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Judging a high-profile cannabis competition wasn't what I expected



Part 2 in a series highlighting this writer's experience as a judge in a high-profile cannabis competition.

  • Josh Jardine

As I began to detail in an article last month, I was assigned "vape cartridges" as my product to review as a judge for the High Times Oregon Cannabis Cup. Normally, that would have been great. But in light of what was the still-evolving "e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury" (EVALI) crisis, I had concerns. While federal investigators are still confirming the cause of the illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have both found a link between Vitamin E acetate and EVALI.

Less than a month prior to picking up my judge's kit for the High Times event, state regulators had announced that the suspected culprit (Vitamin E acetate) wasn't a banned "undisclosed agent," and may have been present in some Oregon vape cartridges.

As Oregon Liquor Control Commission Executive Director Steve Marks said, "My worry is that some of these folks may have gone around and put Vitamin E in their products that we are unaware of... If it's in our products, it's out there and we don't have a clear way to know which ones it may or may not be in." At the same time, the Oregon Health Authority reported that one of the EVALI victims who had died reportedly purchased THC carts from at least one licensed Oregon dispensary. 

The judge's kit I received contained 10 cartridges, filled with .5 to 1 gram of oil, all packaged as if ready for sale. This was in no way the vastly preferred "blind judging" style, wherein all identifying details about producer, product name, etc. are removed, so a judge is not influenced by any existing biases, good or bad. 

I asked budtenders at the dispensary where I picked up my kit if any of the carts contained Vitamin E. They were simply handling the distribution of the kits, so they didn't know. The kit had some brands I knew, but there were more that I had never tried, seen or even heard of. 

A large dispensary-owning friend who had compiled a lengthy list of "good carts," with verified ingredients and producers, looked at my carts to determine if they were listed.

"Wow. We actually carry none of these brands," he said, adding that there was one brand he had never even heard of, either. We shall call it "Brand X."

I emailed HT and asked, "I'm writing to get confirmation that none of these carts contain the thickening agent Vitamin E acetate." I didn't get a reply, so I asked again through the website used to submit my judge's ballots. Again, no reply. 

I began reaching out directly to producers to ask if they used Vitamin E. I received confirmation from all they did not—but couldn't find any info for "Brand X." My dispensary friend said the brand name didn't exist in METRC, the state's cannabis products tracking system, but by using the license number, he determined the legal business name and phone number. Multiple calls to the business went unanswered.

On Oct. 24, I emailed HT again and asked if they could provide a contact at Brand X to "confirm it was free of Vitamin E," resulting in this telling exchange:

HT: Everything is OLCC certified and passes the test in METRC. 

Me: That wasn't the question, but thanks.

HT: We don't give our competitor info. Thanks.

Well, no need to "give it out," it's all on the boxes the carts are in, save for "Brand X." I was astounded at the lack of awareness or concern HT was showing toward the health and safety of their judges. 

The owner of the Cup's venue offered to guest list me, and I arrived to find a scattering of booths inside, and a few attendees milling about. I recognized a half-dozen plus, all of whom were associated with brands entered into the Cup. I stepped outside into the attached fenced gravel yard, to a crowd which were seemingly mostly comprised of other contestants. 

The MC announced several times how consumption of any kind, including vaping, was strictly forbidden, and could result in your expulsion. Tickets are $80+ to not smoke. Cool.

Winners were announced, the crowd emptied out and the headliner played to a smaller crowd than they deserved. 

Those who won were worthy of the honors, and I hope it boosts sales. But as a judge and attendee, this came off as a crass cash grab, and embodied none of the spirit of the original Cups. High Times has some great writers—but do yourself a favor: Skip the Cup.

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