The cannabis “strain” is likely one of the most well-known cannabis terms today. We’re even willing to bet that you’ve only heard of cannabis varieties described as “strains.”
Unfortunately, this term is inaccurate – even damaging – and today we have better science-based terms to support cannabis normalization in our society.
As the industry continues to mature, educating yourself about these terms will become essential for getting the most from your cannabis experience.
So, if any of these scenarios sound like you:
- You’re interested in cannabis and CBD products for specific issues or desired effects.
- You’ve found cannabis cultivars or CBD products that worked well in the past, but you weren’t able to find them again or maintain consistent results.
- You have specific restrictions for medical or legal reasons (such as low THC, allergies, or medication interactions).
This 7-min article will help you understand:
- What is the cannabis strain myth?
- Why you shouldn’t use “strain” to talk about different cannabis plants.
- How do experts classify cannabis plants and identify plants for specific effects?
- Why understanding chemovars are critical, especially if you have a medical condition.
- How can you use chemovars to make better purchase decisions?
What does the science say?
In the modern scientific method, discoveries are verified by replicating experiments and performing clinical trials. Then, these insights are published through peer-reviewed articles.
We rely on the scientific community to inform us about everything from weather patterns to cannabis plants. As a culture, we generally develop our understandings and terminologies alongside scientific discovery, which can get problematic once accelerated through media.
Unfortunately, cannabis’s cinematic debut was Reefer Madness (1937). Other stigmatizing films followed throughout the 50s and 60s, with “stoner comedies” appearing throughout the 70s, 80s, and beyond.
Hippie, skate, and surf culture become synonymous with cannabis culture. Still, scientific truths weren’t widely publicized, even though research had continued since the 1940s.
This created a gap between our cultural language (aka “bro-science”) and actual scientific language.
Starting in the 1980s, the term “strain” spread rapidly throughout our cultural cannabis vernacular. It took hold, became the standard, and the industry mainstreamed.
The problem with this cannabis strain myth is that it’s so prevalent, even modern, reputable media sources are using this outdated language.
While seemingly harmless, this gap leads to misinformed consumers, misuse of terminology, stigmatization, and a continuation of other myths surrounding cannabis.
It’s no wonder new cannabis users are hesitant, confused, or overwhelmed!
So let’s break down this ‘strain’ myth once and for all.
The Cannabis ‘Strain’ Myth
There are 2 parts to this myth. First, using the term “strain” to describe cannabis is simply inaccurate. Ethan Russo, a pioneer in cannabis research, said it best:
“There are no ‘strains’ in plants. Rather ‘strains’ is a term that applies to bacteria and viruses. It is a part of the common parlance, but that doesn’t mean it’s correct or should be perpetuated.”Ethan Russo
Cannabis is a plant, not a disease.
These days you won’t find a serious scientist or horticulturalist describe a cannabis variety as a strain. Other cannabis experts have understood this for a long time.
Interestingly, the term “strain” moved from virology into common language, but botanical terms such as variety, cultivar, and chemovar, did not.
Second, cannabis names don’t provide specific information about a plant.
Scientists and cannabis experts understand that cannabis strain labels are often arbitrary and based on lore or marketing decisions. Researchers even found that cannabis flowers with the same name can have wildly different chemical profiles.
Same name. Different effects. See why this is a problem?
A Better Cannabis Classification System
This is why scientists and cannabis experts use scientific terms and classification systems.
In the past, the most significant distinctions between cannabis plants were shaped by their geographical regions. At that time, their names did hold more significance. These plants are known as landrace varieties, which are unique and native to those areas.
For example, Hindu Kush (Pakistan), Acapulco Gold (Mexico), and Panama Red (Central America) are a few well-known landrace varieties.
As people moved landrace varieties across the globe and selectively bred them for genetic improvement, new cannabis qualities (and their respective names) emerged massively.
Today, cannabis breeding has advanced to the point where defining and comparing cannabis plants by name alone is unwieldy, uninformative, and inaccurate. Even the popular “Indica/Sativa” identification system is outdated.
People are likely attached to the cannabis strain myth because of its simplicity. While this may have sufficed for consumers several decades ago, we live in a more sophisticated world today.
How To Talk About Cannabis Accurately
We now have the research, technology, and legal accessibility to support effective cannabis solutions. With over 700 documented varieties of cannabis, consumers need a better way to navigate, communicate, and select the best options for their needs.
So what terms should you use instead?
Variety, Cultivar, and Chemovar
We’ve established that the term “strain” is inaccurate when applied to cannabis, despite its mass acceptance. Instead, it would be best if you referred to cannabis flower as a variety or cultivar.
A “variety” is a variation within a plant species that occurs naturally in the environment. Varieties are often true to type, meaning that their seeds will have the same unique characteristics as the parent plant.
Since most varieties are true to type, iconic, regional varieties can grow and reproduce naturally for years to come (like landrace varieties).
When people talk about “cannabis strains” today, they’re usually talking about “cannabis cultivars.”
A cultivar is a cultivated variety or a plant variation developed by humans for specific purposes.Cultivars usually aren’t propagated through seeds. Instead, they’re propagated through stem cuttings (also known as plant cloning).
Unlike a variety, cultivars require human attention to grow and reproduce.
Cultivars are created by crossbreeding plants with desirable traits or selecting plants from the wild and improving them. Once growers find a cultivar with these traits, their responsibility becomes growing future generations that carry those same traits.
For example, the iconic OG Kush cultivar was created by breeding Pakistani Kush (a landrace variety) with the Chemdawg cultivar.
Now, a cannabis cultivar’s name may tell you a little about its origin and the intention of the grower, but this classification system fails to define plant differences on a chemical level.
This led researchers to develop a better classification system.
Using chemovars, scientists can now precisely identify how specific cannabis compounds interact with our bodies. They also understand that different combinations of these compounds can produce very different effects.
Chemovars & Terpenes
Where “variety” and “cultivar” are correct terms for a cannabis plant’s name, its “chemovar” provides a detailed breakdown of that plant’s biochemical characteristics (or chemical composition). These are used to identify significant differences between varieties.
Today, chemovar reports usually include cannabinoid (THC, CBD) and terpene content.
As a result, this chemovar classification system helps scientists and consumers better understand the specific effects of cannabis varieties in a form that’s superior to the outdated “Indica/Sativa” system.
In fact, after documenting and comparing the chemovars of well-known “Indicas” and “Sativas,” scientists discovered that their distinguishing properties lay in their terpene profiles.
So what are terpenes, exactly?
Simply put, you can think of terpenes as even purer forms of essential oils.
Terpenes are naturally occurring, volatile (aka aromatic) molecules that influence a plant’s scent, flavor, and effects. They’re present in hundreds of plants, herbs, and fruits.
In cannabis, terpenes strongly influence a plant’s aroma, flavor, and effect.
Terpenes explain why a particular cannabis flower smells “piney,” and others smell “citrusy.” Similarly, they explain why people seek some cultivars for body relaxation and others for focus.
Scientists have identified over 100 terpenes in the cannabis plant. The most dominant cannabis terpenes include:
You know what else is fascinating?
If you remove one terpene or “minor cannabinoid” from a chemovar, it can completely change the pharmacological effect!
This is due to another essential cannabis concept called the entourage effect.
Chemovars and the Entourage Effect
The entourage effect refers to the observation that particular cannabis chemovars possess a molecular synergy that influences that plant’s pharmacological effect, but only when left intact.
As far back as 1998, scientists had observed this phenomenon. They postulated that this ‘entourage effect’ helped explain how botanical drugs were often more effective than isolated components alone.
In fact, accounting for a plant’s entourage effect was a primary reason for developing the chemovar classification system!
We’ve reached a point where scientists can identify which chemovars (and which terpenes) are behind specific effects. Scientists have even started identifying which chemovars are most effective for particular medical conditions.
For example, initial findings in a 2020 Israeli study suggest that cannabis doses rich in the cannabinoid CBN may help patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Patients reported that after consuming this cannabis chemovar, they experienced improved symptoms and a reduced need for conventional ADHD medication.
What does this mean for you?
In short, you can skip those unproductive “cannabis strain” conversations, guessing games, and crossing your fingers for desired results.
If you know which effects you’re looking for, with a little bit of research you can make better decisions when selecting cannabis and CBD products.
Third-party testing facilities are now providing very detailed CoA reports to help with this. This means that medical cannabis physicians and dispensaries can provide superior, science-backed recommendations to their clients and customers.
Using chemovar reports like these, you can identify the cannabinoid and terpene profiles of your favorite cannabis flowers and products and bring this list to budtenders and CBD companies.
Educating yourself with essential cannabis terms like varieties, cultivars, and chemovars accomplish 2 things.
First, it helps our culture move past cannabis stigmas and outdated cannabis myths. Second, understanding these terms will help you effectively discuss options with your doctor or budtender and make informed decisions when shopping online.
Here’s what we’ve learned today:
- There’s no such thing as a cannabis “strain” – use cultivar or variety instead.
- Cannabis experts and savvy consumers select cannabis cultivars and products based on their chemovars.
- Chemovars provide a detailed breakdown of a cannabis plant’s chemical composition, including cannabinoid and terpene profiles.
- Already have a product or cultivar you love? You can find more options with these therapeutic effects by searching for similar chemovar properties through product labels or detailed CoA reports.
Writer: Hailey Groo
Editor: Karen Douglas