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When you buy a bosc pear, you know what to expect. The same can be said for honeycrisp apples, red plums, and butterhead lettuce. But with cannabis varieties, the picture is a lot murkier.

If you’re acquainted with cannabis, you’ve likely come across strain names such as B.C. Bud, Kush, White Widow, NYC Diesel, Blueberry Cheesecake and many more. Hundreds of strains are available to cannabis consumers, but do those labels say anything or is it all just marketing hype?

It’s a bit of column A and column B, says Peter Grinspoon, a Boston physician and board member of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. “Strains can communicate what is biologically different about the genetics of one type of cannabis over another,” he notes, adding how a strain like Afghan Kush has been known to be a pure indica strain, setting itself apart from a sativa-dominant strain.

“Heck, they even named a strain after my dad,” he says, pointing to “Dr. Grinspoon” as a popular strain out of Amsterdam in honour of his physician-father Lester who has long been a cannabis activist in the U.S.

But the younger Grinspoon points out a key issue in the strain-name game: there’s no consistency. “One type of Sour Kush in California will be different from one in Boston, because strains are really about marketing.”

A long-time cannabis consumer might counter by saying, ‘But I can taste Chemdawg in a way that varies a lot from Blue Cheese!’ That could either by psychosomatic or due to the terpenes giving off those flavour profiles, which are not exactly easy to identify on the palate.

Researchers have studied strain names over the past years and their findings aren’t too surprising to long-time cannabis heads. Canadian botanist Jonathan Page and his colleagues analyzed the relationship between cannabis strains and their purported genetics in a 2015 paper, scanning the genetics of 83 samples of drug-type cannabis, and 43 samples of industrial hemp-type cannabis.

The report found a, “moderate correlation between the strains' genetic structures and the purported ancestry of the strains — but in some cases, strains that were said to be 100 per cent indica or 100 per cent sativa were genetically almost identical.”1 

Sean Myles, associate professor at the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University, has undertaken similar studies and also looked at consistency of strains in the cannabis market. In an interview, he said that his research revealed that, “strain names don’t represent the genetic DNA of that strain.” He goes on to explain in a third of instances during the study, they found that two different strains with the same moniker were more closely related to one with a different name than one with the same name.

“Strain names are confusing and usually meaningless,” he says. “Until we see double-blind trials to support the claims that this strain is called something, we won’t have scientific evidence to back up this marketing.”

Also, since there is no regulatory oversight on what a licensed producer or dispensary can call a strain, the public simply has to trust the producer.

Myles told reporters in 2017, “[Cannabis businesses have] been hidden underneath this illegitimacy for so long that there are no proper plant breeders or plant physiologists or geneticists and people working on plant breeding working on cannabis.”2

Some insiders have issue with the term itself. Ryan Lee, founder and Chief Science Officer of Chemovar Health, an R&D firm focused on the development of cannabis genetics, says in an interview that “strain” is a word that is incorrectly applied to plants. “Cultivar or variety is the correct term. Strain is a word we reserve for bacteria or viruses, such as E. Coli O157:H7 or Bird Flu H1:N1.”

On how misleading the strain-naming business can get, Lee uses the example of a Dutch-bred cannabis variety made popular in the 90s. “Once White Widow won a Cannabis Cup, it became in high demand on the market place,” he says. “This meant great sales for the original producers, but it also meant that growers who didn’t have the unique genetic, might have been incentivized to rename whatever they were growing in order to command a high price in the marketplace. Consumers that had never encountered the authentic plant were easily duped, because their knowledge of the particular genetic only came from a magazine – they had never seen the real flower or plant, so they were unable to identify an imposter.”

Lee envisions a muddier landscape going forward. “As the new regulated market comes in, developers of new varieties and cultivars will have to deal with the existing rules associated with registering a plant variety, as well as learn to navigate the restrictions imposed by regulators who might be concerned with industry marketing to a young audience through enticing names.” 

Also, licensed producers in Canada have to be careful about naming their strains after existing brands. A Las Vegas-based cannabis producer settled with the makers of a popular adhesives products company for marketing products under the name Gorilla Glue. As The Cannabist reports, “Under the settlement agreement, GG Strains and its licensees of the company’s numbered strains initially named Gorilla Glue #4 (additionally #1 and #5) will have to transition away from that name.”3

Myles shares his advice on what commercial cannabis companies could focus on down the road. “I want to see accurate labeling and scientific evidence on the claims of the label. It would be great if they cleaned up their act and started reporting directly to the consumer.” 

  1. "What's in a strain?" https://www.theleafnews.com/news/whats-in-a-strain-460328073.html
  2. "Marijuana industry may be tiring of playing the 'strain name game'." https://mjbizdaily.com/marijuana-strain-name-game-way/
  3. "Gorilla Glue adhesives firm reaches settlement with marijuana strain." https://www.thecannabist.co/2017/10/04/gorilla-glue-marijuana-strains- lawsuit-settlement/89321/

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