It's a gig most cannabis enthusiasts would envy: Sohum Shah, 26, gets paid to visit grows and dispensaries, smoke some of the best cannabis in the world, and write about it for the Cannabist.
It's a far cry from the career in investment banking Shah envisioned as an undergraduate in Tucson, where he studied finance and information systems. But after getting a medical card and, eventually, his bud tending badge, Shah worked at dispensaries and in corporate IT until he heard Cannabist editor Ricardo Baca was looking for a marijauna critic.
So Shah did what any sane, reasonable person would do: started pestering Baca relentlessly. "I was sending him emails and private Reddit messages after he did an AMA on Reddit, and kept hitting him up until I heard that they had hired Jake Browne."
Eventually, his persistence paid off. Shah wrote his inaugural review of a scary-sounding sativa, Durban Poison, in August 2015.
Cannabist reviewers don't use pseudonyms
Unlike early critics like William Breathes, the ones at The Cannabist don't use pseudonyms or hide their identities, making it slightly more difficult to shop incognito. To ensure dispensaries don't realize he's a reviewer and cherry-pick the best buds, he'll "buy two or three different strains so they don't know which one I'm reviewing," he says.
"I'll ask the bud tender about genetics, playing a bit dumb to see if they're knowledgeable. After I buy it I reach out to the grower or breeder, if I can."
In addition to research skills, being a critic requires constantly experimentation. "The Cannabist is stricter than most," says Shah. "We aren't allowed to re-review strains - we have to pick new ones." Consuming that much requires a sense of timing.
With sativas he might, "save them for before I go out with friends, or when I'm try to get some work done."
"With an indica, I wait until I need to sleep. Sometimes you pick wrong, and end up at the party with a stupid look on your face not talking to anyone. We've all been there," says Shah with a laugh.
It also means trying some sub-par cuts. "I had to push myself to go to shops I wasn't familiar with - you can't always get to the best dispensaries and smoke the best product. You also have to hone your observation skills and your senses, how to describe how something smells and tastes, different colours and trichomes, and be knowledgeable about genetics."
He points to his Ultimate 91 Chemdawg review as an example of how complicated all this can get, calling it, "the most complete review I ever did - genetics, grower, genotype, phenotype, smoking it, observing the effects - it was all there."
Strain-geekery comes naturally to Shah, who in July 2014 also founded The Cannabis Commodities Exchange - an online platform to buy flower and concentrates, for which he acts as a designated buyer for dispensaries.
"They give their purpose and parameters and I find them product that fits within that. They trust that, as a pot critic, I know the product," he explains. He also helps organize the Cannabis Tech Denver meet-up.
To wannabe connoisseurs, he offers this word to the wise: THC isn't everything.
"People will be like, 'oh my god, I've got this stuff that's like 30 percent THC'. They think, the more THC there is, the higher you get. That's a myth. Sometimes it has a high THC content, but smells like grass, it's too moist, it's not cured. What matters is the terpenes - if you don't have the terpene content you can't smell the strain and it won't provide the effect. People don't know that terpenes positively effect your high."
People need to be educated about different strains
But while there's still a lot of misinformation out there, he's encouraged by how far consumer education has come in the post-legalization era.
"Twenty or thirty years ago, they weren't doing any testing at all. That people are looking at THC at all is a step in the right direction - I'd say eight to 10 years ago no one even knew what THC was."
He's gets excited by the process of educating people about why certain strains are so incredible - and why others should be avoided.
"Being able to finally write about a plant that I've loved for so long, and improve other people's experience with it, is amazing."