cannabis grading system

Understanding the 4-Tier Cannabis Grading System for Quality

by | Jul 29, 2022

cannabis grading system

Written by Deborah Agboola

With the legalization of cannabis in more parts of the world, there is an expected increase in low-quality batches. How can cannabis quality be effectively measured?

Determination of cannabis quality has gone beyond quality judgment based on its distributor to quality detection by several other factors like the terpene profile, burn color and flower structure. Below are a few methods of distinguishing between qualities.


In the late 1980s, the rapidly expanding cannabis cultivars cause the development of the need to differentiate and describe flower grades. To address the situation in the early 1990s, the first official cannabis grading system was established in Canada. It was initially just the “A-AAA” system, but the discovery of the “AAAA” expanded the system to “A – AAAA+.”

There are currently several cannabis grading systems used in the determination of quality; however, the legally approved system widely used by experts is the “A – AAAA+” grading system.

Note: This grading system is not a reflection of the strain itself but the methodology and care given to the plant.

A – Single-A (“OD” or “GH”)

Commonly referred to as dirt weed, it is the lowest quality of all in the cannabis grading system. Most times, it is remnants of an extracted (butane-blasted) cannabis flower sold for extra profit. Although it might still retain the structure of the bud, stalks, and other impurities are often evident in the stash.

This quality is sufficient for decent relaxation but may come with some side effects like dizziness and headache.

AA – Double-A (“Dubs”)

This offers a variance in quality, and it’s not uncommon to see AA- and AA+. Often referred to as “reggie weed” or “dubs,” AA-grades have a brown or off-color tinge in their green outlook. This type contains relatively more THC than its lower counterpart.

AAA – Triple-A (“Trips”)

The Triple-A grade was formerly regarded as the best quality kush there is. Still, with advancements in technology and cannabis cultivation alike, this has gone one tier below with the “quads” being the current premium weed class. Available in a variety of types, this is the most common high-standard cannabis form sold in dispensaries and stores.

AAAA –Quad-A (“Quads”)

This quality also ranges from regular AAAA to high-premium quality AAAA++. It is the best quality of its kind, ranking highest in all traits with a pungent odor, a sharp flavor, and a smooth, clean-smelling burn smoke.

cannabis grading system


Aside from a cannabis grading system based on the CBD or THC potency level, other factors can help to determine the quality of the plant before purchase.

Flower Structure

 The flower or “bud” is the smokable, trichome-covered section of the cannabis plant. In a dispensary, the best quality flowers are often referred to as private reserves or top shelf, with other grades being the mid-shelf and bottom-shelf flowers. Here are some easily identifiable characteristics of each flower grade:

  • The top-shelf flowers are characterized by their geometrical buds and their sticky or spongy feel.
  • The mid-shelf flowers have varying characteristics based on their curing duration and might be dry or wet, possibly containing a few stems.
  • The bottom-shelf flowers are of the lowest grade quality having a brownish or off-color appearance, are very dry to the touch, and have an earthy odor due to poor environmental conditions, which cause the oxidation of THC to CBN (cannabinol).

Trichome Density 

Trichomes are the resinous hair-like structures on the buds of the cannabis plant. They are the reservoirs of THC, and asides been the source of the “high,” they protect the plant from pests, insects, and the sun.

  • Oodles of trichomes often identify high-quality cannabis, while
  • Mid-shelf flowers, by their moderately defined frosty trichomes; and,
  • Bottom-shelf flowers by their low or almost absent trichomes.

Trim: Trimming in cannabis cultivation is the act of shearing off long leaves from the plant post-harvest. As unimportant as this might seem, trimming is an essential aspect of the aesthetic value and grade quality of the plant. High-quality cannabis often comes with a good trim, while low or mid-quality usually have less time put into their care.

Terpene Profile

Terpenes are the compounds in all plants responsible for their distinctive aroma. In cannabis, they work synergistically with compounds to produce the effect and therapeutic benefits of the plant. Due to their strong odor, they also help ward off the plant’s predators.

Sprays and Pesticides

Although the use of chemical pesticides in the cultivation of cannabis plants is illegal, some cannabis growers go against the law. Asides the potential health risks of ingesting chemical residues, the presence of such residues or diseases could give an inkling to the quality of the cannabis.


In the determination of cannabis’ quality by examining the burn and ash consistency, the method of curing is a considerable factor. High-quality cannabis is most times cured for an adequate period to expel excess moisture, causing it to burn well without quenching. While for the low-quality grades, the curing process is most times hurried through, and hence, moisture content remains relatively high.

Ash Color

In terms of ash color, high-quality cannabis burns pure white, mid-quality burns light grey, and low-quality burns dark grey or black ash. Similar to the grind test, the consistency of the ash can also be used to determine its quality – does it stay clumped, or does it scatter?

Flavor and Effect

Each grade quality has its distinct burn flavor and effect owed to its phytochemical levels. Therefore, this is a crucial factor to consider when evaluating cannabis quality.

In conclusion, regardless of the purpose for acquiring cannabis, the quality purchased should be of utmost importance, not just for its efficiency but for the health of the end consumer.

Cannabis Grading Systems Essential for Good Business

In conclusion, as the cannabis industry continues to evolve and legalization expands, understanding the cannabis grading system becomes crucial for both consumers and industry professionals. By considering factors such as flower structure, trichome density, trim, terpene profile, burn consistency, and flavor, individuals can make informed decisions about the quality of cannabis products they purchase. Prioritizing high-quality cannabis not only ensures an optimal experience but also promotes consumer safety and well-being. With a growing marketplace and increasing awareness, the cannabis grading system serves as a valuable tool in navigating the diverse world of cannabis products.