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Study says cannabis strains might not be unique or reliable

Published Mar 17, 2021 11:00 a.m. ET
iStock / Yaman Mutart

When you arrive at a modern cannabis dispensary, you’re greeted with a host of different options to choose from, generally divided and labeled by strain. This upscale experience is just one of the many perks of legalization. Instead of buying whatever your dealer has on hand, you can shape, alter, and control every step of the journey, and it all starts with a strain name, or so they say.

Weed names are highly marketed for effects

We’re taught that certain cannabis strains can make you sleepy, while others can leave you feeling chipper and even motivated, and that the terpenes play an important role in the process. Though all of this is definitely true to some extent, as it comes back with scientific evidence to prove it, the idea that every single strain that’s out there will offer entirely unique chemical components is one that’s now being contested by scientists who say that they’re probably a lot more similar than we realize.

The study

Researchers from Nevada have released the results of their survey of 2,600 medical cannabis flower samples, which were gathered from multiple sources over the course of 2016 and 2017. In total, the number of strains represented in the study was 400, and all samples were closely analyzed to find out how many distinct chemical varieties existed within the group.

The results of this research stunned everyone including the experts involved when it showed that there were only 3 distinct chemical varieties of cannabis among the 2,600 tested samples, consisting of more than 400 different strains. This study, which was published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research in October of 2020, utilized third-party testing to detect terpenes, cannabinoids, and chemical compounds within each sample, providing an incredible level of accuracy.

According to the study’s description, the principal components making up each sample were used by the lab to detect clusters in data sets representing 3 categories, only terpenoids, only cannabinoids, and both terpenoids and cannabinoids. Where cannabinoids were the only thing to be considered, 93% of all tested medicinal cannabis samples fell into the same cluster, with eerily similar chemical makeup, and only 2 high CBD strains falling outside the norm.

For terpenes, a total of 3 clusters were considered, including myrcene, limonene, and terpinene. 59% of tested cannabis strains fell into the myrcene cluster, 33% the terpinene, and 8% the limonene.  This data suggests that we have far fewer options when it comes to cannabis than most of us believed, as so many despite sporting different weed names, produce a similar chemical makeup, and this makes sense when you look at how cannabis is cultivated on a commercial scale today.


Commercially cultivated cannabis plants today are generally produced through a process called cloning, as this type of propagation guarantees that all plants are genetically identical to a mother plant. We have hundreds of new strains hitting the market each year, cultivated by growers who are all using the same strains as well as similar techniques, and they all release their priced creation with very little scientific verification.

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Because of this, it only makes sense that we have producers who are creating the same or similar hybrid strains and unknowingly putting them on the market with different names.

Inconsistency another problem

Another study which also made it into the Journal of Cannabis Research in 2019, proved a similar point, that weed names don’t mean much, but this research was a little bit different. For it, experts purchased 30 samples of well-known strains from 20 different cannabis dispensaries across Colorado, Washington, and California. Genotyping sequencing was then used to identify all present plant genetic groups, and only two were found.

One sample that was supposed to be the popular Sour Diesel which should have belonged to either the same or a similar genotype as Durban Poison, ended up receiving a completely different genetic assignment, and this wasn’t a one-off situation. Over and over again, the researchers found that strains were often not what producers claimed them to be, a puzzling result that was unexpected, especially from the legal industry.

In the end, only 4 out of the 30 cannabis strains tested had a consistent admixture and genotype assignment, suggesting that there is a lot more deceit going on in the legal green market than most would think. Of course, it is important to note that years of cloning, environmental factors, and other things can slightly alter genotype assignment, but in this case, it occurred too frequently to be a completely natural occurrence.

What does this mean for consumers?

We aren’t entirely sure what this means for the average cannabis enthusiast, but it does seem to suggest that most of us have fewer choices at the dispensary than we thought we did.

Study shows that 1 in 7 consumers grow cannabis
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