50 Strains of Green

How much do you really know about the cultivar you claim to love?

Carolyn White has a reality check for cannabis consumers. The names you know for the strains you love, like Sour Diesel or OG Kush, are unsubstantiated street names for varieties that were secretly bred and traded for 50 years.

And now that these products are being legally sold to consumers in California, there’s no guarantee that the strain you’re buying is the strain you really want.

“We cannot rely on a name because, basically, everything has been mislabeled and the same variety can have 10 different names,” says White, marketing communications manager for Phylos Bioscience. “All of this underground breeding has happened, where basically you take two plants, cross them together and create a ton of new seeds. Each seed is actually its own variety, so there’s an insane amount of diversity out there.”

An industry long shrouded in mystery and stigma, cannabis moved off the black market and into public favor rather quickly. That means regulations are still lacking and scientific studies young; it may be a while before the common consumer knows exactly what they’re putting in their pipe.

“Until it’s federally legalized and we can standardize things across states,” says White, “it’s going to remain a bit wild west.”

“Strain” Doe

Plant biologist Brent Barnes describes cannabis strains, or cultivars, as specific genetic/phenotypic selections of plants. Common names you know, like Blue Dream and Girl Scout Cookies, have gained popularity for varying reasons, ranging from flavor and THC level to tolerance to pesticides or fungal infections.

There could be tens of thousands of cultivars in California, but Barnes believes it’s difficult to estimate since not all findings have been published and many are mislabeled.

“You have multiple cultivars with the same name–all varying in genetics,” explains Barnes, director of cultivation for Claybourne Industries. “They have different terpene profiles and different cannabinoid profiles. Also, the cultivation may be different.”

In other words, when you buy cannabis with the same strain name from three different dispensaries, it’s likely you’re buying three completely different strains. That’s not to say you won’t enjoy all three, but the effects of the strain may vary.

“They aren’t the same, they’re never going to be the same, but the consumer thinks they’re the same,” says Barnes, “and that’s one of the biggest problems with this industry is that the consumer doesn’t understand.”

To make matters even more complicated, the categories of cannabis that consumers have grown accustomed to, such as Indica and Sativa, are not scientifically accurate labels.

“When you have marijuana buds tested and look at all the chemical makeup data of the flower, we see no identifiable characteristics that are consistent with Indica, Sativa or a hybrid,” says cannabis expert Kevin Johnson. “You see the percentages of the cannabinoids which are the naturally occurring chemical compounds found in the marijuana plant. Cannabinoids are partly responsible for the wide array of medicinal and psychoactive effects cannabis may provide.”

Essentially, people are using these terms as catchalls for effect, even though they’re not all consistent with those effects. “People shouldn’t be alarmed if a reportedly energizing Sativa strain has more of a mellowing effect, or if an Indica strain makes them feel … bubbly and excitable,” he explains.

Throw in the disparities of human biology and the possibilities of medicinal and psychoactive effects are practically immeasurable.

“Eventually, we may have to DNA test people to figure out what works best for them,” says White. Her employer, Phylos Bioscience, was founded in 2014 to document the genetic relationships between cultivars. The company is like the 23 and Me of cannabis, sequencing the DNA of thousands of cannabis samples collected from around the world.

In one case, Phylos sequenced 80-plus samples that turned out to be genetically identical to OG Kush, yet 90 percent of the samples were being sold under different names.

Other samples carry the same name, yet they are genetically different. They may be similar hybrids of the original, but they are not identical plants. White compares this relationship to the relationship between children.

“Think about two different people who are genetically different and have a bunch of kids. They’re going to look similar, but they’re wildly different,” she says. “That’s how it is with cannabis.”

Along with the genetic differences, Johnson notes that strain names are sometimes a marketing ploy.

“Some producers may choose to create a strain name essentially as a branding exercise or to identify their product with an existing name because they believe the product matches characteristics the market expects from products sold under that name,” he says.

Stabilizing Strains

A self-professed plant geek, Barnes explains that most domesticated plants are bred to have uniform characteristics, but because of legal restrictions on cannabis, the plant became highly inbred.

“To say that this crop hasn’t been touched and hasn’t been bred is a false comment,” he says. “Geneticists just like me have worked with this crop, but they couldn’t record their information. So, a lot of it is hearsay. When you’re working with a federally restricted crop … you’ve got to jump through the hoops.”

While breeders have begun to stabilize the phenotype and chemotype of different cannabis plants, there’s still a long way to go.

So, what does this mean for consumers with favorite strains right now?

Barnes says to do your research. The original selectors of certain varieties are out there, you just have to know where to find them.

White encourages consumers to dig deeper into who grows the cannabis they buy and align with a brand that fits.

“Seek out farms that you like because, generally, you will find more consistency with a specific grower at this point,” she says.

If you’re just trying to look for a strain you tried and liked, she adds: “It’s possible you’ll never find it again.”

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