Hey man, what kind of weed is that?
Chances are, the answer to that question is usually up for debate. What makes a strain a strain is a very multifaceted concept, with genetic, cultural, and personal aspects. In today's rapidly growing legal market there is a huge demand for specific strains and effective analytics on those strains. Unfortunately, there's still a huge amount of uncertainty around the true identity of your average jug of nugs.
Genetically, the three species of Cannabis are Sativa, Indica, and Ruderalis. These three respective species have their own clear physical characteristics. We think. See, cannabis is an incredibly useful plant, so us humans have been farming it, trading it, breeding it, and generally adding complexity to its genetic formula for centuries. Therefore, any given plant starts from such an inbred nature that while it may display the general characteristics of one species, there's tons of variability in there.
The genetic profiling of cannabis is getting better, but it has been greatly slowed by prohibition preventing easy access to the plant for research. Genome analysis is expensive and requires massive sample sizes. Until recently, many of the universities lucky enough to have a legal cannabis research program were limited to their own small crops, or what could be obtained through complicated legal channels. Additionally, due to the preference for THC-laden female plants, the genetic data is skewed away from male plants, providing an incomplete profile. Overall, the hard scientific data and understanding of cannabis is much smaller than it should be for such an important crop- Thanks a lot, prohibitionists!
But what about traditional genetics? Grandpa's had a few plants out back every season since Woodstock, isn't that a good genetic record? Yes and no. While there are definitely small farmers who have maintained genetics for years, these records are by no means scientific or reliable. Many of them are stored in fallible human memory, due to the underground nature of the business. The original identity is also highly questionable. Even if someone has been carefully breeding what they think is Acapulco Gold for over a decade, who knows if the original seed or clone stock they started from was actually AG, or some sister variety? Also, there are no naming conventions in the traditional market, since every grower needs to establish a brand, a practice that has continued on into the legal industry. Why leave your prized plants with a generic name like OG Kush when you can call them something rad like Bubonic Chronic? These variables render most traditional genetic records useless, and at best give geneticists only general clues.
Since we can't easily look at any given flower's genotype and compare it reliably (yet!) we have to rely on other markers. Luckily, cannabis is overflowing with interesting chemicals that can be easily tested for. These chemicals, or terpenes, are responsible for many of the affects of herb, from the standards like THC and CBD that we all covet, to more exotic terps like camphene and linalool. We can now subject cannabis samples to a battery of tests to determine the levels of these different terpenes, and by profiling those terpenes, gain a chemical signature for that plant strain.
While terpenes are our best bet so far for identifying a strain, they are not perfect. Cultivation involves a ton of variables, from the weather, to insects, to hundreds of different possible options for nutrient mixtures, soil recipes, watering schedules.... it goes on. It's the old Nature VS Nurture debate. Take two clones, grow one in a backyard in LA and one in a hyper-technical indoor grow in Oakland, and you'll get different results. Control of variables is key to good terpene data, but also the variability of plants and methods is what leads to those exotic unicorn strains we all crave. Luckily, terpene data is easily gathered, more common, and in many places required by law, so the data set for profiling strains is coming together.
Finally, human error and willful misrepresentation takes a toll. We've all heard the story: the weed that I ordered wasn't the weed that I got. Whenever that happens in the supply chain, the strain lineage is broken. Some people don't seem to mind this, and pass whatever weed they have off as whatever that year's hot strain is. In emerging markets with less educated consumers and overworked regulators, this subterfuge easily passes under the radar. Combine several layers of supply chain from cultivator to dispensary, add a few dishonest sales pitches in there, and you might have a crop change identity three or four times from seed to smoke.
All of this is to say that there is a large error bar on any given strain definition, a strain is, to a certain extent, more like a family than a singular universal product. This uncertainty is even more compounded by the fact that the consumer and their reaction both emotionally and chemically to the product can be as varied as the product itself. Marketers, who need a simple rule of thumb to sell to customers that fits on a cannabis menu, can unfortunately further complicate the puzzle if they perpetuate folklore instead of science. Cultural hearsay and folklore have compounded over the decades into the standard set of "weed facts" that your average person knows: Indica locks you to the couch, sativa makes you creative and cerebral, more THC means you'll be more stoned, and the more crystals you can see on the flower, the better it is in general for everything from medicine to song writing. These are ALL misconceptions- the traits and effects of any given strain are incredibly complex.
Strains are what we all use for categorizing our weed, it's universal, and most likely the label is not going anywhere. However, we need to unpack what a strain is, our criteria for that determination, and how the massive data puzzle out there can be formed into some semblance of a universal method for knowing that the Blue Dream you bought is actually Blue Dream. There are many different groups out there working on this at the moment, and it appears that we are truly in a Gold Rush for cannabis data that will redefine how you shop for, grow, and distribute your pot.
Until then, here's how you can get a better grip on what your weed is: treat strain names as general labels, focus on terpene data, ask the seller about the methods used in growth and processing, and compare and contrast the effects of each strain. Whether you're a consumer buying pre-rolls at the dispensary or a distro buying a truckload of harvest out in the hills, it's on all of us to learn as much about our cannabis as possible, and accurately communicate it on down the supply chain. Much of the industry still operates off the original method of putting a nose in a bag and seeing how it smells, and for the moment, that's still one of our best tools.
Smell ya later!
-The OmniCann team
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