Cannabis Cultivars: A New Way to Classify Weed?

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What makes the various strains of cannabis so different from each other? What makes one strain creative and uplifting, and another deeply sedating? There are multiple ways we categorize cannabis, from indica and sativa, to THC or CBD-rich. As science reveals more about how cannabis works and the compounds involved, it's becoming clear our current methods of categorizing marijuana are not particularly specific. One of the emergent new concepts in cannabis is defining it based on "cultivars" rather than strains. This alternate type of classification may lead to more accurate labeling for consumers of both medical and recreational designations.

What is a Cultivar?

"Cultivar" is a mashup of the words "cultivated variety", in regard to plants. It's a term the crop sciences drop all the time and makes far more sense in relation to cannabis. The word "strain" refers to a type of fungus or other microbiological organisms, and there's no reason to carry this negative terminology over to the world of weed.

Cultivars generally come from clones and maintain homogeneity that way. Since much of cannabis comes from seeds, there's a huge amount of variance in terms of plant makeup even within individual strains. One cultivator's Sunset Sherbert may have bright green leaves and fruity aroma, while another may sport darker leaves and a hint of peppery caryophyllene. Although every strain has some hard-and-fast characteristics, many are variable to some degree. This makes finding the right cannabis product trickier than it needs to be for consumers.

Building a system based on cannabis cultivar would ensure a uniformity in plant properties we just don't have in this market. There are a couple of ways to divvy up cannabis cultivars, but first, let's explore how we do things now.

Current Methods of Cannabis Classification

Right now, the most popular way of defining distinct cannabis types is the indica/sativa divide. Pretty much everyone knows that sativas are energetic and cerebral, whereas indicas are slow and body-focused. This theory works well enough for most strains that it's gone unquestioned by most for decades. But any experienced smoker has also tried a strain or two which deviates from the expected effect enough to be perplexing.

Indica and sativa classifications have been derived from a purely morphological standard. The typical thin leaf of what we consider sativas may actually be due to a particular compound. Back in 1975, a graduate student put forward a thesis showing a compound called luteolin is a marker which predicts the long, thin leaves of sativa varieties in 99.9 percent of samples tested.

Even though we know what separates the morphology of indica and sativa dominant plants, we still don't know exactly how much the responsible compound affects the rest of the good stuff in cannabis. Opting to classify by cultivar rather than strain would eliminate this confusion.

Options for Cultivar Classification

So if we're going by cannabis cultivar rather than strain, what's the best way to define and differentiate those groups? A group of scientists from GW Pharmaceuticals has suggested five different classifications for cultivars, based on the primary forms of three of the most common cannabinoids: CBG, CBD, and THC. As a classification system, this would work well for medical patients looking to zero in on CBD or CBD, but it completely ignores terpenes. We already know terpenes have a massive impact on the qualities of a high and the medicinal effects of cannabis, so it seems wise to include them in any cultivar definitions.

According to a paper from a university in the Netherlands, all cannabis is cannabis sativa but that monogroup contains over 700 varieties. The study lead, Dr. Arno Hazekamp, took into account more than 26 terpenes and cannabinoid compounds to start off the study. The conclusion: The chemical ratios of the 26 compounds helped Dr. Hazekamp accurately match strains up to their Dutch coffeeshop counterparts.

Challenges to Cultivar Definitions

While classifying cannabis based on the compounds it contains would be the ideal solution, there's great resistance to the concept. For growers, it means paying for extra lab testing. Even in developed markets like Washington and Oregon, the only testing required is of the THC and CBD content. Adding in a battery of terpenes and other compounds would be cost prohibitive for most producers.

From an advertising and consumer standpoint, it's not going to be easy to change how cannabis is packaged and pushed to customers. Brands have gotten used to pushing products under the sativa/indica spectrum, and customers have become accustomed to finding what they want using those monikers.

Learning a new nomenclature and having to navigate a new field of products likely doesn't sound appealing to most consumers. But the benefits of classifying cannabis differently would undoubtedly outweigh the rigors of learning a new system. Those looking to have a specific variety of high or achieve relief from a particular symptom would be able to avoid the hit-or-miss results associated with trying new strains, or even the same strain from a different batch. As it stands, we're firmly rooted in indica vs. sativa territory – and more than a few people would say that's good enough for now.