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What’s in a Pre-Roll?

March 3, 2016

More than pipes, bongs, edibles, oils, dab rigs, or any other means of consumption, the joint remains an icon. It may be the only method that, when pantomimed, says to the rest of the world “cannabis!”

A joint is cheap, discreet, disposable, and easily shared among friends. It requires neither the financial investment of a bong nor the time commitment of an edible. But unless you’ve got nimble fingers or hours to spend practicing, it can be tough to learn how to twist one up.

Enter the pre-roll.

Before legal, regulated markets, consumers themselves were the ones rolling joints. But as medical dispensaries and recreational shops emerged, demand grew for ready-made smokeables. By now, pre-rolls are almost everywhere, serving as go-to gifts and common suggestions to cannabis newcomers.


Study Finds a Joint a Day for 20 Years Shows No Impact on Lung Health

There’s just one thing: A lot of people think they’re junk.

“Out of maybe the 50 pre-rolls that I’ve got from dispensaries, two of them have been smokeable,” laments one cannabis-focused YouTuber.“The rest have just been disgusting. They’ve gone in the trash, they’ve gotten broken up, they’ve just not been smoked. It’s pretty gross.”

He’s not alone. Many in the cannabis community steer clear of pre-rolled joints because of the perception that they contain low-quality cannabis. But where did that reputation come from? Is it deserved? And does it really mean pre-rolls aren’t worth it? We spoke to budtenders, producers, dispensary owners, and cannabis enthusiasts to find out.

The biggest takeaway? When it comes to pre-rolls, it’s hard to generalize. But at least in some markets, they don’t always deserve the bad rap.

“The quality really varies a lot,” said Lauren, who spent three years working in a Seattle medical dispensary and who requested anonymity in order to preserve her industry ties. While some producers use higher-quality flower, she said, others add what’s called trim — the leaves and stems that are cut away from the bud before curing.


Leafly’s Visual Quality Guide to Selecting Cannabis

“A lot of the pre-rolls that are out there are made with a combination of plant material, and sometimes that includes smaller stems,” she said.

The biggest problem with a pre-roll is the paper, because it hides what’s inside. That makes it easier for producers to get away with using sub-par cannabis or trim. Even when a store includes high-quality cannabis, consumers still can’t judge what’s inside — so the store may see little advantage in stocking high-quality pre-rolls.

How Pre-Rolled Joints Are Made

A prerolled joint, cut open. Image Source: Sara Dilley []

Here’s how most pre-rolls are made: As budtenders in dispensaries shift nugs of cannabis in their jars, smaller bits of flower, known as shake, fall off. “The jars get shifted all the time,” explained Corey Schwartz, who manages Coast to Coast Collective in Los Angeles. “As you’re dispensing to patients, they want certain buds. After a day or a half a day, that strain gets broken down.” The shake gets collected for use in pre-rolls, which in Coast to Coast’s case are rolled on-site.

Coast to Coast and some other producers also add nugs themselves to their pre-roll mixture. “When it comes to the nugs, we break them down and we actually grind them down in a grinder,” Schwartz said. From there the mix is loaded into pre-rolled paper cones. A machine shakes the joints to help settle the mixture and remove air pockets. Once the joints are filled, an employee gently tamps down the contents of each one to make sure it’s not too tight or too loose, which could cause it to burn poorly. With a twist of the tip, the pre-roll’s ready to go.


How to roll a joint

Shake: The Secret Ingredient in Pre-Rolls

Cannabis shake. Image Source: Sara Dilley []

The use of shake is a widespread practice, and it ensures that all of a dispensary’s flower is put to use. But it can also ruffle feathers. Some consumers think shake is low-quality cannabis, which isn’t necessarily the case. In essence, shake is just smaller pieces of the same quality stuff.

But there are caveats. Shake can be of low quality if it’s dry—usually the result of jars sitting out too long—or if it contains stems and bits of leaves. And sometimes shake from various strains can be combined when making pre-rolls (sometimes called mystery or rainbow rolls). There’s also a bigger problem: Trim masquerading as shake. Before buying a bunch of pre-rolls, it’s not a bad idea to sacrifice one and cut it open. The contents should look about the same as if you’d ground up a new nug.


What Is Shake?

It’s also OK to just ask your dispensary, and you should.

“Our joints are always smaller nugs and shake that is broken down from the full pound,” said Schwartz of Coast to Coast. “There’s no less of a grade of a joint for us.”


The different ways to smoke and consume cannabis

In Washington, the recreational market has a different obstacle: There’s not much shake at all. State laws force producers to pre-package nugs for consumers, so instead of collecting at the bottoms of jars like at medical dispensaries, anything that breaks off the bud stays sealed in the same bag the grower put it in. As such, recreational shops don’t make their own pre-rolls, producers do.

Where to Find Good Pre-Rolls

Pack of Vashon Velvet Platinum Blueberry pre-roll cannabis joints next to four colorful "Doob Tubes"

I turned to Leafly employees to steer me toward good pre-rolls and bad ones in the Seattle area. The good producers came quickly: Solstice and Vashon Velvet. The bad ones were harder to nail down. Someone remembered a bad joint but couldn’t say where it was sold or who made it. Out of curiosity I once cut open a pre-roll I got as a gift, and while it looked a little dusty, it was free of stems or other unwanted plant matter. Most people admitted they don’t usually smoke pre-rolls anyway, in part because of their bad reputation. It’s easy to find anecdotal evidence of bad pre-rolls, but frankly it was hard to find one on the spot.

Without access to dispensary shake, Vashon Velvet makes pre-rolls from the same nugs it packages and sells…for the most part. The Vashon Island-based farm packages the prettiest ones—the tops of the plants—and then harvests lower buds to grind and roll into joints. “They’re still good-quality cannabis, but they’re not quite what we’d want to put in a bag to represent our stuff,” said Vashon Velvet’s Patrick Rooney.


What’s the difference between joints, blunts, and spliffs?

The nugs are ground to a fine consistency and then screened to remove twigs and stems, he explained. “We select pretty carefully. I only put stuff into the joints that I would roll myself, you know?” The joints are individually inspected and packaged in boxes, then heat-sealed to help keep the cannabis fresh — an important step, said Rooney.

“I would totally compare it to coffee,” he explained. “In the bean form, it’s going to last longer than if you grind it. It’s going to be a completely different coffee when it’s ground.” With more surface area in the ground-up cannabis, it will dry out and oxidize faster, leaving you with a harsher, less-potent smoke.


The Leafly Cannabis and Coffee Pairing Guide

“There’s a reason people are smoking joints from buds,” he added. “It’s a perfect vehicle for the flavor of the cannabis to come through.”

If someone new to pre-rolls can’t tell if the one in their hand is any good, Rooney said there are a few ways to check. “If you were to take a nice bud and put it through a grinder and dump it out, and then open up a pre-roll and dump it out, it should be the same,” he advised.

If you don’t want to actually destroy your pre-roll, just pay attention when you smoke. If producers are adding trim to the mix, it’s going to smell like campfire and taste “very planty,” Rooney said. “It would definitely compromise quality immensely.”


The Physics and Chemistry of the Joint

Tell us your recent experiences with pre-rolls. Have legal markets ushered in a new era of quality, or are they as bad as some say? Have you found any particularly good or bad pre-rolls in your area? And what’s your method to tell the difference?

Image Source: Sara Dilley

  • If it says rainbow pre roll run the other way

  • Tasslehoff Burrfoot

    I’ve had a number of the pre-rolls offered locally some are good and some are better as edible ingredients. Several local dispensaries offer rainbow rolls as incentives to gain new customers. Others have strain specific, dipped and kief coated, I prefer the few around that specifically state that they use buds and no sugar leaf.

  • OK_Meat

    Tried my first one last night. Think I’m allergic to the paper it was rolled with. I took three tiny puffs, and had some kind of respiratory attack. I started coughing, then wheezing between coughs just to get a little air in my lungs. The weed itself was actually top notch. I took it out of the crappy paper, put in a bong, and it was just fine. Anyone else had a bad experience like that with rolling papers?

  • Sam L Gholson

    Where I live in NM, I have 1 dispensary for medical pot that I frequent. All their bud is packaged in sealed plastic envelopes, that remind me of the old baggies I used to buy when I was younger to package different stuff. They also sell pre-rolls. I’ve bought several in the past, never smoked one as a pre-roll, but I always broke them down and smoked them in my water pipe. They always look like good bud would look, after being ground up, so no complaints from me there. The name of the dispensary is Minnerva Canna, in Albuquerque.

  • Lee Berreth

    Here in Oregon, ive come across maybe one preroll that I didn’t like. It had a bad taste, almost like smoking a cigarette. I think the strain was Cherry Pie, but I can’t remember for sure. Most prerolls get me blazed. I don’t normally smoke a gram+ in one session unless im with friends.

  • Richard Meyer

    I am in Oregon and I’ve never had an issue with a pre-roll.. I get them pretty often to test out a new strain. I will normally get a 3 pack of them and at least one will usually get broken up and packed into something. It’s always good looking bud.

  • Istick Holder


  • Mark Rovin

    Here in Colorado, most of the high end dispensaries sell good quality pre rolls. An exoensive but quality brand that is readily available are the Willie Nelson prerolls, $15 but kick ass quality.

    • Dave

      Must be nice living in a state where its legal ,in Ks here .

  • Talira K.

    Pre-rolls (stupid moniker!) were Aok here in rural NV until rec. started. The quality and potency are quite lame AND most of them are now .6 grams (not 1 grammers) which they don’t tell you B4hand. We used to get a free grammer doob for any purchase over $100 but now you have to pay $1.00 for that .6 shit joint!?! Did I mention that it’s the only dispensary for miles and miles? Oh the things you can do when you’re a monopoly!!

  • KowalskiTG

    the ATS galaxy holy grail OG pre-rolls are legit. i’ve smoked 4 or 5 of these last month and i really really like them. pre-rolls are usually dissapointing for me, but these are really on point. i went to the store after smoking half of the first one and felt like a damn alien

  • Cheryl Barnett-Smithingell

    I personally like the prerolls.. I stay away from the flavored papers.. they tend to make you choke so bad you can’t smoke it. I live in Washington so now our weed comes in sealed packages. I’ve had a few disappointments but not to make me quit buying them.. I love them

  • Ivan van Ogre

    I refuse to buy infused weed to begin with. It masks weaknesses.
    The other problem is the ground-up weed dries out a lot faster than people think.
    They’re a good idea if you’re on your way to a party and you grab a pack.
    They’ll be gone by morning while still somewhat fresh.

  • Trisha Pickle

    Where can I find laws for Oklahoma regarding selling pre-rolls? Any idea?

  • Trisha Pickle

    Where can I find laws for Oklahoma regarding selling pre-rolls? Any idea? In a dispensary.