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

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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