What were you smoking in 1996? Back then, Amsterdam was the only place on Earth where four guys could kick back in a bar, lay 30 different strains on the table, order a pitcher of beer and get down to the serious business of judging marijuana. It was my first Cannabis Cup – not to mention my first attempt to wade through a judge’s kit – and I was lucky to have with me three of my best friends, Chef RA, Frank Max and Bobby Belfiore. Many of these strains are long gone, and my old buddy Chef RA has passed on to the Great Cannabis Kitchen in the Sky (rest in peace, brother) but this is what it was like to be a newbie judge, in the presence of trained professionals.

There’s always a bit of confusion when trying to explain the process of marijuana appraisal to the unenlightened.

“How the hell are you going to judge weed when you’re already stoned?” is usually the question you get. I’m a professional, I explain, and leave it at that. I pride myself on my herbicultural objectivity. We’re not talking about kids doing gravity hits in their dorm rooms. This requires sophistication and subtlety. This is a job for adults.

My partners in this quest for herbal greatness are three equally qualified professionals, Lower East Side artist and scenemaker Bobby Belfiore, HIGH TIMES Art Director Frank Max, and the inimitable, incorruptible cannabis culinary celebrity Chef RA.

As Bobby, Frank and I follow a cloaked and top-hatted RA through the cobblestone streets of Amsterdam, we discuss the essential ingredients of a proper judging atmosphere. The usual Amsterdam coffeeshop blasting techno to a packed house of inebriated tourists simply will not do. We need proper ambience – something cozy, familiar and yet nondistracting.

Our contest begins in an unassuming little place called (oddly enough) the High Time Café. The inside is none too special, but the beers are large (Amsterdam is plagued by small beer glasses) and they’re playing reggae. And with Chef RA’s special celebrity-judge bag containing about 30 different strains, what more do you need?

After RA draws up a chart whereby he can note the various qualities of the herb (color, fragrance, high and smokability being a few of the more important distinctions) we begin with the Big Bud. Our technique is not to smoke the entire joint. We pass it around anywhere between two and four times, depending on our first impressions, and the only joints that get smoked to the butt are those which distinguish themselves as being part of a superior breed, strains whose very existence is a monument to global herbology. All roaches are stored in what became known as “Chef RA’s Box of Nasties.” They will presumably be donated to some deserving charity upon our departure from the wonderful land of Amsterdam.

We all agree with RA that Big Bud is a “long-day weed,” meaning you can smoke it before noon and still face the long day ahead of you. The opposite is, of course, the “short-day weed” which, when smoked, has the distinct quality of ending the possibility of any further productive activities until after your nap.

We toke up a bit of Silver Pearl, which Bobby describes as, “introspective stoner weed.” It seems to negate the conversation a bit and send us sailing in four different directions. Next comes something called California Indica, which is not properly cured and refuses to stay lit. After several attempts, it gets an F. I don’t care how big and juicy your bud is, if it won’t smoke, what good is it?

A conversation about the proper medium for judging ensues. We are in agreement that the herb must be savored and this is best accomplished with the faithful joint. Pipes tend to blur the lines between various smokes, while a bong would simply be crass. It would be like trying to judge a fine wine by shotgunning half the bottle. Such techniques have their time and place but not inside the professional arena.

Soon we are halfway into a joint of AK-47 that has us all wrapped up in fits of laughter. This is the first really fine smoke of the day. A wonderful sativa. There’s an effervescence to its physical effects, as if your blood has suddenly and inexplicably been replaced with champagne. And true to its name, it started us all on an uproarious anit-hippie rant. Truly a “militant” strain, this is what I call, “the Kent State of weeds.”

“The AK takes no prisoners!” RA exclaims.

A change in venues is in order and we leave the High Time Café in favor of Rookies, our preferred drinking and smoking establishment. Once our Heinekens are restored, we move on to the orange-haired Kali Mist, Frank’s personal favorite. He builds us up with promises of a fine, musky taste, which, when we smoke it, seems to Bobby more like liver and onions. Frank seems a little disappointed too, claiming it’s not the same Kali Mist he’d had the day before.

In an effort to get things back on track, Frank rolls up what he calls, “the Minderaser,” a grab-bag mix of thee kinds of hash and several kinds of bud. True to its name, I find it very hard to hold a thought or form a sentence under the influence of this dubious joint. It leaves us all feeling slightly stupid.

“It erases everything down to one, solid, marshmallow head,” Frank explains, and though I have to agree, I’m not sure that’s where I want to be. Supertramp’s “Logical Song,” starts playing and further disrupts the vibe. For some reason unbeknownst to me the Dutch seem to love Supertramp.

“Where’s that AK?” RA suddenly demands. “I gotta kill some thoughts!” The AK is delivered and saves us from the ambiguities of the Minderaser high.

No sooner do we rescue ourselves from the Minderaser than some obnoxious middle-aged geek comes up to us and asks if we’re from HIGH TIMES, and then barrages us with an endless stream of self-promotion. I watch as RA’s face turns from its usually cheery demeanor to one racked with pain and stress. I mean, would you disturb Michelangelo while he was painting? Or Thomas Edison while he was tinkering with the light bulb?

We try and remove ourselves from his conversation by burying our heads in our work. RA hands me something called Juicy Fruit to roll up. This is a prime example of the Amsterdam bait-and-switch approach to growing. Many Amsterdam growers will pile chemical fertilizers into their plants in order to get this truly amazing-looking and -smelling bud that smokes like you’re sucking on the exhaust pipe of a Chevy van. “Smoke not, want not,” Bobby says.

Just before the afternoon becomes a permanent bum trip, we roll up something called Silver Haze. This is a fine strain which rivals the AK-47. It has the AK’s same “effervescence,” mixed with a contemplative head. “A fine bouquet,” RA declares and suddenly everything is back in order. New Heinekens are placed in front of us and the geek guy seems like a distant memory.

Hendrix comes on with, “The Wind Cries Mary,” and we each take a moment to meditate on just how lucky we are to be in Amsterdam judging some of the finest cannabis in the world at someone else’s expense. We’re professionals all right, and part of being a professional is knowing when your objectivity has been compromised. It’s time to suspend judging and soak in Europe’s beautiful sights, sounds and beers. “Check out the hugeness of the vibe,” Bobby says, and as I sit back and take a much-deserved break, I can only agree. 

Want to judge at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam? Get your judge's pass today. The 26th HIGH TIMES Cannabis Cup takes place November 24-28, 2013.