Cheap Schemes and Big Tobacco Tricks: The Recipe for White Ash


The white ash conversation has been positively insufferable. Heady bois and cannabis connoisseurs from coast to coast have been posting videos of their ash on Instagram for what feels like years now, indicating that they’re smoking top shelf product solely based on the color of the ash.

As much as I hate to disappoint, not only is white ash not an accurate metric of quality, it can be easily faked, gamed, cheated, duped and bamboozled using particular cultivation techniques, smoking methods, and as shown by recent court documents: adding small amounts of chalk to the rolling paper.

Recently unsealed documents from a years-long court battle between Republic Technologies LLC and BBK Tobacco & Foods, LLP revealed the ingredient lists used to make OCB Rolling Papers, including one particular additive that Big Tobacco has been familiar with for years which weed smokers might not be aware of: calcium carbonate.

Chalk-Infused Papers

Court documents from 2014 with regard to OCB rolling papers showed that varying amounts of calcium carbonate were used in some of their rolling papers, specifically the following:  OCB No. 1 Single Wide, JOB Tribal King Size, OCB Slim, OCB Red 1 ¼, JOB Gold 1.25, OCB Organic Hemp 1-¼ and OCB Organic Hemp King Size Slim.

Snippet taken from court documents in the case of Republic Technologies LLC vs  BBK Tobacco & Foods, LLP.

According to the National Institute of Health, calcium carbonate is an inorganic salt found all over the world in rocks like limestone as well as in the shells of many marine organisms and crustaceans. It’s the main ingredient in chalk, antacid medications like Tums, and as it turns out, it has also been used as a whitening pigment in cigarette rolling papers for decades. I was able to find three different patents, two of which date back to the 90’s, from tobacco companies including Phillip Morris all listing calcium carbonate as a way to make cigarette ash more “attractive.” A study by the Cooperation Centre for Scientific Research Relative to Tobacco describes how calcium carbonate can affect the color of ash:

“Generally, as the size of the precipitated calcium carbonate particle decreased, the ash became more cohesive. As the particle size decreased, the ash became slightly whiter until an optimal particle size was reached at about 0.3 microns,” the study said. “Further reductions in precipitated calcium carbonate size caused the ash to become grayer.”

Calcium carbonate is not necessarily a harmful substance to include in rolling papers, but the material safety data sheet of calcium carbonate does classify it as a potential respiratory tract irritant. A National Institute of Health study of autopsies in smokers versus non-smokers also found that the elemental components of calcium carbonate are found in the lungs of smokers but not in non-smokers, meaning it potentially leaves residual particles in the lungs.

“Potassium carbonate, sulfate, and chloride were not identified in any lung. The percentage of quartz was the same in both smoker and nonsmoker lungs,” the study said. “However, lungs from smokers contained a large percentage (average 23% of all particles) of particles composed of calcium, carbon, and oxygen (probably calcium carbonate) in all sample sites, whereas lungs from nonsmokers usually contained no such particles or only minute numbers (average 0.1%).”

Moving away from the ultra-sciency talk, cigarette companies have added calcium carbonate to their papers for years to make the ash whiter (please google Marlboro white ash ads and you’ll see this conversation goes all the way back to the 1950’s). Whether or not OCB papers are trying to gain the favor of weed smokers looking for white cannabis ash, I haven’t the foggiest idea, nor would I want to insinuate such a thing for fear of incurring a lawsuit I absolutely cannot afford. The point is that if a substance this common can be added to rolling papers, it would be very easy for an unscrupulous marketing team to use this knowledge to their advantage to sell more cannabis via using these particular papers in pre-rolls or to roll with when making smoking videos for the company Instagram, etc. 

I Got a Fever, and the Only Prescription is More CalMag

It doesn’t stop there. I’ve been told by growers that you can also add greater concentrations of CalMag to flowering cannabis plants to achieve the white ash effect, which would make sense because CalMag is, somewhat redundantly, a mixture of calcium and magnesium. Calcium carbonate concentration is also, as far as I know, not included on any cannabis lab test COA, so there’s no concrete way for the consumer to tell if this method was utilized in the grow room. Again, not necessarily a harmful practice as far as I know but also not an accurate measure of quality.

You can also achieve the white ash effect by rolling and smoking the joint in a particular way, which I’ll describe for you now in an effort to illustrate that you can absolutely, positively fake this shit for Instagram: Roll a full eighth into a joint as tightly as possible without suffocating it (see Doja Pak rolling tutorial from First Smoke of the Day for further reference). Now go buy yourself one of those mini torches that crack smokers use to heat up their pipes, the sketchier looking the better. Torch the end of your joint evenly and slowly. If it catches fire, gently blow it out and continue torching for a minute or two until you have a nice even cherry. Now you’re gonna want to hold the joint upside down, very gently so that the smoke drifts upwards through your hands. Take a long, slow hit and return the joint to the upside down position. Rinse and repeat, torching more if necessary until you have a nice white ash pile. Take your picture, post it to Instagram and receive a well-deserved pat on the back from your CEO.

Granted, you need at least somewhat decent weed to achieve this effect even with the described method above. I will also fully admit I have never smoked a joint that burned completely black which I would describe as quality weed. The point I’m trying to make here is there are well-known schemes afoot to fool you into thinking you’re smoking good weed when that is not necessarily the case. Some people have purported that white ash is an indicator the cannabis was dried and cured properly, which has some truth to it because the moisture content of the flower needs to be within an ideal range to achieve a proper burn, but all the white ash really means is that the weed has burned completely, a process known as “carbonization.” An excerpt from “Whiteness of Cigarette Ash” written by Isao Kanai in 1959 (again, please note the date) explains further:

“The whiteness of cigarette ash plays an important role to the burning quality of cigarettes, and it is considered to be related with the degree of carbonization of organic materials, the combustion-zone temperature of cigarettes, and other complicated ‘combustion phenomena’ of Cigarettes,” the report said. 

A cursory Google search will also populate about 50 different explanations from various tobacco clubs and tobacco companies explaining that white ash is related to combustibility and levels of calcium and magnesium in the soil the tobacco was grown in. The same can be said for cannabis.

Fire is in the Eye of the Beholder

So where does that leave us? Well, here’s where it’s gonna get a little subjective on my part. Quality cannabis ultimately comes down to user experience and user preference. There are certain markers that may suggest a particular batch of cannabis can be considered a quality product, but it’s a multi-faceted conversation. There is no single metric that can tell you if flower is good. It comes down to several key factors including, but not limited to: appearance, ash color, density, taste, smokability, cultivation methods (this is a lesser point but while I’m on the subject, the living soil versus salt-nutrients conversation is equally as pointless as the ash conversation), plant genetics, a proper dry and cure cycle and in my opinion the most important factor: effects. Individual microbiome, how one person’s body reacts to cannabis versus another’s, also plays a huge role.

What I will say, and I’m shamelessly stealing this point from our fearless leader Jon Cappetta, is that a better ash-related metric for quality weed is how the ash stacks up on itself (a metric also stolen from age-old tobacco-funded studies, I might add). If you can smoke most of the joint without the ash falling off (infused products don’t count), it means there’s a lot of resin in the flower causing it to stick together. If the ash is speckled or white on top of that, all the better. Oil ring to boot? Fugedaboutit.

There’s a certain threshold I think we can all agree on that flower has to reach to cross over from bad to mids but past that threshold, as we’ve all witnessed, we all start to argue as a community about mids versus fire and the conversation ultimately devolves into silly, unimportant metrics like “whose ash is whiter.” I think in general the key here is just awareness of what we’re consuming, and the knowledge that our own personal experience with the plant is all that really matters at the end of the day. Don’t let flashy Instagram videos or age-old Big Tobacco schemes fool you into consuming a particular brand or strain. Smoke what feels good to YOU and spread awareness wherever you can so we as a community can properly identify true fire. Past that, I only ask that we all stop arguing online about white ash because it makes the cannabis community look like a babbling gang of rabid hyenas.



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