Many cannabis consumers have at least heard of classic strains of the plant like Colombian Gold or Maui Waui, as well as newcomers such as Girl Scout Cookies and Bruce Banner. There are literally thousands of strains of cannabis that have been bred, many within the past decade. Overall, it is estimated by some experts that nearly 6,000 strains of cannabis have been bred by humans.
But what, exactly, is a strain of cannabis? Why is one strain uplifting and helps one to be productive, while another delivers lethargy that leads to couchlock and severe munchies? In many respects, the label “cannabis” or “pot” is nonsensical, representing such a wide variety of cannabinoid and terpene profiles as to be misleading. Put simply, cannabis is not cannabis is not cannabis.
With legalization sweeping America, fans of the culture are increasingly able to specify the exact strain of cannabis they desire, in addition to how they consume it. Flowers, solvent-based concentrates, and solventless extracts are all available and made from a wide variety of strains. In legal cities featuring vibrant medical and adult use cannabis markets, like Denver, Seattle, and Portland, patients are able to select a cerebral, energizing strain like Durban Poison that’s great for fighting depression or dealing with PTSD, or something like Blueberry Kush, which is more effective for battling pain and nausea.
Black Market Bingo
Sadly, those forced to play black market bingo can’t choose the strain they receive from a shady dealer in a gas station parking lot. They’re lucky to get decent medicine or any whatsoever. In short, states that embrace prohibition where cannabis is available only on black markets — the majority of the United States — provide patients and recreational users with no choice. Often, when a crinkled baggie of mid-grade (and probably pesticide-laced) cannabis is purchased, dealers will fraudulently name drop popular strains like Gorilla Glue or Mango Kush simply because they sound impressive, preying on the ignorance and desperation of their customers.
In actuality, not only the dealer, but also his or her source likely has no clue as to the strain of their product. Nor do they care. That’s what black markets and cartels are all about — and why regulation, even from inefficient and frequently corrupt governments — is vastly superior to dealing with illegal underground markets any day of the week.
A patient or consumer in a legal state like Washington or Oregon, who is able to simply walk into a dispensary and select a particular strain of sativa or indica, can much more effectively deal with their disease or ailment and its symptoms. Lifestyle users can choose strains that won’t put them to sleep by noon if they wake-and-bake on a Saturday morning or keep them cleaning their garage all night if they choose to fire up their vaporizer at 10:00 pm.
Unfortunately, an intimate knowledge of strains and their efficacies if of little value to those in places like Alabama, Ohio, Kentucky, or Kansas that lack reliable availability of those same varieties. For many in states where safe access is unavailable, understanding different strains and their respective efficacies is akin to knowing the temperature on Mars: It simply doesn’t matter. As additional states join the fray of those progressive enough to have already legalized cannabis for all types of uses, knowledge of cannabis strains and their respective effects will become vastly more common.
Indica vs. Sativa
The first lesson in understanding different strains of cannabis is to recognize the two broad categories into which they fall: Indica and sativa. These are species or sub-species of cannabis, depending on one’s scientific and botanical perspective. For the record, there is a third subspecies, ruderalis, that is common to northern areas of Russia and China. Because of its small profile, autoflowering properties, and limited yield, most breeders steer clear of this subspecies in favor of hybrids comprised of indica and sativa genetics.
“Indica and sativa are the two main varieties of the cannabis plant used as medicine.” — Hilary Black, British Columbia Compassion Society
The morphology, or form and structure, of indicas and sativas also varies, sometimes significantly. Sativa plants tend to be tall and lanky, characterized by thin, pointy leaves. Indicas, on the contrary, are short and stocky and have broad, chunky leaves. The aroma of indicas tends to be strong and skunky, whereas sativas typically produce a sweet, spicy odor. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules.
There’s plenty for readers to absorb regarding indica and sativa in the links above. Primarily, sativa strains are very uplifting and sometimes productively cerebral, allowing patients to get work done and lead active lives. The reputation of cannabis as being something that delivers amotivation, a lack of energy (“couchlock”), and harsh munchies (the overall Cheech & Chong stereotype) is actually a characteristic more commonly observed in strong indica strains. Sativa-dominant hybrids often add enough balance to the mix to avoid polarized side effects of this type.
Why would indica strains come to representative all of cannabis? Simply because they yield more during harvest. Gardeners — especially those in black markets — can produce more flower and greater profit from a single crop. Also, indica strains have sometimes considerably shorter flowering cycles during cultivation, meaning more crops per year. This is really the only reason black market cultivators prefer indica strains; their choice reflects zero concern for patient welfare or the efficacy of their product.
Fortunately, newly legalized states and open market economies are creating competitive environments that encourage innovation and niche products. With some companies focusing only on manufacturing concentrates and others specializing in edibles or tinctures, many of these products are increasingly available in both indica and sativa varieties — and are clearly labeled as such. Many products are also made from hybrid varieties. It is becoming common, in legal states, for companies to label products with cannabinoid and terpene profiles and other valuable information from independent testing laboratories, helping customers make informed, intelligent decisions.
A hybrid is simply an indica crossed with a sativa, or different race parents that reproduce to create a mixed race child. In biological terms, “race” is the informal rank in the naming hierarchy below subspecies. In this respect, a plant race is synonymous with a cannabis strain. A “cross” is when a cannabis breeder pollinates a female plant using the male of a different strain. Often, strains are bred using a high-quality sativa mixed with an equally charismatic indica. A hybrid simply displays characteristics of both parents, like a human might derive their hair color from one parent but their skin quality from another.
When a hybrid displays a particular trait or effect that is characteristic of a sativa, the strain may be considered a sativa dominant, or sativa dom that is basically halfway between a pure sativa and a 50/50 sativa/indica hybrid. Likewise, hybrids that stray out of the central 50/50 zone and exhibit too many indica traits are considered indica dom. Thus, on the scale of most indica to most sativa, it progresses: Indica, indica dom, hybrid, sativa dom, sativa. Many patients prefer indicas and indica dom examples, while sativa dom and sativa strains are popular with adult use smokers and vapers.
Examples of popular hybrid strains include Blue Dream, AK 47, and Sour Diesel. Depending on one’s desires for its psychoactive effect or their medical needs, hybrids can be a very nice compromise between an indica and a sativa. They can allow patients to deal with pain and nausea while also staying awake and motivated to successfully accomplish the tasks of their day.
However, just because two good strains are bred doesn’t mean that a quality child will emerge. While this is often the case, there are many low to mid-quality hybrid strains on the market (of course, many are also poorly grown). Several black market strains are also misnamed.
In the future, genetic engineering, driven and funded by the demand from legal pot markets, will allow precise cannabinoid and terpene profiles to be achieved in a great example of 21st century cultivation science. Eventually, strains may be identified by and possibly even renamed according to their cannabinoid and terpene profiles, not an underground culture’s tongue-in-cheek label for an up-the-establishment euphoriant.
Strains will be bred, both conventionally and using bleeding edge technologies, that cater not only to medical use, but to particular diseases and ailments. Just as CBD-rich strains are being bred to produce cannabis oil for sufferers of epilepsy and cancer, strains will be created to battle specific conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.
What Defines Indica or Sativa?
Humans understand relatively well the anticipated effects of a strong indica or sativa strain of cannabis. However, from a botanical perspective, what actually defines a particular strain as indica or sativa? Many readers will naturally think it depends on the amount of THC in the plant or how other cannabinoids, like CBD, CBG, and THCV, come into the picture.
However, it is actually not a cannabinoid that defines a strain’s subspecies, but rather a terpene. Myrcene, one of about 20,000 terpenes in nature and 200 found within the cannabis plant, can constitute up to 50 percent of the terpene volume of an individual plant. More important, it enhances the psychoactive effects of THC. Myrcene is one of the most common terpenes in cannabis and actually helps form other terpenes, somewhat like how CBG helps create other cannabinoids.
A particular strain’s level of myrcene defines if it falls under the indica or sativa category. Because myrcene is a muscle relaxant and analgesic (pain killer), its presence in a percentage greater than one half of one percent (0.5) defines an indica. Likewise, if myrcene is found in quantities lower than 0.5 percent, the strain is deemed a sativa.
With professional, regulated dispensaries and retail outlets utilizing third-party testing labs to accurately label their products, should patients who prefer a sativa ask for a concentrate or flowers with the lowest level of myrcene possible? Are those who seek relief from insomnia or pain best advised to request strains containing high percentages of this terpene? In the end, those in legal states should consult their pot-friendly physician or local budtender to gain more insight.
The issue of the efficacy of particular cannabis strains becomes even more complex when one considers the entourage effect, a theory about the synergistic interplay of 111 cannabinoids and more than 200 terpenes. Little is known about many of the individual cannabinoids and terpenes themselves, let alone exactly how they affect each other and the resulting medical efficacy for patients with particular ailments.
Some cannabinoids, like CBC and THCV, enhance the effect of THC. Others, like CBN, can dull an energetic high and its accompanying psychoactive effects. CBG, or cannabigerol, is believed to counteract the paranoia that is associated with certain strains of THC-rich cannabis in some patients. It appears to buffer the effects of THC, allowing such patients to consume medicine that would otherwise deliver a potentially debilitating psychological side effect.
The same is true for other cannabinoids and terpenes. The body’s endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids from cannabis, and a variety of powerful cannabis terpenes like myrcene, limonene, and pinene all interact in very complex ways, with varying efficacy for different patients. Each strain of cannabis is like a fingerprint, unique in its particular composition and interpretation of these volatile molecules.
The granular details of the interaction of cannabinoids and terpenes within the human body, expressed differently with each strain of the plant, will be revealed only if robust research and human trials are permitted by the federal government. As long as the United States categorizes cannabis as a Schedule I drug — meaning that it is officially and legally without medical value of any type and is a dangerous and highly addictive substance — adequate research trials involving humans won’t occur.
Without these studies, the particular strains and cannabinoid profiles that best treat the severely ill will take longer to identify and will occur in nations other than the U.S. Those undergoing chemotherapy or who are stricken with severe conditions like migraine headaches will further suffer without safe access to the best, most appropriate strains of cannabis medicine. Why? Because Congress likes it that way.
Photo credit: Tom Lauerman, Coloradoan.com
This post was originally published on November 7, 2015, it was updated on October 3, 2017.