Open your favorite online strain finder (or enter any cannabis dispensary) and you will find a product menu with a list of strains as well various types of cannabis products that are classified as Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid. Many people have a favorite cannabis strain, for example Blue Dream or OG Kush, and wonder why they cannot record their use of this strain on the Jointly app. In reality, Jointly users can track their use of a specific strain, but they have to specify which cannabis brand produced the strain. There is a good reason for this specificity, as it allows Jointly users to gain much more meaningful data than a traditional “strain finder” provides.
In 2019, a database of cannabis strains called Seedfinder listed 14,348 strains of weed. Marijuana strains are thought to be genetically distinct varieties of cannabis, defined by properties such as “psychoactive and medicinal effects, appearance, yield, taste, and odor.” However, in reality the term “strain” refers to “slight phenotypic differences and branding rather than distinct genotypic compositions.” From a scientific perspective, the term “strains” is a misnomer because scientists only apply the term strains to bacteria and viruses. A more accurate term would be cultivars, which is a taxonomic rank for plants. However, few cannabis strains have met the requirements for cultivar recognition. Traditionally, new strains are created by breeding a male and a female cannabis plant. However, in the unregulated cannabis industry of today, many supposedly distinct strains are actually clones, making them genetically identical to one another. There is “a chain of events from seed to sale that relies heavily on the supplier, grower and dispensary to provide the correct product, but there is currently no reliable way to verify Cannabis strains.” Recent research indicates “errors in plant labeling, misplacement, misspelling…and/or relabeling along the entire chain of production. Although the expectation is that plants are labelled carefully and not re-labeled with a more desirable name,” researchers have found matching genotypes in different strains, “indicating clonal genetic relationships.” For example, samples of “Tahoe OG” and “Larry OG” purchased from a dispensary in San Luis Obispo, California, were found to be genetically identical. Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of Cannabis Research in June 2019 found that “strains with the same names, purchased at different locations, are often not actually the same strain at all.” Genetic studies have revealed that “the genetic identity of a marijuana strain cannot be reliably inferred by its name or by its reported ancestry.” Additionally, cannabis is “extraordinarily plastic in response to varying environmental conditions” and the psychoactive effects of cannabis depend on the growing conditions. Environmental factors like light, humidity, soil nutrients, and altitude can affect “how a person who smokes, vapes, or eats a marijuana product from that strain will physically react.” That means that a sample of Blue Dream grown in Colorado will not be equivalent to one grown in Florida or California. As a result, Jointly users can track their usage of their favorite cannabis strains, but in order for the data to be meaningful, they must specify the brand that produced the strain. This added level of specificity gives you a much better cannabis experience than a traditional weed strain finder allows.
The use of “strain” names for Indica-Sativa hybrids began in the 1970s with David Watson, who was the leader of a collective of cannabis growers called the Sacred Seeds. The Sacred Seeds bred the prototype to the Skunk #1 strain by crossing a female Colombian Gold landrace with a male Afghani landrace. A landrace is a “domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant that has developed over time.” As cannabis use became increasingly popular in the 1970s and 1980s, the number of strains exploded. In 1985, Watson advertised ten strains. Fifteen years later, Dutch seed companies offered 150 strains for sale, and “80% of them contained hybridized ancestry from Watson’s original strains.” Over the last fifty years, cannabis growers have engaged in extensive crossbreeding projects, rapidly hybridizing Central Asian and South Asian cannabis landraces, and largely obliterating phenotypic differences between “Sativa” and “Indica”. At the same time, the landrace ancestors indica and afghanica are being driven to extinction. This process has only accelerated in recent years, and “new chemovars are constantly generated and enter the market, resulting in thousands of different breeder-reported names without any scientific naming convention.”
Sativa-type plants are tall with narrow leaves and “are widely believed to produce marijuana with a stimulating, cerebral psychoactive effect.” Indica-type plants are short with wide leaves and “are reported to produce marijuana that is sedative and relaxing.” However, a “vernacular (folk) taxonomy of drug-type plants, ‘Sativa’ and ‘Indica’ has entangled and subsumed the nomenclature of C. sativa and C. indica.” The earliest consistent use of Indica and Sativa appears in Dutch seed catalogs from the 1980s. Strains are somewhat arbitrarily assigned to be Sativa or Indica, as evidenced by the fact that “AK-47” is a hybrid strain that won “Best Sativa” in the 1999 Cannabis Cup and won “Best Indica” four years later.
The debate on whether Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are different species has raged for centuries, but in recent decades the conversation has shifted to our current understanding: cannabis has different “strains” that are characterized as Indica-type, Sativa-type or a hybrid between the two. To understand why we classify strains as Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid, we have to go back to the beginning. Cannabis has a sparse fossil record with only two print fossils found, one of which is undated, and the other of which is dated to 7.3-5.3 million years ago (m.y.a.) in Bulgaria. However, DNA accumulates random mutations at a fairly constant rate, and using computer algorithms scientists have been able to determine when cannabis diverged from other plants species using a “molecular clock.” Humulus (hops) and cannabis diverged from a common ancestor around 27.8 m.y.a. Cannabis originated in Central Asia, specifically the Northeastern Tibetan plateau, but spread to Europe by 1.8 m.y.a. according to the fossil pollen record (or 7.3-5.3 m.y.a. according to the fossil seed record.) Around 1 million years ago, the degree of climate variability increased such that there were cold, dry ice ages followed by warmer, wetter periods. Cannabis “underwent a range contraction” during this period of time and European and Asian populations became geographically discontinuous. Cannabis shrank to small numbers and went through a genetic bottleneck, forming two distinct subspecies around 1.05 m.y.a., although at present the dating is not statistically robust. These subspecies were Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. Using recent DNA “barcode” studies, cannabis has been determined to be a monotypic species, with two subspecies (Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa) and six varieties.
How did marijuana strain finders come to classify cannabis as either Indica, Sativa, or a hybrid of the two varieties? In 70 C.E., the Greek physician Dioscorides published his encyclopedia De Materia Medica. He described the cannabis plant and classified it based on its psychoactive effects. Around 1400 years later, Ermolao Barbaro, a scholar from Venice, realized that the translation he had of De Materia Medica was inaccurate. He set out to recreate the original text, inventing the field of philological editing along the way. Barbaro coined the term Cannabis sativa, adding the Latin word for “cultivated” after cannabis. Three hundred years later, in the late 1700s, the eminent biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck was given a sample of cannabis from India and felt it was distinct enough from the European variety that he recognized two species: Cannabis sativa, hailing from Europe, and Cannabis indica, from India. Lamarck listed 8 distinctive morphological characteristics as well as one notable chemotaxonomic difference: Cannabis indica produced a strong odor and “a sort of drunkenness that makes one forget one’s sorrows and produces a strong gaiety.” The terms Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are taxonomic ranks, while “Indica” and “Sativa” are drug-type classification of modern cannabis products. However, Lamarck’s distinction is the origin of the categorization seen in dispensaries today. By the 1800s, British botanists had rejected the two species idea. The botanical debate raged on, but the phrase Cannabis indica was plucked from the world of botany and brought to the world of medicine. In 1843, William O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician who worked in India and popularized the use of cannabis in the medical world, published a famous article titled “On the preparation of Indian Hemp or Ganjuh (Cannabis indica).” Despite using the term Cannabis indica, O’Shaughnessy quickly refuted the idea that there are multiple species of cannabis. But, by using the “drug-type” plant name as codified by Lamarck, scholars think that O’Shaughnessy “picked up a word discarded by botanists and used it for advertising his paper” about the medicinal and psychoactive effects of cannabis. Over the next century, cannabis became increasingly viewed as a narcotic. The terms Sativa and Indica were repurposed as a “folk” classification of psychoactive effects. That is why all weed products are classified as Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid on a traditional weed strain finder.
Scholars argue that varieties of cannabis should be classified according to their chemical composition (chemovars), specifically the cannabinoid and terpene profile. At present, different cannabis strains show little to no difference between their cannabinoid ratios, genetic signatures, or terpenoid profiles. A recent study published in October of 2020 analyzed 2600 samples of cannabis flower that represented almost 400 strains. They analyzed both terpene and cannabinoid content for each sample. For cannabinoids, 93% of the samples fell into one cluster, meaning that they had nearly identical cannabinoid content. For terpenes, there were three distinct clusters. Myrcene, terpinene, and limonene were the most abundant terpenes in each cluster. Effectively, that means that “patients only had three chemovars to choose from in the Nevada medical cannabis market from January 2016 to June 2017.” According to Dr. Ethan Russo, a leading cannabis researcher and board-certified neurologist, “the differences in observed effects of Cannabis are then due to their terpenoid content, which is rarely assayed, let alone reported to potential consumers. The sedation of the so-called indica strains is falsely attributed to CBD content, when, in fact, CBD is stimulating in low and moderate doses! Rather, sedation in most common Cannabis strains is attributable to their myrcene content…In contrast, a high limonene content (common to citrus peels) will be uplifting on mood.” In short, different cannabis strains may produce different effects, but strain names alone usually don’t convey meaningful information to a consumer. Ideally, we would classify cannabis products according to their chemical composition. And the designation of Sativa, Indica, or Hybrid is largely “a simple nostrum to explain complex systems.”
We have established that cannabis landraces were genetically distinct around 50 years ago, but in the modern era, extensive crossbreeding has largely eliminated genetic differences. So, what does it mean when you find a Sativa-type strain on a weed strain finder? Effectively, Sativa-type means that the grower has deemed that particular strain of cannabis to subjectively feel more energetic, while Indica means that it subjectively feels more sedative. According to Jeff Chen, the Director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, “It’s the worst system invented, but the best we have.” While this system is intended to help consumers understand what products to purchase, this inaccurate classification system “results in a tension between how [cannabis] samples are classified (species, strain) and how they should be used (composition and thus effect.)” At present, Jeff Chen believes that “a trial-and-error approach” is the best way for a person to figure out which cannabis products work best for them. Jointly is the ideal tool to help you find which cannabis products work for you. On the Jointly app, you can find new products, see how other users rated the product based on how well it helped them achieve their wellness goals, learn how to reduce unwanted side effects, and track and optimize the 15 factors that can impact your cannabis experience. These 15 factors include your dose, how much sleep you got the night before, your hydration level, the time of day you ingest, and more. Jointly allows you to track all this information in one convenient location and offers actionable advice to help you consistently get the results you want.
As you can see, a traditional weed strain finder may not give you data that is particularly meaningful as “strain” is a loosely defined characteristic of a cannabis product. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a favorite strain or a perfect strain for your wellness goals. For example, if your favorite strain is Blue Dream, there may be a specific terpenoid profile in that brand’s Blue Dream that helps you achieve your wellness goals. You could try Blue Dream from five different growers and see how each affects you. Jointly can help you determine which brand’s Blue Dream gives you the most consistent results, which brand produces side effects, and which brand helps you achieve your wellness goals. You might find that one brand’s Blue Dream helps you Focus and Create, while another’s is highly effective at Relieving Stress.
Curious about tracking and optimizing how you use cannabis and CBD? Download the Jointly app on the App Store or the Google Play Store to get started on your cannabis wellness journey. And please share this article with your friends who are searching for a marijuana strain finder. Our mission is to help more people can discover purposeful cannabis consumption with Jointly.