Have you noticed strain names slowly disappearing from labels on the dispensary shelves? If you haven’t, you better believe there’s a new movement afoot. It’s a shift to decommission genetic lineage from product packaging, transforming your favorite strains from their usual indica, sativa, hybrid classifications into more horticulturally ambiguous consumer products. Forget Sour Diesel and Gorilla Glue. Think Bliss, Focus, Relax, Clear. Now, you’re warming up to the world of tomorrow’s cannabis.
Whether you agree with this or not, the reasons why we’re heading there, and how we got here, are more interesting, and potentially more benign, than you might think.
Cracking open the elegant orange packaging on Canndescent’s Limited Edition 5-Pack Gift Set piqued a sense of wonder, as my fingers lingered over every well-thought-out detail. With an affinity for limonene and its uplifting effects, I chose Charge No. 509 for my first taste, entirely based on its citrusy nose and a desire to feel, well, “charged.” One flavor-filled, trichome-glistening hit later, and I was enroute to my destination, tingling with a newfound energy.
Canndescent’s flower is really quite beautiful, incredibly aromatic, with spot-on effect. It’s what any connoisseur of the sticky-icky would expect from fine flower, at times exceedingly so. Canndescent’s line comes in something the company terms “the five C’s,” “5Cs,” or “effects”: Calm, Cruise, Create, Connect and Charge — the latter of which I’m currently toking. No strain names, no indica, no sativa, no hybrid classification on the label as far as the eye can see.
“Over the last 25 years, strains have become increasingly hybridized so there really aren’t pure sativas and indicas anymore,” shares Canndescent CEO Adrian Sedlin. Holding an MBA from Harvard Business School, Sedlin employs a team of experienced cultivators — and they’re doing some things right. Talk to leaders cannabis wide, and most agree the rampant hybridization of cannabis over the last 20 or so years has created a murky soup of genetics, often filled with flower grown from improperly labelled seeds, sprinkled about with bits of lore and legend.
“Like the graphic user interface humanized technology in the early 1980s, Canndescent humanizes and democratizes cannabis flower by eliminating strain names and describing effects.” reveals Canndescent literature detailing the company’s vision of the evergreen future.
The cannabis community at large acknowledges this practice as promoting outcomes and replacing the decades-old practice of placing our faith in indicas relaxing us, sativas providing energy, and hybrids falling somewhere in between.
Because there are holes in that game. Big time.
What’s In A Strain Name?
“I predicted many years ago that we would be seeing these outcome-focused products and that’s what is happening,” says BigMike Straumietis, CEO of Advanced Nutrients, the world’s largest cannabis nutrient provider (also stakeholders in this magazine). BigMike’s seen it all, and when it comes to cannabis, he’s precisely on cue.
“[Describing a plant’s outcome as] indica/sativa is no longer accurate because I can have you consume a sativa that can give you a ‘down’ effect like indica, and indica that will give you a soaring ‘up’ high,” BigMike proclaims.
He’s right. BigMike and other leaders are rising to the challenge to more accurately define their processes and properly label product. In the end, it’s all about delivering consistent, reliable, quality goods to the consumer. This is where laboratory analysis is helping producers across the globe advance our collective cannabis vocabulary.
“To forecast effects, it’s really about the cannabinoid and terpene profile to give you the outcome you desire. Secondly, the average consumer doesn’t care about strains. They care about what the product is going to do for them, what outcome they’re going to experience — so why not simply tell them?” says BigMike.
It’s OK to be offended by the notion of banishing indica, sativa and strain names in lieu of watered-down, paint-by-number aplomb. I often romanticize strains, getting high while my mind ponders their origin. Space Queen is a particular favorite, a cross between Romulan and Cinderella 99, rousing thoughts of atmospheric sojourns through our solar system.
Growers, both noob and experienced, put a lot of time and effort into breeding and cultivating these beautiful trees into smokeable, pressable, dabbable works of art. But at the end of the day, while there’s a wonderful alchemy and a sublime magic to working with nature’s bounty, there’s also a great deal of science involved. This moment in cannabis is where it all connects.
“We’ve designed formulations of cannabinoids and terpenes that are guaranteed to deliver a specific health benefit, from sleep to finding calm to pain relief,” says dosist CMO Derek McCarty. Formerly known as hmbldt, dosist creates vaporizer pens that deliver precise 2.25 mg doses in six formulas: Relief, Sleep, Bliss, Calm, Passion and Arouse. “Many people are looking for predictability and consistency and our formulations and dosage technology deliver just that,“ says McCarty.
With all this talk of effects, predictability and outcomes, are we losing our connection to lineage and genetics, the heritage of cannabis dating back to ancient times? Are we steering people further away from a true connection with this plant?
“Bringing them closer,” insists McCarty. “Providing a consistent and predictable dosed experience is taking the guesswork out of cannabis-based therapy and making it a viable therapeutic option, which allows us to educate more people on the power of the plant and the endocannabinoid system.”
And that, right there, is the new speak. This is all about people. Specifically, more people. Due to decades of prohibition, there are new patients and more adults trying cannabis for the first time, also many returning to cannabis who haven’t consumed in ages. Our new language intends to help engage and educate people.
Imagine only being able to score Maui Wowi back in the day, whenever the hookup was around, and compare that to perusing today’s online strain menus or browsing the modern dispensary shelf. I can only imagine my uncle asking, “Green Crack? Twenty-three percent THC? That’s enough to get high, right?” before the visuals, introspection and crippling anxiety kick in. Maybe he’ll smoke less next time, or try an indica, or maybe he’ll give up and never smoke again.
It is indeed time for a new cannabis conversation.
Pot Poetry In Motion
“People used to believe that there were two main kinds of cannabis: Indica and sativa. Some people believed that these were actually different species, or subspecies. Maybe that was true once, but it’s not true anymore,” says Mowgli Holmes, founder and chief scientific officer of Phylos Bioscience, an agricultural genomics company based in Portland, Oregon. Phylos is working with breeders across the globe to map “The Galaxy,” or lineage, of cannabis genetics.
From archival landrace seeds, to vintage apothecary cannabis tinctures, to DJ Short’s famous Blueberry strain, Phylos is testing the DNA and genetic lineage of all the cannabis it can get its hands on — the more samples the company tests, the more accurate The Galaxy becomes. Chatting with Holmes about this new paradigm in cannabis via email, his response is enlightening:
Today, the cannabis in the US, Holland, and mostly everywhere, is a big mash-up of different varieties.They’ve been crossed together so much that almost every commercially available variety is some kind of hybrid.
So all the traits that maybe once defined indica and sativa are now mixed up together in different combinations. Broad leaf plants can be stimulating. Short, bushy plants can have narrow leaves. Whatever combinations of traits used to be grouped together are now scattered chaotically around in random combinations.
Now the terms indica and sativa don’t mean what they used to mean, and it’s not clear if they mean anything. Sometimes growers will use the terms because of the leaf shape, or some other agronomic characteristic of the plant. But that’s not meaningful to consumers—the leaf shape doesn’t correlate with effects anymore. At least, not much.
As the discussion continues, Holmes pontificates deeper.
Sometimes words stop meaning what they used to mean, and start to mean something new. As long as we realize what they mean now, I guess that’s fine. It’s just dicey, because grower-talk and consumer-talk don’t use exactly the same language.
All this hybridization has made the cannabis today strangely similar, even though it’s also very diverse. It’s like a grab bag of traits that we keep shaking around for new flavor combinations, but we’re not actually doing any real, directed, sustained evolutionary breeding. So it’s kind of like mixing a bunch of different beautiful colors together into a muddy brown. Kind of. It’s also kind of awesome. But real breeding will make things way better when it starts. The problem is preserving all this diversity when the real breeding starts. We’ve already lost a ton of it.
The original varieties, or “landraces,” from places where people cultivated the same cannabis gene pool for hundreds of years, are now largely gone. They’ve been hybridized out of existence. Loss of diversity, and of original varieties, has been one of the great tragedies of modern agriculture. Hopefully, we won’t make the same mistake with cannabis.
“I think the problem is that people who ruminate about indica versus sativa miss the point — when applied practically, they’re very useful terms,” says Jake Browne, former pot critic for The Denver Post. Browne also produces a cultivation competition called The Grow Off, which runs in multiple adult-use states. Browne’s competition is won exclusively through lab analysis, and every cultivator begins from a clone of the same exact strain.
“I’ve never met a budtender who says, ‘All sativas do X,’ because that would be irresponsible. Instead, these designations work as signposts for novices,” says Browne, who also believes that by democratizing cannabis production through the use of science, we move the community closer to understanding all the benefits and effects the plant really has to offer.
“Through that lens, then, the onus is on growers and retailers to correctly identify strains, not get bogged down in what percentage [indica/sativa] a certain phenotype is,” he says.
Responsible producers these days have many things to consider — compliance, regulations, operations — while their customers’ comfort levels are the absolute bottom line. East Fork Cultivars is an outdoor adult-use grow that produces more than 20 sun-grown marijuana-derived CBD strains. Founded by Nathan and Aaron Howard, East Fork specializes in cultivating only CBD-centric genetics on a farm that began on the medical side in the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.
The Howards were inspired initially by their older brother Wes who suffered from seizures due to a rare medical condition. Today, CBD from East Fork’s flower is incorporated into 14 other producers’ products throughout the state.
“One of the largest concerns voiced by new cannabis consumers is a fear that they will have an undesirable experience,” says Mason Walker, East Fork’s CEO. “By focusing on effects, we can offer some certainty to those people just getting into cannabis.”
Like many working in the cannabis industry today, rather than relating expected outcomes to terms like indica and sativa, Walker assigns the plant’s effects to the rich matrix of compounds (cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, et al.) existing in well-bred, properly grown cannabis, and recognizes experiences vary greatly from person to person when consuming products. Walker’s farm offers a line of CBD-rich pre-rolls in three varieties: Relax, Balance and Create.
“Through increased research, we’re slowly developing a better taxonomy for describing these effects and helping people find the experience they’re looking for,” says Walker. “We’re still only scratching the surface of understanding cannabis’s potential, both medically and spiritually, and with better experiences I’m convinced that people will have a deeper connection with the plant.”
But where will all the strain names go?
“The whole industry is trying to make this work, we’re just not there yet, and it’s gonna be a long time,” says Holmes, whose Galaxy now catalogues roughly 2000 strains. Like our own Milky Way spans 100 billion balls of gas and magic, with every star unique, so too is each strain cultivators grow, as are the millions of people who consume them.
“Every plant has hundreds of compounds. Those are interacting with dozens or hundreds of different neuroreceptors in our bodies. Every plant is different. Every person is different,” he says.
Making Marijuana Easy
Pulling from his background of working in Colorado’s first dispensaries, Browne cautions that today’s new marketing lingo, when focused too heavily on outcomes and effects, creates a slippery slope. “It’s dangerous to start attributing emotions or desired effects to strains because it sets users up to fail — if they smoke Bliss and get extreme anxiety, they might decide cannabis doesn’t work for them,” he says.
This is especially important when customers are looking to cannabis to help them mitigate symptoms of illness, pain, stress and disease. So Browne prefers a more pragmatic approach. “When I discuss any strain with patients, we talk about a number of potential outcomes instead of limiting things to a single experience.”
Jason Pinsky is chief cannabis advisor at Eaze, an on-demand medical cannabis delivery service in California that recently raised $27 million in new funding. Also cannabis producer for Viceland’s Bong Appétit, a culinary program that features recipes with marijuana as the main ingredient, Pinsky curates the kitchen’s pantry, where he not only showcases flower from top cannabis producers, but also highlights the full range of available extractions of each flower, from rosin, budder and shatter, to pure terpenes. He refers to the method as “from flower to fraction.”
“The only way to know what you’ve got is to look at the analytics,” says Pinsky. While at Eaze, Pinsky orchestrates numerous products that filter through the delivery service’s sales and marketing channels. Here, he recognizes a distinction between the more seasoned consumer market, which is warm to strains and the varied effects they produce, and the entry-level market of new consumer stepping into cannabis with far less experience. Eaze offers menus to satisfy both new consumers and cannabis connoisseurs.
“I think it’s important that people understand what the ingredients are,” he says. “Any time you go shopping in the store, you pick up a product and look at the label and you see the pieces that make up this particular effect. In the future, I’d like to see brands that are marketing products as uplifting or calm making more correlations to cannabinoid and terpene profiles that relate back to the effect.”
A Canna Vocab Vintage Vantage
CannaCraft keeps things rooted in the old school. With more than 150 employees, it’s one of the largest manufacturers of medical marijuana products in California. AbsoluteXtracts, CannaCraft’s vape pen line, uses the usual indica, sativa, and hybrid designations along with each strain’s name. “Someone who is not familiar with strains is going to have a hard time choosing from one of our 19 strain-specific cartridges based solely on the strain name,” shares CannaCraft CEO Dennis Hunter.
The company does, however, provide information on the effects most commonly associated with each strain while providing terpene profiles and information on their cultivation and manufacturing practices. “There’s a lot of information available and it would be easy to become overwhelmed. We’re hoping to prevent that,” says Hunter.
A look toward other agricultural products can provide insight in refining our cannabis vocabulary. The wine industry, for example, is often known for its history of language barriers, using complex verbiage to describe varietals and tasting notes. Just the process of tasting wine is often overcomplicated, traditionally keeping potential new customers from purchasing bottles at restaurants and exploring nuance of luscious, delicious, fermented grape juice.
It wasn’t until recent years that wine producers made a concerted effort to make products more relatable. It began with new flavors, new labels, and an updated vernacular — Napa Valley Chandon changed its taste profile, millennials rejected the point system, “Two Buck Chuck” hit the Trader Joe’s shelves — and the journey progressed with movies about road trips through wine country and documentaries about the trials and tribulations of becoming master sommeliers. Today, wine sales have increased among less experienced buyers.
“It’s all about education and rethinking what the terms mean,” says Browne.
Break Out Of The Cannabis Connoisseur’s Bubble
It’s important not to live in the cannabis connoisseur’s bubble — too many people can benefit from the plant to box them out with snobbery and verbiage designed to go over their heads. But it’s equally important to create an informed consumer base serviced by quality products. A global perspective is helpful.
Many of the items we interact with today, we do so because of their mass appeal. What would cuisine be today without the plum varietals of tomato (marinara, mole, ketchup)? Would Apple be a global behemoth if iOS was only available in the English language? These are products of human ingenuity, and they have transformed society.
And so will cannabis.
“The future of cannabis, at this point, is not only embracing the outcome-focused labeling and marketing, but also producing recumbent, fractionated and fractionated isolates of cannabinoids and terpenes using whole-plant extracts,” says BigMike. And he makes it easy to see why. “When you’re shopping for a specific outcome, whether you’re in London, Paris or Los Angeles, you’ll want the same consistent outcome and only recumbent, whole-plant extracts will get you that.”
It’s admirable that we’re working collectively to advance cannabis and its lexicon. Language, like life, evolves with the passage of time. Otherwise, you’d be reading this in Latin. Since I didn’t study that, I’m off to try some of that good-good Canndescent Create while the incredible potential of cannabis blooms before us.