HALIFAX—If you’re looking at labels like indica or sativa or strain names like Juicy Fruit and Green Crack to determine what kind of cannabis to buy when it becomes legal next month, you might not always get what you want.
Sean Myles is an associate professor in the department of plant, food and environmental sciences at Dalhousie University’s agricultural campus in Truro. His main focus is the genetics of important agricultural crops, primarily apples and grapes.
“It was a natural extension to go to cannabis because it shares a lot of properties with apples and grapes in terms of its genetics, and it’s a tremendously economically valuable crop that we knew nothing about,” Myles said.
“I thought if we can be first out of the gate on this, then we’ll certainly have something to talk about.”
With legalization around the corner, Myles said it’s important consumers realize the genetic diversity of cannabis means that what you see touted on packaging isn’t necessarily what you get.
“It’s largely believed there are two kind of separate populations or subspecies of cannabis, indica and sativa, and that they differ genetically,” Myles explained.
“If you just Google it briefly you’ll see all sorts of claims that are made about the differences between indica and sativa in terms of their psychoactive effects, their growth habits, their smells and all sorts of different things.”
The second thing consumers will find is the strain name. The wide variety of products boast evocative names like Master Kush, Sour Diesel, Maui Wowie, Green Crack and Juicy Fruit.
“Consumers are using these two things, both the ancestry labelling of indica/sativa and the strain names, as indicators of what they’re getting inside the package,” Myles explained.
“Our research to date suggests that neither of those things are reliable predictors of the actual genetic identity of the product inside the package.”
The researchers determined only a “moderate correlation” between the genetic structure of marijuana strains and their reported sativa and indica ancestry. Researchers further noted that marijuana strain names “often do not reflect a meaningful genetic identity.”
“People are often led to believe by the people who are selling cannabis that indica is different from sativa, that you need this particular type of strain — in the medicinal world at least — to treat certain ailments and that sativa would be better to treat other ailments,” Myles said.
“This dichotomy between sativa and indica doesn’t hold up to any genetic scrutiny and so it’s not a useful piece of information to be providing to people, to consumers.”
Myles said that unlike with “every other crop in the world,” consumers can’t currently be certain of what they’re getting when it comes to cannabis.
“When you go to the grocery store and you buy apples, you see Gala apples and Macintosh apples and Honey Crisp apples. Growers can’t simply grow a Macintosh apple and throw it into the bin that says Honey Crisp and charge four times the price,” he said.
“There are systems in place all throughout the value chain, and each of these agricultural systems ensure that the product that is being delivered to the consumer actually abides by certain standards. These standards are not in place currently for the ancestry labelling nor of the strain name labelling on cannabis products.”
So how do consumers, especially those new to cannabis, decide what to buy? Myles said the answer is actually pretty straightforward.
“THC and CBD labelling is the way to sort of measure up what you’re getting, and that’s a first step. Everything else is marketing,” he explained. “It’s mandatory to report those two things on the packaging and those are tested by independent labs. That’s a great step forward that has been implemented in Canada right from the beginning.”
Health Canada describes delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as the most researched cannabinoid — the chemicals that provide the plant’s medical and recreational effects. THC dictates how your body and brain responds to cannabis, including the high and intoxication.
Although cannabidiol (CBD) is also a cannabinoid, it differs from THC in that it doesn’t produce a high or intoxication.
“There is some evidence that CBD may block or lower some of the effects of THC on the mind. This may occur when the amount of CBD in the cannabis is the same or higher than the amount of THC,” Health Canada notes on its website. “CBD is also being studied for its possible therapeutic uses.”
Myles recommends consumers unfamiliar with cannabis start with a strain where the ratio is high THC and low CBD or low THC and high CBD.
“So try them out, not at the same time, of course, and see what kind of effect they provide to you, and that should be the evaluation of your preferences,” he said.
In Nova Scotia, the sale of cannabis is under the purview of the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation. Come Oct. 17, recreational users in the province will be able to order cannabis online from the NSLC or shop at one of 12 storefronts.
Cannabis products will be identified under the labels “relax,” “unwind,” “enhance” and “centre.”
“I think you could equally put riesling under ‘relax’ and pinot noir under ‘excitement’ and you could just as easily go and label four different types of wine under those four labels, and that’s exactly what they’re doing with cannabis,” Myles said, laughing.
“There’s no evidence that those strains actually have those effects beyond what they’re saying from behind the counter, which is as reliable as what you see on beer commercials.”
Beverley Ware, spokesperson with the NSLC, said both THC and CBD percentages will be provided on all cannabis products sold at their stores. She added that the THC and CBD information will be “an integral part” of conversations the corporation’s staff will have with customers.
“Educating and informing our customers is key, and we will be spending time talking with customers to find out what their experience may be — whether they are a new user or an experienced user — and what type of experience they may be looking for,” Ware said.
Cannabis products sold at NSLC stores will also be categorized based on their range of THC and CBD, she added.
Myles said he’s optimistic this country is poised to become a leader in cannabis genetics and science.
“We’re really lucky in Canada because we’re going to be leading in this domain … It’s amazing what a little science can do,” he said.
“There are companies out there now who are operating breeding facilities that are very much like strawberry breeders or potato breeders or any other kind of breeder. Once we get a serious injection of real science into this industry, then we’ll start seeing some clarity to some of these issues for sure.”
Yvette d’Entremont is a Halifax-based reporter focusing on health and environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ydentremont