The Strain Game
Mar 14, 2019 07:09PM
● By Leland Rucker
A curious consumer enters a dispensary looking for just the right strain to ease back pain and get some sleep at night. “Well,” says the budtender, “We’ve got Cat Piss, Purple Monkey Balls, and Green Crack.” Well, that helps.
Strains are all the currency in legal cannabis today. Before legalization, you mostly just bought pot, in a plastic bag, with no name attached. (Well, maybe “this is some good shit, man.”) Legendary strains like Acapulco Gold, Panama Red, and Colombian were sometimes around, but those names resided mostly in popular songs and conspiracy theories about cigarette companies taking over the cannabis business.
Today it’s a whole different ballgame. A popular website for information is Wikileaf, whose Strain Library includes thousands of names Arcata Trainwreck, Orange Creamsickle, 707 Headband, Afghan Cow, Afghan Diesel, Afghan Haze, Afghan Kush, Afghan Skunk, Afghani, Afgooey, Willie Nelson, and Willie Wonka among them catalogued according to their popularity, common uses and effects, time of use, and percentages of THC and CBD. But does Green Crack, for instance, affect you like, well, environmentally sound cocaine that you smoke from a glass pipe? What does Cat Piss smell like when you burn it? And the Purple Monkey Balls. … Do we even want to go there?
“There’s a strain called Grandma’s Breath,” says Dave Malone, breeder and co-owner of Green Dot Labs, a top Colorado based extract brand. “The culture fi nds this fascinating and will embrace that,” he says. “But to the mainstream, they see something like Green Crack and say, ‘I don’t want this.’”
Strain summaries are pretty general and anecdotal in nature. Arcata Trainwreck “is particularly effective against pain, migraine, and nausea.” Green Crack gets its name from cannabis aficionado Snoop Dogg, “Although some still prefer the name Cush to sidestep any unwanted cannabis stigma, the love for this fruity and earthy strain is unanimous.” Cat Piss has a “pungent stench” and consumers either “love it or they’re not fond of it at all.” (There’s even an indica called “Sensi Star” that is 20 percent THC that “smells of a coniferous forest and a citrus lemon” and has been called a ‘one-hit quitter’ and recommended for those with a high tolerance that caught my interest.)
Though it doesn’t track particular strains, consumer trends and marketing data firm BDS Analytics collects and studies data around cannabis legalization. As sales of flower cannabis have lost market share to concentrates, edibles, and vape products, cultivators, brands, and dispensaries are increasingly naming new strains to try and differentiate and brand themselves. The company has seen an explosion in the number of named strains available. Its database contains more than 41,000 strain names.
Those numbers, say Greg Shoenfeld, VP of Operations and BDS’s lead analyst, tend to imply that custom names could be assigned to strains regardless of genetics, and that, in fact, many of the strain names are of the same or similar genetics. “Whether those strains are unique or not is a valid question,” he says.
Wait, isn’t cannabis just cannabis?
Though nobody knows for sure, most historians date cannabis and its cultivation back to central Asia at least 6,000 years, and the plant has migrated around the world along with humans over the centuries. It is mentioned in every culture, and used as an industrial agricultural product for fiber, medicines, and food as well as in religious ceremonies.
Humans have been cultivating and breeding plants for certain characteristics, and with cannabis, different strains were developed in different geographic areas, climates, and altitudes. Cannabis spread to western and southern Asia and the Balkan and Caucasus mountains, and these strains, the result of escaped, or feral, cultivars (plants grown by selective breeding) were domesticated and bred to survive in local conditions, some for their psychoactive qualities and others for their hemp fiber and seed.
Dispensaries generally define cannabis as either sativa or indica. (Ruderalis, or hemp, is the same plant bred for minuscule amounts of THC.) Sativa plants are generally considered tall and skinny and known for their seed, fiber, and flowers. Sativas are generally associated with activity and creativity, while indicas are thought to be bushier, smaller plants and related to relaxing, couchlock, sedating effects. And most plants these days are hybrids, or mixtures of various cannabinoids, especially THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, and CBD, or cannabidiol.
Researchers have identified more than 100 different chemical compounds known as cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, but the only ones that have been studied extensively are THC and CBD the first identified and most prevalent substances in cannabis plants. But cannabis also produces about 100 terpenoids, or terpenes, which are bred for the fragrances they produce, and we’re just starting to learn how cannabinoids and terpenes work together. But the emphasis today remains mostly on how THC and CBD perform in combinations together and separately high THC/low CBD, low THC/high CBD and equal mixtures but nothing for all those other compounds in the plant.
Complicating this is the fact that cannabis, for the most part, has been illegal, and grown illicitly, without much regard for keeping track of ancestry or lineage, and you’re left with a lot of confusion.
What’s in a name?
Back in the early days of Napa Valley’s wine industry, legendary vintner Robert Mondavi was producing an incredible sauvignon blanc at his Napa estate. A world class wine, he was sure, but at the time, sauvignon blanc was about as popular as merlot is now. Meaning, it was totally unpopular. No one would buy a sauv blanc. So he called it a Fumé Blanc, and voila! Everyone would drink it.
There’s some of that going on in the marketing of cannabis today. Every grower, business, and dispensary is trying to distinguish their products from everyone else’s. There’s plenty of competition out there. “It’s a completely arbitrary marketing ploy to give consumers brand equity into that strain,” says Malone about how strains are marketed. “People find additional value because they can associate it with the memory of music or an image that will trigger that product. It’s a lifestyle, and people gravitate towards that.”
But research indicates that these terminologies might not be as accurate or helpful as we might think. “A lot of people talk about indica and sativa,” says Paul Botto, CEO of Lucid Green, an app that lets consumers know exactly what compounds are in their cannabis. “But they are too broadly characterized: sativa as uppity, indica as couch lock. But some indicas with certain terpenes behave like a sativa.”
Dr. Daniela Vergara is an evolutionary biologist researching cannabis genomics at the University of Colorado and founder/director of the nonprofit Agricultural Genomics Foundation. She says that the current method of determining how people might react to a strain is the best we have right now. But her research suggests that just because a cannabis strain in different dispensaries has the same name Blue Dream, for instance, is a popular strain in Colorado it doesn’t necessarily mean they are related. And she has found that the characteristics we generally distinguish as indica or sativa don’t necessarily apply to all plants.
She points to “The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp,” a 2015 Canadian study that found “a moderate correlation between the genetic structure of marijuana strains and their reported sativa and indica ancestry and show that marijuana strain names often do not reflect a meaningful genetic identity.”
A 2017 study at the University of British Columbia also suggests that there really isn’t that much of a varietal difference that would objectively suggest how a strain might react. “A high abundance compound in a plant, such as THC or CBD, isn’t necessarily responsible for the unique medicinal effects of certain strains,” says Elizabeth Mudge, one of the authors. “Understanding the presence of the low-abundance cannabinoids could provide valuable information to the medical cannabis community. It’s a high-profile, complex plant.”
Botto says that consumers are already figuring this out as we wait on more research and information. “Nailing down all those differences is what is happening,” says Botto. “It’s hugely important to be able to map terpenes to systems.”
Since there are no real testing standards in place yet, many facilities are only looking for certain compounds, like THC or CBD, which means the results can be unreliable. “What they say about a strain is not necessarily true,” says Vergara. This is really problematic for medical patients, she adds, since they rely upon accurate information to get the results they need.
“If you’re in a bad mood, cannabis can make it worse. If you just won the lottery, it will make you feel so much goddam better,” says Malone. “It’s the subjective nature of everything. Our endocannabinoid systems are different. It’s incumbent on you to find what makes you feel better.” Vergara suggests that consumers need to demand better information. “Don’t be guided by what people tell you,” Vergara says. “Tell them, ‘Show me the terpenoids. Show me the cannabinoids.’”
As consumers become more informed and begin to demand better information about terpenes and the way they react with cannabinoids, says Schoenfeld, “It is likely that they will be less discerning about the strain name and more interested in the cannabinoid and terpene profile of a particular batch and how it might benefit them.”
That might make that trip to the dispensary a lot different when you stop in looking for something to relax after a long day of work. “We have a special today on a flower bud with limonene-plus and touches of myrcene and caryophyllene.” Not as exciting as those Monkey Balls, perhaps, but all in all, probably a more satisfying experience.