the store. A fresh pack that leaks will still hit tasty, but the clock is ticking on any weed product exposed to oxygen, and thus degradation. 

For example, Solful’s in-house rolls are so fresh, you needn’t care about a little leakage. (See the date tip above.) But a lot of the unsealed joints we got tasted like hay by the time we smoked them. So frustrating. All it takes is a classic doob tube with a plastic seal to better lock in freshness. Pick up Alef Labs’ brand pre-rolls for an admirable seal to get and smoke the terps you paid for.

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Sniff the popped jar

OK, so you got a fresh, sealed joint. What does it smell like? Pop the top and take a big, long sniff—it should smell inviting. 

The CAM Cherry Marker hash hole smelled like cherry. 

The Talking Trees farms Lemon Royale smelled like lemons. 

The Most Wanted brand Hogwash Farms Whitethorn Rose has this delicate rose water note. If the terps are in the weed, they will be in the jar when you pop it. If it smells, flat, or musty—you have chosen poorly.

Take a dry hit

Take the joint out and take some un-lit puffs on the end. This is called a dry hit, and it’s a great way to assess the amount of flavor to expect. The Weedlove brand Stoney Point Glitter Bomb had this great dry hit of grape candy. If the dry hit is flat, or smells like hay—you’re gonna have a bad time. See also: Heritage Hash Co. Honey Bananas x Zerealz Infused Preroll Pack.

Take a minute to inspect the roll

Fine craftsmanship in the Rosin Tech Labs hash hole. (David Downs/Leafly)
Fine craftsmanship in the Rosin Tech Labs hash hole. (David Downs/Leafly)

Mass-manufactured weed is still pretty medieval. A lot of hands have to touch the plant and paper to get each one of those legions of joints to market. 

Squeeze the joint and check the packing density. 

Wiggle the crutch to assess the firmness of the pack near the tip. 

Does the joint look beat up, or like some sleek marvel? 

We were thoroughly amazed by the craftsmanship in the Rosin Tech Labs line of hash holes. We simply do not know how they crank out these works of art.

Also—look out for ‘angel kisses’—patches of the paper that are a different shade, because the oil content of the bud has seeped a bit into the paper. Oil content is a great thing. You know like when pizza leaves an oil stain on a paper plate—angel kisses are a little like that, only desirable.

Smoke that thang

Enough with the preamble—give the joint the fire test. Light it up with a bit of hemp wick (if you’re a purist) and get a good hot cherry going at the end. Take a five-second inhale, rotate the joint, then another, and another. The rotation prevents runs. The short inhales prevent the cherry from overheating. Hold the joint cherry down for an optimal burn, according to the connoisseurs at Proper Doinks. 

Obviously, it should taste like it smelled in the jar and the dry hit, only better. A great joint will be lip-smacking good, and here’s where I want to give a shout out to living soil growers Moon Valley Cannabis and their in-house line of pre-rolls.

Research award-winning growers that make their own pre-rolls—as opposed to no-grow brands buying trimmings from someone else’s floor. The Moon Valley Cannabis brand Hashburger and Grape Gas offered precise, deep strain flavor in a pre-roll package. When the terps are there, you get lifted in a completely different way.

Watch it burn

(David Downs/Leafly)

Does it go out and need relighting? Does it hold up to a little breeze? Is the ash white? Is there a ‘resin ring’ above the cherry? 

The burn can tell you more about how the joint was packed. The ash color can offer information about what was burning. A lot of people swear by white ash, but it’s just a signal. A resin ring offers information on the terpene content. All of those data points can amplify or subtract from the score of a pre-roll. 

The Dunkz brand of hash holes has some sick collaborations with rosin brands like Kalya. We love everything about the way they burned.

Check in with yourself

How does the joint make you feel? This might be the most important part. We smoked some very synthetic, solvent-infused rolls with fake flavors and solvent hash, and we felt straight dysphoric. That’s a clinical word for ‘bad.’

By contrast, the tiny Selfies 12-pack of Black Jack didn’t distinguish themselves at first glance. But we smoked the whole pack over a week walking around in New York City. The Black Jack sativa hybrid high puts a nice sparkle on everything, and we can genuinely say we got lifted in a nice way off the super-short, hilariously tiny dogwalkers. Similarly, we loved the way the Humble Greens Passion Orange Guava felt, and we got keyed on the Humo Churritos 7-Pack of 0.5g Infused Pre-Rolls.

See also: De La Bo brand joints.


All of 2023’s Cannabis Cup winners and where to buy them

Judging the Emerald Cup pre-rolls showed how the range of quality in pre-rolls is so massive, your mileage can really vary. With so many brands, it’s bewildering to find one you love that’s consistent.

Here’s a shortcut, look for the brands in the winner’s circle at The Emerald Cup awards ceremony this August. The industry expert judges raked the entrants over the coals and subjected them to unreal levels of scrutiny. The winners will surely have the gas to go the distance. 

We hope to see you out there, smoking some good-good in that hot summer sun.

About Leafly Buzz

So good they steal it—the popular, monthly strain review roundup Leafly Buzz is in its third year. We report independently on the connoisseur Cannabis conversation, focusing on strains and branded flower of the US West. Reporting includes:

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