What’s in a Name? Researcher Finds Inconsistent Qualities Among Marijuana Strains

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Strains by the same name sold at different dispensaries have significant genetic variations that could result in inconsistent physiological effects on consumers, according to recently released research.

Doctoral candidate Anna Schwabe, who is studying population and evolutionary genetics at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, tested 122 strains of cannabis in Washington, Colorado and California. She tested strains that were widely available — including strains like Golden Goat, Blue Dream, Purple Kush and Green Crack, among others — and compared their genetic makeup which often varied widely.

Her results were surprising, considering many growers think they’re getting clones of the same plant.

“I think, especially for cannabis, you need to know what you’re starting with,” Schwabe said. “It’s going to change from growhouse to growhouse. We want to reduce the chance for variability.”

In her research, Schwabe also did not find a significant genetic difference between indica and sativa species.

The genetic variation between cannabis products that are labeled the same is problematic for both growers and consumers who often expect one product with expected physiological effects and instead receive another, depending where they’re buying their products.

“I use the examples of Skittles and M&Ms. If you reach in a bag of M&Ms and get a Skittle, you’re going to be really surprised,” Schwabe said. “For me it’s really important that what’s outside the package match what’s inside the package.”

Schwabe faced significant hurdles while performing her research. Working on a shoestring budget, she traveled to Washington and California during her spring break. Because she couldn’t legally transport the cannabis across state lines, Scwabe ground up the plant material and used centrifuges at labs where friends worked. She also couldn’t bring the product intact onto campus, and had to prepare the samples off campus for later testing at the university.

Schwabe used an inexpensive dehydrator to dry her samples. Because the cannabis didn’t need to be spun all that quickly to extract the DNA, at times she used a salad spinner when a centrifuge wasn’t available. After dehydrating and spinning the strains, she brought vials of the prepared samples onto campus for genetic testing.

“It’s grassroots,” Schwabe said. “You have to get creative when you don’t have any funding.”

The lack of uniform strains that are replicated isn’t just worrisome for consumers who could be getting a different product each time they enter a different dispensary.

Growers can’t benefit from making proprietary, unique strains because cannabis is labeled as a non-eligible commodity by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and therefore not qualified for the same protections that farmers who grow a unique type of tomato or apple receive.

“They’re making these stellar new breeds and anybody could steal a cutting and grow it and call it something else,” Schwabe said. “Anybody can say they had it.”

Schwabe’s research was first presented to the Institute of Cannabis Research in April of 2017. Her work was made available to the public in late May of 2018.

“When dispensaries are taking things for testing, they’re taking the right thing, but maybe the customer isn’t always getting what was tested. That’s another point of my research,” she said. “I think it’s a cautionary tale. Just because the strain is called this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be the same everywhere.”

About Author

Lauren Williams is an environment and science reporter for the Orange County Register and has previously reported on public safety, education, public safety and breaking news in Southern California for publications in Long Beach and Costa Mesa. A graduate of California State University, Long Beach, Williams has been an active member of the media community since receiving degrees in Journalism and Political Science in 2008.

37 Comments

  1. Officious Jim on

    It has been true for fifty years at least that the name associated with the strain in question is ALWAYS just a name pulled out of someone’s imagination. Weed changes names just about as often as it changes hands and it will remain that way as long as there is a desire for the latest and greatest. If you think it is bad now, just wait until weed becomes commercially available across the land. It will be just like tobacco and alcohol, with every advertiser hawking their brand as the best. Some things never change. Maybe some day there will be some science that will define strains by their DNA. For now, it is the wild west and everything is positively true, no matter how bizarre the claim.

  2. I didn’t know what an Indica was for the first 20 years of my journey, and I spent plenty of time “indacouch”
    Always considered the issue somewhat irrelevant. What’s your best weed? Simple question. A lot of stupid answers.

  3. As a seasoned cannabis user, and being experienced in the legal market Washington State, I can tell you the same strain will vary from grow to grow same grower –
    Consistent, but still different

      • Flyingfingers on

        The clones do not always grow at a consistent rate (season to season – or even in the same room) and other variables such as the distance and exposure to the light source. Top of the plant bottom of the plant all have effects on the buds and then when they are processed for distribution, it all gets mixed up together. Growers know this and send the best part, of their best plant for testing. The test results from that premium part of the plant then becomes the standard lable for the rest of the harvest.

  4. Michael Schwartz on

    Today’s weed all taste the same but has different names and different smells . I miss the weed of the 70s Lambo gold aka Columbian, taste like Lambo gold , Thai stick taste like Thai stick , Mohawk in taste like more Hawking and so on so forth .

    • Flyingfingers on

      Yes indeed Mike! Where is the Acapulco Gold and Panama Red? Ahh – those Thai sticks, those perfect sweet tasting (folks said it was opium) little buds all tied up onto bamboo sticks. Mike remember the 60’s? Mexican Kilo’s (pressed together with coca-Cola to hold the stems and seeds together) for $60 bucks. “Lids” of weed for $5.00? (Readers are saying, “What’s a lid?”). And the taste completely unlike what we get today, was thick and unique sweet burned leaves. OH I miss them! If some grower could reproduce them I’m sure they would find a huge market for some of the best smokes there ever were.

      • Howard Tanner on

        LOL!!! now thats funny… I hear 70s!!! You forgot one of the most important!!
        Tee shirt of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers on the front along with various seed burns poppin in your face and into your crotch!! Ha Ha those were great times…

      • AMEN TO THAT!! THISE WERE THE DAYS. ONE DOLLAR JOINTS ROLLED UP IN THE CIGARETTE MACHINE… “LARADO”. YOU CAN HAVE CERTAINLY MADE 2 JOINTS OUT OF TG HAT ONE MAYBE THREE!! $20 OZ. NOW MMJ WANTS MORE $$$ THEN THE STREETS! WON BC “ITS A MEDICINE”… BUT YOU CAN’T USE YOUR RX PLANS!!! CASH OR CHECK ONLY! REALLY? WTF! SORRY FOR VENTING SO MUCH BUT I’VE BEEN IN PAIN SINCE 2001…24/7. THE MMJ 2ME IS OVER RATED AS WELL AS WAY OVER PRICED!! I TRIED ALL FROM JUST ONE COMPANY. NO HIGH WITH THE 800MG. THC. NO MUNCHES NO AFFECT BUT I DID FEEL CALMER. WHICH WAS GREAT BUT THE HIGH IS A BONUS WHICH I DON’T GET. ANYONE WITH ANY IDEAS OR KNOWLEDGE ON THIS SUBJECT? TY

  5. Greed took over just like everything people learned how to cross and the originals disappeared so really they are All hybrids and there good as far as which is which hey just try to get the best deal and the first hit tells you the flavor but after that it is all the same enjoy

  6. There are a few strains, Durban Poison for one, that is consistently different than any Indica. It’s also pretty much in the Craft category in WA. But the popular industrial strains are a mixed up bag of mess.

    But you can definitely find distinctive high quality craft strains if you search, but not in 90% of the shops that sell industrial swag.

  7. Dr. Steve Phelps on

    I stopped reading Ms Schwabe’s conclusions after she stated there is no significent genetic difference between indica and sativa. Clearly, my definition of ‘significent’ differs from hers. A first year genetic student would also probably disagree with her conclusion.

    • Gary W McCullough, Ph.D. on

      I find these results fascinating, especially given the severe restrictions on her methodology. Ms. Schwabe’s results may be taken with some skepticism because of the methodological issues, but to find no genetic difference would be the null hypothesis. Thus, no difference means there is too little signal to differentiate it from background noise. If Ms. Schwabe were to receive funding and governmental permissions to conduct the research we may see a significant difference (a scientific term, not a personal observation). This is really another example of the Fed’s Catch-22: 1) marijuana is dangerous and can’t be trusted in the hands of researchers; 2) we can’t let marijuana become widely available until there has been more research.

  8. None of this is a surprise, it’s expected. The only way to get an accurate read on the profile/effect of a particular flower is with accurate lab tests for THC/CBD and terpenes.

  9. Richard Marquez on

    No matter what the name,the strain,it will always come down to THC potency and an individuals biological response,brain matter,etc…how can any cannabis be the same when there are different variables involved? Like anything else,you know which flavor,makeup or DNA does you right…very hard to differentiate like skittles or m and m’s…

  10. Timothy M Sanders on

    Where to access Ms. Schwabe’s scientific findings should have been stated in the article or a link provided to access them online. Poor publishing practices. Where’s the editor/

  11. Now this would be a good use of government funding – helping us improve consistency, safety, and medical viability. Maybe even provide quality verified strains to all. Oh well, guess they’ll just continue ruining peoples’ lives instead.

  12. Question for mental midgets, ” does every tree you plant, spriut, grows, etc, look or smell or grow or feel, Exactly the same as other tree planted at the same time as the others?
    NO . Each is.inique, JUST LIKE WEED ! ! !

  13. I once had 2 friends that bought the exact same equipment & clones. One of them is always happy. Great energy, positive about life & an absolute great & funny guy to spend time with. The other is pessimistic, very negative & seems to always complain about something. WOW 4 months later the guy with the bad attitude had very lousy weed, the positive guy got show type buds & some of the best weed I’ve ever smoked. #all plants are alive

  14. Is any of this news ? Either most of the article or comments. SOSO. LOL

    I hope the Indu$try improves as it matures, kinda like the plant does.

  15. You can get a clone of a strain and still grow a different phenotype. Cannabis is a plant, it grows inconsistent and has a lot of different variables that can change its makeup. The medical properties are in the cannabinoids and the terpenes. If you want 100% consistency, it is out there… you just might have to look for it in different forms of cannabis

  16. Where in the world can you find natural accuring marijuana plants. If we tested those stains in a region, Do you think they world have the same results. From plant to plant, age of plant. This may support the research of Schwabe. If the proof is valid for different strains, the USDA must consider changing the rules for classification.

  17. I think of it this way. What is the difference between Minute Maid and fresh pressed juice. These oranges are all different from all over the globe. The fresh juice tastes different in every bottle. Minute Maid is chemically manipulate with orange essence to get the exact flavor. However the nutrient profile is different so they add vitamins. Then it meets their flavor profile and nutrient standards. Can his will eventually be the same once big business gets it and a bunch of chemical engineers.

  18. Cassandra L. Wilson on

    @FLYINGFINGERS. You said a mouthful there. A lid was 4 fingers……. Man those were the dayz. The 70’s weed definitely didn’t smell like the bud of today, but I have always liked the “skunk” smell. I lived 32 yrs in El Paso, Tx and the only weed you got there was what we called the dirty brown mexican weed. More often than not it smelled and tasted like gasoline.

  19. As with many meds and food. The best is what works for you. I’ve found consistency with specific despensaries and their grows. Different grow, different nutrients, lighting, curing is going to turn out subtle differences. DNA testing will be standardized thanks to scientists like the one who published. Remember, this is a New industry in it’s infancy. Keep your good strains that work, but try new ones too. Happy medicating. 😎

    • David French on

      This is probably the best article about this subject, yes I remember those 4 finger ozs.
      There are people going around the world collecting strains from all over the world so how are we really know what were getting with all the chef’s in the kitchen this is why it’s not already legalized I don’t know that 2 identical plants exist we are talking about nature not a chemical lab

  20. Steve Walter on

    My totally unscientific guess is the combinations of cannabinoids are what most directly affects the properties of each plant. Energizing, calming, pain-relieving qualities can be broken down into numbers and easily reproduced- much like a nutritional panel on food. I’ve seen very limited terpene testing, but I think the cannabinoid profile offers a broader view data wise.

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