When we head into a cannabis dispensary, we’re comforted by the fact that there will be enough options to make nearly any pothead happy. On any given day, I can walk into my local shop and there will be anywhere from 20-30 different strains to choose from. But what if I told you that in reality, there were only about 3 options?
When researchers tested 2,600 samples representing 396 different strain names at a laboratory in Nevada, they found that nearly all the strains could be traced back to only few distinct chemical profiles. There might be some slight differences in terpene profiles and with other minor compounds, which is what gives all the different strains their unique aromas and flavors and effects, but at their core, the genetics are nearly all identical. The results of the study were published in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research last month.
What that means is, cannabis strain names are basically all for show – and little more than useless for the consumer.
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Cannabinoids, such are Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), Cannabidiol (CBD), and Cannabigerol (CBG), are the compounds that react with our Endocannabinoid System, causing the therapeutic and recreational effects that cannabis is known for. Researchers found three different clusters of cannabinoid profiles when sampling the flower. In total, 93% of the samples they tested could be grouped into one of those three clusters.
“When analyzing the chemical testing data using a variety of statistical methods, we found that there was surprisingly little variability in the chemical profiles among the 2,662 dried flower samples,” the researchers stated. They added that, “except for the few high-CBD samples, all samples contained a very high amount of THC (>22% on average) and very small amounts of other cannabinoids;” like the even less common CBG strains.
Cannabis is a complex plant with over 100 cannabinoids that have been identified, isolated, and are known (and documented) to have unique effects – but unless you can find extracts and other man-made products that utilize them, we only get to experience a select few.
Concerning terpenes, the results were quite similar. Again, researchers found three clusters of terpene profiles which represented 59%, 33%, and 8% of the samples tested. Each cluster had a dominant terpene – myrcene, terpinene, or limonene, respectively.
The researchers said they assume that the terpene composition “is much more indicative of the sample’s origin and genetic background than the cannabinoid profile. The link between the terpenoids and the three clusters makes sense because the terpenes provide the colors and smells that differentiate the many varieties of cannabis.”
Terpenes do offer much more than flavor and aroma variation, although that is what they’re most commonly known for. They’re a powerhouse of medical and therapeutic benefits, and they’re not specific to cannabis. Terpenes are found in almost all plants, from trees to flowers to spices and herbs.
Naturally, this means something for the recreational market. If most strains are essentially the same, the only thing the consumer should be focused on is overall quality. But there are numerous implications when it comes to the limited capabilities of medical cannabis when only a handful of cannabinoids are being used.
“The three chemovars and twelve genotypes reflect low medical diversity on the market in Nevada during its ‘medical use only’ phase. Furthermore, the 396 breeder-reported sample names within this set imply a false sense of diversity of products in Nevada dispensaries,” the researchers wrote in their report.
The researchers also noted that the “lack of standardization” in cannabis strain names, saying that it “creates a confusing situation for patients, who depend on the identifications and potency data on the packaging. If the commercial names bear little consistent relationship to either genotype or chemical phenotype, then they should not be the primary basis provided to patients for decision-making.”
To make matters worse, they found inconsistencies in chemical profiles from one batch to the next, inaccurate labeling of products, and very limited testing data. All this combined “makes it difficult or impossible” for patients to find a strain that works for their specific needs.
“If the names of cannabis chemovars were linked to the chemical signature of their active ingredients, doctors could make recommendations with better confidence,” the researchers added.“ The lack of patient and physician education on the medical benefits of other cannabinoids and terpenes may be part of the reason why high-THC strains dominate the market.
Breeding Practices Geared Toward High THC Flower
One of the reasons we’ve reached this level of cannabis inbreeding today, is because breeders are creating new cannabis chemovars based on what’s popular, which is primarily, strains with certain flavor profiles that are high in THC. Researchers stated in their report that “all the other cannabinoids seem to have been mostly ignored in the breeding efforts, even though they have known or suspected specific medical values.”
THC sells, so anyone trying to make money in the industry will be inclined to produce and distribute product that’s higher and higher in THC. This becomes glaringly obvious when you look at how potency in cannabis has evolved over time. Since 1972, the Potency Monitoring Program has tested the THC of marijuana samples provided by law enforcement. The size and scope of the samples varied enormously, so it is hard to take the average reading as Gospel. The samples typically contained no more than 3-4% THC.
Today, the average THC content of the strains confiscated is anywhere from 18-20%, but in the refined legal market, you can easily find strains with upwards of 32% THC. This is great for the recreational sales, but the adult use market dwarfs the medical market, making it increasingly difficult for patients to find products with anything other than THC and small handful of terpenoids. At the end of the day, strain names and variety matters much less than producing cannabis that’s unnaturally high in THC.
Today’s cannabis is not what you would have found back in the early days of modern weed culture. It’s more potent, it’s prettier, it smells and tastes better, and it can get you stoned beyond belief; but there is one thing it’s lacking – chemical diversity. And don’t look to strain names for any indication of variety.
If you’re looking for anything other than high THC (sometimes CBD) strains with either myrcene, terpinene, or limonene; then you’re out of luck in today’s market, Hopefully by drawing attention to this issue, breeders will begin to see the importance of cultivating cannabis with a more varied range of compounds, and they will be given appropriate strain names that reflect their unique compositions.
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