Marijuana industry may be tiring of playing the ‘strain name game’

By Omar Sacirbey

Many marijuana businesses sell goods based on strain names, but those days could be coming to an end.

More industry participants seemingly are starting to view strain names as unreliable indicators of a plant’s genetics and what types of cannabinoids are actually present in marijuana products.

According to industry observers, maturing marijuana businesses and more sophisticated consumers are seeking more exacting information than popular strain names.

Julianna Carella – CEO of Auntie Dolores edibles in Oakland, California – said she avoids strain names in deference to cannabinoid profiles.

“We tend to shy away from that (breed) approach because we don’t think it’s real solid,” Carella said. “The strain name game is on its way out.”

She gets no argument from Autumn Karcey, president of Cultivo, a Los Angeles cultivation consultancy.

“Plants – even within the same strain – don’t always come out the same. This is why the term ‘strain’ is a thorn in my side, because it means absolutely nothing,” Karcey said.

“I can take Sour Diesel from four of my friends and I can take Mimosa or Clementine from multiple people, and if I genomically test it, it’s going to be drastically different from person to person unless they all have the same cut.”

Agricultural scientists like Sean Myles of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, are doing their best to show strain names out the door.

Myles and fellow scientists found a remarkably low level of accuracy in strain names last year while comparing hundreds of cannabis plants and their breeds.

The study found that in about one-third of the cases where they had two producers with the same strain name, the cannabis samples weren’t genetically identical – which one would expect if they were bred properly.

“There were lots of varieties of cannabis (in the study sample) that were claimed to be 100% sativa, but the next one in the collection claimed to be 100% indica,” Myles said. “We know that’s impossible and that was really common in the data set.”

Reasons for discrepancies

Why are cannabis genetics so inaccurate?

“Lack of official structures … When you breed a new grape variety, you can’t just make any claims you want. You can’t just release it onto the market,” Myles said, explaining that data on grapes comes from a university or government breeding program, where such assertions must be evaluated.

But marijuana businesses largely aren’t subject to industrywide codes – especially in the United States, where the plant remains illegal at the federal level and therefore is difficult to standardize.

“It’s just been hidden underneath this illegitimacy for so long,” Myles said, “that there are no proper plant breeders or plant physiologists or geneticists and people working on plant breeding working on cannabis.”

But that situation’s changing as testing laboratories become part of the cannabis landscape and as more plant scientists join the industry.

“This way of operating is coming to an end,” Myles said, “because there are more empirically driven people in the industry now.”

Consumer demands

Instead of strain names, a growing number of consumers are asking that cannabis labeling include cannabinoid profiles.

“If people start speaking in terms of cannabinoid profiles instead of strains, it’ll make a lot more sense,” Cultivo’s Karcey said. “The future of medicine is cannabinoid profiles.

“That’s how you should treat a sick person – they shouldn’t be walking into a dispensary and just picking something off the shelf and hoping that it works.”

Some marijuana labeling already contains cannabinoid profiling, like the amount of THC or CBD a product may have. But those labels lack information about other cannabinoids and terpenes that may influence the effect a product is supposed to induce.

“What is out there is very limited – maybe just THC or CBD content and maybe two or three other cannabinoids – and most of the other cannabinoids that would help an educated consumer make a decision are left off,” said Amanda Rigdon, chief technical officer at Emerald Scientific, a testing lab in San Luis Obispo, California.

“The labels that I’ve seen really don’t give patients enough information about (cannabinoid) profiles to make an informed decision about what they want to buy.”

Business demands

The push for cannabinoid profiles is also coming from growers and producers who are clamoring for legitimacy.

Myles pointed to MMJ producer Bedrocan, which no longer uses street strain names and, instead, assigns its own names to plants.

California cultivator Canndescent has moved to what it calls an “effects-based classification system.”

“(Marijuana businesses) will be a lot more careful about maintaining unique genetic identities over time,” Myles said. “But with the capital that’s being invested and the new talent that’s being drawn into the industry, there’s no doubt that we’ll see improvements, having genetic identities that are verified and true to type.”

Despite the unreliability of strain names, some say they still have a place in the cannabis landscape.

“I don’t think strain names are just going to go away,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the Denver-based National Cannabis Industry Association. “Consumers are definitely becoming more aware of the cannabinoid profile – the information that’s on packaging that’s pretty much anywhere now – and that informs more decisions.”

“We’ll still see strain names, but with a move to consistency.”

There likely will be a branding element where strain names would represent a chemical name – in the way Tylenol represents acetaminophen and Advil represents ibuprofen.

Of the growing number of cannabis industry executives who believe strain names are unreliable, some see a future without strain names and others envision a more defined role for the monikers.

The industry doesn’t necessarily have to do away with strains, Rigdon said. Rather, if you’re going to have a strain name, make sure it’s defined by chemical compounds.

“But for that to happen,” she said, “we need agreement in the industry on what profiles strains should have. And we’re a long way off from even meeting on that.”

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at [email protected]

9 comments on “Marijuana industry may be tiring of playing the ‘strain name game’
  1. Travis Bliss, Ph.D., Esq. on

    Strain (a.k.a. cultivar) names will become much more important as more breeders move to obtain plant patent protection on their newly-developed cultivars. Once that occurs, this industry will become like other plant based industries where a plant that is identified as a particular variety is actually an asexual clone of – and therefore genetically identical to – the initial plant that was bred, tested, and patented. That is how it has worked in the hops industry, for example, for many years. For instance if you buy Amarillo hops, that is actually an asexual clone of the original Amarillo hops plant, which is patented as U.S. Plant Patent No. 14,127. Once the cannabis industry moves in that direction, the strain name that is listed will become much more meaningful because consumers can have some certainty that a particular variety is the same regardless of who grew it and where it is purchased.

    Reply
    • Dakota Lally on

      I will be conducting a lot more research into patenting of these plants now, after reading your comment. I have watched numerous “documentary” films on YouTube about cannabis prohibition, industrial hemp, conspiracy theories and other stuff, usually just to fill time.
      Something I distinctly remember though, was that multiple films stated that plants couldn’t be patented, so pharmaceutical companies would lobby for continued prohibition. I have read numerous articles about plants, growing plants for profit, etc. and the topic of patents always came up. I have no idea why I didn’t spot this glaring inconsistency before. Clearly plants can be patented, or at least their cultivars, so something is amiss in these films.

      Reply
      • Travis Bliss, Ph.D., Esq. on

        I believe it is a very common misconception that cannabis plants cannot be patented. In reality, several patents covering new cannabis cultivars have been issued in the past year. And that is starting to become a growing part of my legal practice.

        Reply
  2. CJ Schwartz on

    One note: Annuals, such as Cannabis, are seldom economically feasible to grow from clones. Perennials, such as hops, make financial sense due to multiple years of production without replanting.

    As a separate note, a number of companies, including Marigene, use DNA to unambiguously classify strains.

    Reply
    • Travis Bliss, Ph.D., Esq. on

      Interestingly many annuals, such as Impatiens, are actually patented varieties that are clonally reproduced despite the fact that they are relatively inexpensive. So if it can be economically feasible for such inexpensive plants as those, it certainly could be economically feasible for a plant as valuable as cannabis.

      Reply
  3. Steven Baugh on

    I agree with Travis above, but would like to add that botanical products and the plants they are made from are already undergoing a bit of an identity crisis, that is how should we identify them? The botanist and their definition of specicies are based on visual cues, predating chemical profiling and genetics. Then I feel come genetics. Still describing the plant, but not the product that people actually consume. The DA for New York found this out when he applied genetic testing to finished dietary supplement products and failed them all. Genetic material doesn’t make it into the finished product, or the blood stream. It is the chemicals present, and their various combinations (entourage effect) that determine the patient outcome. I represent chemical profiling, and feel that the chemical profile represents what the customer actually takes. And as you can see from this article even the genetics don’t determine the chemical profile. So I feel that chemical profiling is important when we talk finished products that people actually consume. It is my opinion that genetics is the starting point of determining the range of chemical profiles that the plant can make. Growing conditions, harvest time, drying and extraction/processing play an important role in determining the chemistry, and pharmacognosy, of the finished product that is consumed. That is where the magic lies. All things mentioned are important in the process, but we must measure and standardize the product that is administered, not only the plant it comes from.

    Reply
  4. Michael Piotrowski on

    “But with the capital that’s being invested and the new talent that’s being drawn into the industry, there’s no doubt that we’ll see improvements, having genetic identities that are verified and true to type.”

    Also with the new capital and new “talent” (what is that and where does it come from, anyway?) you get a ton of people who think they know stuff about growing and marketing pot, but are very clueless in actuality.

    “Strain (a.k.a. cultivar) names will become much more important as more breeders move to obtain plant patent protection on their newly-developed cultivars. Once that occurs, this industry will become like other plant based industries where a plant that is identified as a particular variety is actually an asexual clone of – and therefore genetically identical to – the initial plant that was bred, tested, and patented.”

    In other words the standard corporate model. It may run into difficulty, though as patents might be really hard to come by, since newcomers with money still won’t be able to claim that their variety is/was a result of their breeding alone, since so many people have contributed efforts, and none can claim sole responsibility for any given strain.

    I know I’d challenge any patents claimed by a corporate body as constituting prior art and is therefore unpatentable.

    Anyway, the only way you get that sort of standardization to happen is to strictly use clones, for some, a product that is acceptable and okay, but for others lacking in complexities and flavors.

    Indoor clone grows are the equivalent of beer: reliable, cheap, and pretty tasty at times, but nothing to rhapsodize over, save for the microbrews and craft beers.

    Outdoor grows take longer, and are more like wines, developing complexities and peculiarities tied to soil, climate, and a multitude of interactions with the environment, so that seeds from the same plant may yield crops that vary in flavor and strength from year to year.

    So I doubt that it will come to pass in that manner.

    I’ve long said that pot names were very subjective and iffy when they strayed from obvious characteristics: Blueberry strains names are fine so long as the buds smell like blueberries, even though the effects will vary according to where and how grown, the flavors are similar.

    Other fanciful names like Gorilla Glue (generic name for any super-sticky bud, I’d wager that if you picked any dozen buds referred to by that name you’ve have at least six different genetics) are ok for describing a particular characteristic and what it infers.

    Basically, naming conventions have been localized regionally and seasonally adequately enough for consumers to determine their preferences, and ultimately the names don’t matter as much more than a general guide.

    Flavor and effect are the ultimate determining factors, not names.

    I forsee the market diverging into mass market corporate clone grows (beer varietals for the undiscerning consumers) and small boutique growers who sell more complex and more variable grows in smaller quantities to a more sophisticated clientele who demand more from their smoke.

    “Once the cannabis industry moves in that direction, the strain name that is listed will become much more meaningful because consumers can have some certainty that a particular variety is the same regardless of who grew it and where it is purchased.”

    Only in the sense of knowing that a Pinot Grigio, Burgundy, and Medoc are reliably a certain type of grape that yields a certain type of wine. But who grew it and where it was grown makes all the difference in the world.

    If it’s the same no matter who grew it and where, then chances are it will be a blandly inferior corporate product.

    Reply
  5. Rm3 on

    As a breeder I will continue to name my strains, though I have also added a number tag to be used as an option to kid friendly names.

    Reply
  6. David Haar on

    It seems certain that names and naming conventions will become more and more important and sooner rather than later. But it does seem like it’s going to be a painful process that will produce a not universally liked outcome.
    I’m curious how this is handled in eastern herbal medicines. I suspect there’s less emphasis on the chemical compounds, etc from one tea to the next.
    That said, bridging the divide between the vagaries of plant-based medicines and the certainties of lab-created chemicals feels impossible. As has been pointed out, growing, harvesting, curing and handling are certain to have an impact on potency and efficacy regardless of the purity of the strain. Now and forever. It’s one thing when you’re dealing with, say, wine where the difference between a good and bad Merlot is in the enjoyment. Big leap when that difference is in the pharmacological value.
    But I’m a marketing guy and so it seems inevitable to me that we’ll have brands that confer a certain meaning. Yes, it’s Ibuprofin, but you like Motrin and I choose Advil. Hopefully and presumably, the makers of each will produce a consistent product. But there will be a standard/minimum/range for what ‘the Industry’ agrees is Ibuprofin.

    Reply

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