When it comes to packaging legal weed, Washington State is an outlier. Unlike Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, and every other state that allows recreational or medical cannabis sales, state law here prohibits customers from smelling their weed before they buy it. State law requires that cannabis be completely sealed in individual packages before it even enters the retailer's premises. That means we can't use our nose, which is one of our most powerful tools in evaluating cannabis, when we are selecting what flower to buy.
"You can't smell the product, you can't feel the product, and you have no idea what that product is until you get home," said Andrew Cornwall, an owner of Origins Recreational in West Seattle. "If you could walk in and smell containers, it would definitely be better for the customer."
Retailers are able to have sniff jars on the premises, which are containers filled with sample amounts of each strain of cannabis that customers can open and smell. But Cornwall said the sniff jars quickly go stale and don't represent the product well.
"I don't even carry them in our store because it's such a poor representation of our product, why even bother," he said.
Mike McCoy, the bud purchaser for Vancouver's the Herbery pot shops, agreed about the problem with sniff jars. He added that he sees many customers buy in one-gram increments because they can't fully evaluate the weed they are buying.
"That's why in this market there are a lot of people who will start with one-gram units. It's a necessity, because we can't touch it or inspect it like [we used to be able to] in the medical side," said McCoy. "And then once they've tried it, they'll come back if they liked it."
States like Oregon and Colorado still require that every cannabis product be in a sealed container, but only just before the customer makes the cannabis purchase. That means budtenders can open a bulk quantity of weed, let the customer check it out, and then transfer the desired amount into a sealable container before the customer buys it.
McCoy said he's noticed the difference when he's visited Portland's pot shops. "Even across the river in Oregon, if you want to check something out, the guy is going to grab a jar with half a pound in it, and you'll actually be able to inspect it," he said.
Why is it so important to smell your weed before you buy it? Because our sense of smell is a powerful indicator of both good and bad traits in weed. Many of weed's aromas are derived from aromatic terpenes, which many scientists believe play a role in the effects of the high. So if you're choosing between a lemon haze from two different farms, your sense of smell is one of your most important tools. And it's also useful in sniffing out damaged weed, McCoy noted.
"If it wasn't cured correctly or if possible mold is present, you can tell right away by smelling it," McCoy said. "If it smells like actual grass, like the chlorophyll in the plant, that makes it taste not so pleasant. So you're looking for that sweet, pungent earth smell, but you do not want something that smells like it has been in a lawn mower."
Brian Smith, spokesperson for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, said the sealed-package requirement was put in place by law and not by any of the board's rulemaking. "It was in the law. When this thing started, marijuana was completely illegal and they were very careful in writing the law to allow that to go forward," Smith said.
The sealed-container requirement has another consequence besides putting a wall between our nose and our weed: mountains of wasteful trash. Any regular user of cannabis can tell you that all of these plastic baggies, or heavy glass containers for top-shelf weed, pile up. Without the sealed-package requirement, a consumer could bring an approved resealable container to their bud shop and never leave with wasteful petroleum packaging again. That would make my regular trips to the weed shop as happy as a trip down the PCC bulk-food aisle.