Are Weed Strains Really That Different or Mostly Bullshit?
Weed dispensaries have popped up in many major cities like goose shit in the springtime, and an oddly stressful ritual has entered many of our lives: choosing a strain of the devil’s lettuce to roll into a jazz cigarette. The conversation typically goes something like this:
Dispensary lady: My guy, today we’ve got some Jack Herer, which is sativa-dominant and has a cerebral and talkative high, or Banana Clip, which is close to a 50/50 hybrid and will give you the body buzz of an indica with some of the effects of a sativa. We’ve also got God’s Green Crack and Mango Dream.
Me, internally: Hm, seems fake.
Me, externally: Banana Clip, please.
After sampling the bud (this actually happened), the hybrid Banana Clip felt suspiciously similar to a strain I’d previously tried, which was supposedly an “almost pure” strain of another variety. I also couldn’t find any trace of a strain called Banana Clip on the web, and I suspect I was smoking AK Banana. Just what the hell was going on inside this disorienting kaleidoscope of primo greens, I wondered? Is any of this even, well, real?
Unfortunately, scientifically speaking, weed strains are mostly bullshit.
What Is a weed strain?
But let’s back up for a second. For the uninitiated, a “strain” of marijuana is generally understood to be a unique genetic blend—a hybrid—of the two (supposedly) main types of weed, sativa and indica, with some additional tweaks. They all promise different physical effects. The time-tested rule of thumb for stoners, though, is that sativas have a more cerebral and wakeful high, while indicas are good for zoning out on your couch for hours and watching Planet Earth.
I informally polled a handful of coworkers and their friends, and most believed that the general differences between sativa and indica-dominant strains are real. Some said they keep coming back to a particular cannabis strain, like Jack Herer. One person who asked to go by “Doug” said they prefer “pure” sativa strains.
How did dispensaries influence weed names?
Notably, most folks said that before dispensaries moved in, they didn’t really care about which variety of weed they smoked—pot was pot.
This might be because, when it comes to the genetic differences between a strain of weed that’s supposedly 30 percent indica and 70 percent sativa, or vice-versa, science has already strongly suggested that it’s a big lie. A 2015 study by Canadian scientists looked at 81 marijuana strains and found that the reported sativa-indica split rarely matched their actual genetic makeup.
“It’s crazy, it’s absolutely nuts. I mean, you couldn’t run an industry like this anywhere else, except for cannabis”
“They call things Purple Kush, but Purple Kush does not mean anything,” said Sean Myles, a professor of agricultural genetic diversity at Dalhousie University and co-author of the 2015 study, over the phone. “There are so many exceptions, and the correlation is so weak, that putting a number on a bag and saying, ‘This is a 50/50 hybrid of indica and sativa,’ is highly, highly dubious.”
Most folks probably think strains are genetically similar if they have a similar name, but this too can be misleading. For example, “haze” varieties of weed are expected to be more sativa-dominant. But, according to the 2015 study, while Super Silver Haze and Neville’s Haze are reported as being sativa-dominant and deliver, others, like Domina Haze, are actually more genetically similar to indica-dominant “kush” strains, like Master Kush or King’s Kush. A full 35 percent of strains the researchers tested had more genetic similarities to differently-named varieties than to similarly-named ones.
“When you go into a grocery store and there’s a big pile of apples labelled as Honeycrisp, you expect that they’re actually Honeycrisp apples.” Myles said. “You can’t just throw McIntosh apples in there and sell them for $4.99 a bag.”
“It’s crazy, it’s absolutely nuts,” he continued. “I mean, you couldn’t run an industry like this anywhere else, except for cannabis.”
Strain names at a cannabis grow outside Denver. Photo: Motherboard
Do different cannabis strains affect me differently?
The short answer is yes—but scientifically, we don’t know how, or why, or even if sativas and indicas exist in a pure form.
“We don’t really know if indica or sativa exist in their purest forms,” said Myles. “In terms of what botanists have described in nature, we can’t get ahold of samples where we can be 100 percent confident that its a sativa or indica. This plant has been shuffled through so many human hands over so many millennia.”
We may loosely call things “indica” or “sativa,” Myles continued, and that’s a fair rule of thumb for describing their physical traits and psychoactive effects. But since nobody was keeping track of marijuana with the methods of a modern agriculturist some 5,000 years ago, we don’t know what a “pure” sativa or indica really is, DNA-wise, he said. Who’s to say what the defining characteristics of a pure sativa or indica really are?
So, “pure” sativa or indica strains are also probably fictions. Still, the scientific literature suggests that plants with more sativa ancestry have higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, than indica-dominant plants, which have higher levels of cannabidiol, or CBD. As for what these compounds do, many studies have shown basically the same thing: THC gets you high, and CBD does not. It’s not totally clear what CBD does to the brain, but a 2008 study showed that, in high doses, CBD and THC can work together, with CBD alleviating some of the anxiety reported after THC ingestion.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) & Cannabidiol (CBD) content in weed
According to Myles, it’s better to think of weed as existing on a spectrum of sativa-ness and indica-ness, and the most accurate way to describe weed is its THC and CBD content rather than its genetic heritage. This is how government-approved medicinal grow-ops do business. Bedrocan, for example, doesn’t name its pot after marijuana strains you find on the street, and indicates THC and CBD content.
For example, instead of telling someone they’re about to smoke Purple Kush, it’s better to say they’re about to smoke “Bedrobinol,” one of Bedrocan’s trademarked products, which has a standardized THC content of 13.5 percent and less than 1 percent CBD. It’s less fun, but at least you know what you’re getting.
Going forward, knowing what different strains of weed and weed strain names actually mean, and will do to you, will require rigorous genetic indexing, and standardizing the creation of new strains. Myles hopes that marijuana becoming more acceptable (and legal, at least in some places) will help with this.
“As we legitimize the use of cannabis, the science necessarily catches up—it’s not going to stay in the dark forever,” he said. “One day you’ll be able to go to a dispensary and get Lemon Skunk, and be sure that it’s Lemon Skunk.”
Or Banana Clip. Here’s to the future.
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Cannabis strains labelled "sativa" and "indica" promise different physical effects but scientifically speaking, even the “best” weed strains are probably bullshit—names like "Purple Kush" don't mean anything.
New Research Shows All Marijuana Strains Basically The Same
Step inside a marijuana dispensary in any legal state and there is a plethora of strains, all of them genetically designed with varying ratios of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) to give the user a unique buzz that caters to his or her specific needs. This has been one of the hottest selling points of the cannabis industry. There are strains for people who want to maintain a more functional, creative high, and others for those looking to veg-out and relax at the end of the grueling day.
But a new study shows the different strains do different things concept may be a bit misleading. No matter what the weed is called, researchers have determined that all variations contain relatively the same amount of THC and CBD.
“A high abundance compound in a plant, such as THC or CBD, isn’t necessarily responsible for the unique medicinal effects of certain strains,” lead study author and chemistry professor Elizabeth Mudge of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Okanagan, said in a statement for Science Magazine.
But how could this be?
Anyone who has ever taken a few hits of ‘Blue Dream’ and compared it something like ‘Afghan Kush’ understands that the two strains are vastly different in overall effect. The Blue Dream provides a chatty, introspective buzz that almost seems to give the user the power to solve all of the world’s problems, while Afghan Kush brings more of a body high with the ability to knock out bouts of high anxiety.
Still, the latest science, which was established following an exploration of 33 strains (both Indica and Sativa) from 5 licensed providers, shows there isn’t much difference in any of these breeds. This is even true when comparing the calming effects of an Indica and the mentally stimulating Sativa.
“The THC content can be identical between these two classification groups,” the study finds.
Researchers say their findings do not discount the idea that different strains provide the user with varied medicinal benefits. The study simply shows there is so much more going on than just THC and CBD levels.
Most consumers are unaware that there are somewhere around 100 cannabinoids at work in any given strain. But legal markets only require producers to show the THC and CBD content.
Meanwhile, the presence of unsung cannabinoids like Cannabichromene (CBC) and Cannabinol (CBN) may be doing most of the heavy lifting. Researchers say they even discovered more than 20 previously unknown cannabinoids during the experiment.
“Understanding the presence of the low abundance cannabinoids could provide valuable information to the medical cannabis community,” Mudge said.
Throughout the past several decades, underground cannabis breeders have been somewhat restricted in the types of strains they could grow. Researchers say the outlaw status of the cannabis plant has prevented the true heritage of most cannabis strains from being properly documented and passed down.
“People have had informal breeding programs for a long time,” says study co-author and chemist Susan Murch. “In a structured program, we would keep track of the lineage, such as where the parent plants came from and their characteristics. With unstructured breeding, which is the current norm, particular plants were picked for some characteristic and then given a new name.”
This report could be a savage blow to the companies out there pushing CBD-only medicine. While each cannabinoid has a specific function, dissecting the plant to death (CBD is good, THC is bad…all other cannabinoids are insignificant) does not provide the consumer with the truth about the feel-good powers of the cannabis plant. It is perhaps a testament to the importance of educating the masses on “whole plant medicine.”
Mike Adams is a contributing writer for Forbes, Cannabis Now and BroBible. His work has also appeared in High Times. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
There are cannabis strains for those people who want to maintain a more functional, creative high, and others for those looking to veg-out at the end of the grueling day. But a new study shows that all marijuana is basically the same.