“Juicy Fruit.” “Obama Kush.” “Zkittlez.” Dispensaries are selling dozens and dozens of creatively named cannabis “strains.” But they’re not necessarily the same even if they’re named that way. In both the cannabis consumer and scientific worlds, that’s causing problems.
Check-In: If you’re already confused on what I’m talking about, have a look at this awesome cannabis plant breakdown by Marijuana Break for a primer I keep it bookmarked for the bucket list of strains to try.
The popular term “strain” is commonly, although mistakenly, used to describe a variety, breed or specific type of cannabis, but it’s incorrect. “Most people in the scientific community would agree that the word ‘strain’ refers to a specific type of bacteria or virus,” Autumn Karcey, CEO of Cultivo, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in pharmaceutical grade agricultural products, told me. “In botanical nomenclature in the cannabis industry, the correct terminology is ‘cultivar’, which more accurately describes a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by a selective breeding process.”
These are some cannabis cultivars with intricately detailed descriptions of their effects and parental lineages.
The problem is that no one really knows what they’re growing or selling. That’s what I learned speaking with David Hodes, the managing editor of the magazine Cannabis Science and Technology. Hodes presented on this very topic at the Cannabis Science Conference – East, I attended earlier this year.
American cannabis culture evolved faster than federally-stifled science, and the correct nomenclature for different types of cannabis, which most refer to as “strains,” was never properly established. And as breeders breed, and new strains develop, it’s getting harder and harder to track what’s what. There were much fewer strains five years ago, and as more science and consumer attention is paid towards cannabis, more attention will need to be paid to know precisely what it is.
Although scientists know how cannabis plants relate to each other genetically, classification of cannabis cultivars is more than likely misrepresenting the cannabis’ lineage—which ruins one of the most fun and exciting elements of the emergent art of cannabis cultivation: creating new hybrids. Anyone can find blog posts online purporting to teach growers how to create different cannabis hybrids through selective breeding.
Speaking with Reggie Gaudino, Ph.D., president, director of R&D, and director of Intellectual Property at Steep Hill Labs, Inc., the cannabis cultivar Durban Poison in the USA is a prime example. A pure sativa, the plant originates from the South African port city of Durban and contains the cannabis compound THCVA, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid and molecular precursor to THCV known for being a rare appetite suppressant.
“It was brought into the United States and bred with Super Silver Haze, but all the offspring were called Durban Poison, yet only a portion of the offspring actually produced THCVA,” Gaudino said. “Today, it’s hard to find Durban Poison in the USA that actually makes THCVA. So, the issue is the lack of science behind the naming, not the science itself, which already has established some lineage and some ancestral relationship.”
This is phenotypes—the observable characteristics of the cannabis plants—not the genotypes—the genetic material. In humans, it would be kind of like saying Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) and Elijah Wood (of Lord of the Rings fame) are the same person because they look so similar, when they’re definitely different people.
A cannabis Ancestry.com
Crop cultivation and breeding go back to the beginnings of human civilization thousands of years ago, so undoing the knotted genealogical history of cannabis—or any crop—takes a dedicated approach to unravel what human hands and the winds of chance have wrought over the centuries. But there is some precedent with corn, whose long history as a staple crop for human civilizations is just beginning to be unraveled.
This dedicated approach is already happening in the cannabis industry, it turns out. Between what Gaudino and his team are doing at Steep Hill, cannabis testing company Medicinal Genomics, and up until some recent industry controversy, Phylos Biosciences, the genetic information being gathered and released publicly is being used to build the Ancestry and 23andMe for the cannabis industry.
A tool of this type would allow a number of benefits including better information for breeding, ancestry, and therefore as Gaudino told me, providing the kind of information that would promote hybrid creation in an intelligent, data-driven manner.
Though science and cultivation shouldn’t be seen as at odds, the prospect of genetic mapping—and genetic modification—can make people nervous. Since the 1970s, biotech scientists have been genetically modifying plants to yield better crops, resist invasive bug species, and reduce the need for pesticides. These genetically modified organisms, or GMOs as they’re commonly referred to, have been a hot topic of late as consumers and scientists question the safety.
Whether GMOs are safe is a highly contentious issue, even amongst leading scientists. Some insist that they’re safe and promote better crops to fight against droughts and insects, while others insist that GMOs have led to increased use of hazardous elements like glyphosate.
Cultivators, scientists, and consumers
The American cannabis industry hasn’t worked with cultivators and scientists hand-in-hand like commercial agriculture has all that much before now. “I’ve often referred to the cannabis industry as one of the most misinformed industries on the planet,” Karcy told me. “We are currently seeing a very clear and deliberate disconnect between the cannabis industry’s veteran breeders and cultivators and the scientific community hoping to learn from their experience.”
In short, the two sectors that, if combined, could really help drive the cannabis industry forward. “Unfortunately, they refuse to talk to one another, much like a bureaucratic government, and perhaps for good reason,” Karcey concluded.
From a consumer’s perspective, the push towards understanding the genotypic history of cannabis means transparency and honesty in understanding what they’re purchasing. While consumers may not care what specific genetic cultivar of corn they’re getting as long as it tastes good in their cornbread, cannabis consumers specifically shop for the unique effects of hybrid cultivars to help manage chronic conditions or to find a specific sort of release from the stress of everyday life.
In the March/April 2019 issue of Cannabis Science and Technology, researchers Cindy Orser and Philippe Henry tackle this issue in their article “Making Sense of Cannabis Strains through Chemometrics.” In the article, the two make the startlingly direct claim that “the cannabis consumer patient often times has no real idea of the composition, consistency or comparability of the cannabis product that they purchase.”
Those days are coming to an end. With cannabis consumers demanding precision dosing and mood-based experiences, the battle for the best cultivar is waging. And according to Joshua Crossney, CEO of CSC Events, which hosts the East and West Coast Cannabis Science Conferences, that’s just the beginning.
“Chemotyping, or accurately determining the identity of a cannabis strain using chemical fingerprinting rather than genomics, will be the next hot growth area,” according to Crossney. “I would be remiss if I did not add that the future may not be in ‘King Cultivars’ but in custom, full-spectrum cannabinoid and terpene blends created from many different cultivars. This may ultimately be ‘what is west of Westeros’.”