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Do Cannabis Strain Names Actually Mean Anything?

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Mar 19, 2019   
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Fact: there is only one species of cannabis. Just one, Cannabis sativa. Another fact: there are thousands of cannabis “strains” available from cannabis dispensaries, each heralded for its unique properties. Confused? You’re not the only one. For many new to the marijuana market, the sheer number of cannabis types can be as overwhelming as the products themselves. 

But are these differences really that definable? When it comes to this question of cannabis variability, one group of researchers have given a consistent no. 

Published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, a recent study analyzed over 2,500 samples of “diverse” cannabis plants in Nevada. But despite being classified under 396 different names, the samples were far from varied. In fact, through DNA analysis and other means the researchers sorted the thousands of samples into just three cannabis groups.

Ordered by cannabinoid and terpene content, the plants barely differed. Even the most significant identifier, terpene levels, only split the samples into 59 percent, 33 percent, and 8 percent clusters. Which raises a delicate point: thousands of Nevadan patients rely on medical cannabis for their pain relief, so are they being misled about their medication’s properties? 

The question is a familiar one to Cindy Orser, PhD, the Chief Scientific Officer at Digipath Labs and one of the co-authors of the recent study. An active cannabis scientist in Nevada, Orser and her team at Digipath have been key to highlighting the discrepancy in the state’s cannabis “strains”. Back in 2018, they conducted another study of 2,237 flower samples, representing over 200 individual varieties, only to find that 98.3 percent of them were the same type-1 cultivar. 

Speaking to Analytical Cannabis on that discovery, Orser remarked that the majority of the samples “were identical by cannabinoid profile – they were all high THCA [tetrahydrocannabinolic acid]. So, no surprise there. In North America, the one trait that’s been selected for is high THC.”

A high THC content is usually associated with recreational cannabis, rather than medical. Certain studies have suggested that cannabis products with minor levels of THC can effectively relieve pain in combination with high CBD levels. But the medical properties of cultivars with predominantly high THC levels are still disputed. So, in short, it’s not yet known whether Nevadan patients are really getting their best medicine. 

But beyond the qualities of medical cannabis, Orser’s data suggests that there may be a deep divide between the supposed large variety of cannabis “strains” available to consumers and the more uniform truth. Because when differences were found between cultivars, they weren’t between the ever-coveted and advertised cannabinoids. 

“We were testing for 11 cannabinoids and 22 terpenes,” said Orser. “When we looked at the terpene data, there were three distinct clusters, which got me very interested in looking more closely at what makes terpenes responsible towards the subtle physiological effects that people realize from these different strains, even though they all have the same high THC content.”

Just like her most recent study, Orser’s research showed that Nevada’s medical cannabis only differs when measured on terpene content – a surprising result for a chemical group once so unwanted. 

“For a long time, producers wanted to get rid of the terpenes because when you concentrate them, they’re kind of unpleasant,” she said, speaking to Analytical Cannabis. “Now, we see products coming back in fashion and producers adding back terpenes, sometimes at really high levels.”

Known for their supposed “entourage effect”, whereby the compounds enhance the plant’s psychoactive properties, terpenes have seen increasing recognition among consumers in recent years, a trend that hasn’t gone unnoticed by dispensaries. Now terpenes practically sit alongside THC and CBD as users’ third most desired ingredient. Many Nevadan stores even group products by the compounds and advertise the plant chemical’s aromatic benefits. 

And outside of dispensaries, it now appears this terpene craze has even infiltrated the state’s medical supply, leading to the three distinct cannabis clusters. But unfortunately for Nevadan patients, the state’s medical marijuana isn’t labeled to represent this difference, and there’s also little evidence to show that terpenes have strong medical properties. 

While more research is needed to clarify how many varieties of cannabis there are in Nevada and beyond, Orser’s studies alone show that the state’s current classifications are woefully misleading. Despite being supplied under hundreds of different names, it appears most Nevadan patients have been receiving the same three cannabis cultivars that only substantially differ in terpene levels. As most medical cannabis patients have an understandable interest in their medicine and a right to be accurately informed of its properties, a call for a more stringent classification system is likely to follow. 

Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer & Editor

Leo joined Analytical Cannabis in 2019. From research to regulations and analysis to agriculture, his writing covers all the need-to-know news for the cannabis industry. He holds a Bachelor's in Biology from Newcastle University and a Master's in Science Communication from the University of Edinburgh.


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