Distinct varieties of cannabis do exist. Just not in the way we want to believe.
In 2008, the marijuana industry and cannabis movement threw their weight behind Barack Obama in his historic campaign to become president of the United States. “Yes We Cannabis” posters were a prominent sight at industry events that year, and a popular strain called Obama Kush was flying off the shelves in San Francisco Bay Area dispensaries.
I couldn’t help myself, I purchased my own bag of Obama Kush, but mostly so I could save the packaging. It was unprecedented: how often do you get to buy a bag of weed that is also a statement of support for a candidate who (we thought at the time) would end federal prohibition?
The answer? Any time someone decides to sell it to you. Today, if a grower thinks their Blue Dream could command a higher price, they could simply decide to rename it say, “Trump Troll Trainwreck,” and watch it fly off shelves. (And no, the irony is not lost on me that the Trump administration could be pushed into truly ending prohibition). Trump Troll Trainwreck is about as real as the majority of strains the cannabis plant is marketed as (despite me just making it up) because strain names are not scientific fact. Whatever name is given to the buds in the bag, that’s what they become. Trying to understand strains by their given names confuses the matter more — that would be like trying to understand human populations by using their given names rather than genetics or regional cultures.
It’s not to say distinct varieties don’t exist, just not in the way we want to believe, and a lot of the same stuff goes by a lot of different names. Sometimes, as genetic testing in the Phylos Bioscience galaxy shows, samples by the same strain name are genetically distant from one another. Some “clonal groups” go by a ton of different names in different places for the exact same cut. The names in relation to the genetics themselves are a mess due to decades of underground breeding, illegal markets, and our current Green Rush hype.
The human family tree is similarly a mess because we humans also are somewhat all related to one another. First names mean nothing at all, except perhaps as a cultural signifier. Last names are changeable by adoption, marriage or legal will. Names have been changed when immigrants adapt to new cultures, such as almost all of those that resettled to the United States over the last century. Names are a useless way to study populations of humans, plants, or anything else. By studying various populations in relation to their DNA, humans are just starting to translate and understand it.
Cannabis genomic sequencing, similarly, has just begun, though various groups are now doing it, and making their data public domain to prevent patenting of common use genetics via the Open Cannabis Project. We are just now beginning to understand cannabis genomic populations, but we will never fully sort this mess out because we will continue to brand our buds with fun names despite maybe never knowing true DNA, thanks to a thriving underground grow culture, prohibition-charged black market, and marketing efficacy.
But if strain names mean nothing, how does one predict the effects of a variety before they buy it?
Packaging And Experiencing
Don’t judge a book by its cover. A ton of people choose their weed at a dispensary by reading the names or by simply choosing whatever has the highest THC content. The most accurate way of understanding the effects is by the bud’s chemotype: or complete profile of naturally occurring compounds including cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids. We don’t even know what all of these compounds are or what they do or how they work synergistically yet, but we do know that all of them taken together are what create the specific effects in that specific plant. This concept of whole-plant versus isolates probably goes beyond cannabis to all plant-derived drugs and is explained by “the entourage effect.”
We also know those available plant compounds are altered by processing or method of ingestion and can be different at different times of day or different parts of the grow cycle. Two clones of the same plant experiencing different environments and lifestyles — or different farmers — can produce somewhat different chemotypes. The point being that with plants, and nature in general, there is no such thing as “standard.”
The effects of a plant on the human body are never exactly the same. Plants — like humans and every other biological organism — are never ever standard the way pharmaceutical drugs created by humans in labs are. Every harvested plant is a combination of two highly variable things: nature and nurture.
So the best way to choose a variety? While knowing the THC, CBD, and other significant cannabinoid ratios is helpful, let your nose guide you. Cannabinoids act like the fuel, but terpenes (the smell) act like the steering wheel, and have a large influence on what sort of high you can expect.
Biology Is Not Chemistry
While those smells might tell you what you should expect, other people may feel different from the same exact thing. Just like the cannabis plant, a living biological organism, we are genetically variant, unique, and ever-evolving human beings who respond to different cannabis cultivars in different ways.
When something comes from nature, it is designed by DNA. DNA contains the potential for what an embryo (or seed) can become, but it is not fate. Each living thing has its own unique genetic code as well as its unique life experiences that make them what they are at that moment in time (nature vs. nurture). Living organisms are not static things, they change over time and when they reproduce, they make 100 percent unique blends of DNA for the new organism to grow from. This means every seed, like every human baby, is 100 percent genetically unique.
With pharmaceutical drugs, standardization is everything. Pharmaceuticals come in consistent dosages of consistent isolated or combined compounds. For the most part, it is easier to become tolerant to compounds when prescribed in a pharmaceutical format. For instance, when using a pharmaceutical opiate for pain relief, over time the user will become tolerant to their initial dosage and will eventually need increasingly larger doses in order to achieve the same pain relieving effects. With cannabis, using a different variety, or blending varieties, is often more effective than increasing dosage. It at least makes me wonder if natural botanical opium poppies, from which the opiate compound was stolen and isolated, could be less addictive than opiate pharmaceuticals due to their ever-changing array of complete plant compounds? We don’t actually know, because we have never tested the theory.
A strain is nothing but a name, a cultivar is the unique harvested bud in front of you that is a combination of its nature and its nurture. Every unique thing must be treated uniquely.
The Perfect Strain
There are a lot of ways to distinguish the genetic families in this plant other than using the word “strain”. Some people choose to use varieties or varietals, which is a great way of referring to the genetically distinct families within the cannabis genome. Others tend to refer to them as a “cultivar,” taking into account the plant’s genotype (DNA), it’s chemotype (its unique blend of compounds) and its phenotype (what it looks like) and recognizing the bud as the final finished product of both its parents and its caregivers.
As far as ascribing too much meaning to any of this, we just don’t have enough information yet. Phylos and other genome mappers have discovered distinct families, such as Haze, that truly exist, but because Haze is such a large family with lots of breeding, inbreeding, cloning, and crossing into other family lines, it's hard to draw too many conclusions that are accurate to the entire Haze family other than their shared DNA — and DNA is a language we humans are just learning how to translate on all living things.
Herbalism is not pharmacologicalism, and there is no right strain, variety, or cultivar for anyone or anything. Humanity is not pharmacologicalism, we all sleep different, eat different, metabolize different, and prefer difference. The only way to find out what works for you is to understand what you can with what science is available and then try it yourself and see what happens. One day, if research is no longer incentivized by the sale of for-profit drugs, we might be able to make some more accurate predictions about the effects of all sorts of plants humans use therapeutically.
Until that time, we must stop looking at this plant like a pill. A lot of the hype around cannabis strains is based in the idea of finding “the best” or the perfectly matched cultivar to treat specific diagnoses. Pharmaceutical companies are pouring a ton of money into this concept, as are botanical cannabis companies. What we need is a greater study of herbalism — understanding plant synergies — in order to truly guide educated use by empowered human patients. If we truly wish to understand the cannabis plant, we must let nature guide us, and nature is not standard.