Cannabis genetic heritage. Are we losing track of genetics and can science help?
The massive increase in cannabis seed companies and the large resulting number of cannabis varieties has left a number of people in the cannabis world wondering whether we still know which genetic lines are faithful to the original genetics.
A quick search online and you can find any number of Skunks, Kush, White Widows, or anything else you want. But are these varieties actually what they say they are? Or has the genetic heritage been lost over the years.
There’s no doubt that many of these seed varieties are strong enough to do the job for medical or recreational use. And we are sure that most reputable seed companies try their best to accurately describe the way their varieties grow, and the effects they have. Many cannabis breeders still lovingly cherish their craft just as much as they always did. These days they often have THC analytical lab testing to help them on their way when they are selecting parent plants. And the best breeders understand the roles of minor cannabinoids such as CBD as well as the roles of THC. With good cannabis genetics at the foundation of your seeds, you can be fairly confident that you are growing premium quality product to put in the jars.
The emergence of well equipped cannabis testing laboratories is allowing science to take its place in the genetic debate. Eventually it is hoped that genetic testing will allow botanists to identify unique markers in plant DNA which will allow us to verify genetic heritage beyond all doubt. Perhaps it will show that many modern hybrids are a blend of numerous genetic lines from different continents. For now that level of detailed genetic fingerprinting remains unaffordably elusive. But some people feel that a good general indication of genetic heritage could come from existing testing labs that have made a living from assessing THC levels in the USA legal cannabusiness. And the new DEA rules ending the DEA monopoly on providing cannabis for research purposes will stimulate more cannabis science.
One such voice is that of Dr Jeff Raber of The Werc Shop, a Washington based cannabis science company. As well as being able to analyse cannabis for the full range of cannabinoids, he can also determine plant terpene profiles. Many within the cannabis world regard terpene profiles of cannabis plants as one of the least understood areas. Terpenes are the chemicals responsible for the rich array of aromatic compounds which give the characteristic taste and aroma to your favourite varieties. Terpenes are also increasingly thought to be able to steer, or ‘modulate’ the type of high that is produced and the speed of onset. Little is known about the way different cannabinoids can amplify the effects of each other. And little is known about the way terpenes are involved in the biochemical pathways used during the process of getting high. But some people believe that the cannabinoid profile, especially the levels of minor cannabinoids can reveal the genetic heritage of a cannabis line, especially when the accompanying terpene profile is known.
At least, thats the theory. There is still a huge amount of work remaining to be done. Raber is busy cataloguing the analysis of a thousand different varieties of USA grown cannabis strains to see if science can definitively help with the debate. Can a ‘Kush’ variety be defined with a analytical report that confirms the presence of a signature chemical fingerprint? Likewise other cannabis lines such as Blueberry, Skunks, Haze etc could be categorised.
Raber himself is keen to see if some of the classical stories about indica and sativa effects stand the test of scientific scrutiny. Indica varieties are generalised as offering relaxing effects such as a stronger ‘body stone’ whereas sativa varieties are felt to offer a more cerebrally intensive experience and perhaps make the person feel a little more energetic. The lab science hoping to clarify all this is called metabolomics and looks at terpenes, cannabinoids and metabolites that are produced from them. If it succeeds it will be a great way to add clarity to the breeding process. But many people feel that more complicated DNA testing will be needed, and that is often seriously expensive and time consuming to do on a large scale.
But one dividend of the wave of state-by-state cannabis legalizations sweeping the US is the new generation of cannabis science companies that have started evolving. And with these companies comes a new breed of tech-savvy, often highly qualified botanists, bio-chemists and scientists that are fully funded, equipped and motivated to analyse the minute details of the cannabis plant in a scale never before seen. And its only going to increase as more and more investment floods into the emerging cannabis business.
The medical applications of cannabis are huge, and there will be a future focus on creating varieties with specific cannabinoid and effect profiles for targeted applications. We may not have the answers yet, but with so much research going on it seems inevitable that at some point in the next decade we will be able to develop a deeper understanding of the genetic lineage of cannabis. And that will be important for us all, not just the purists that want to know the genuine origin of their stash.
The Amsterdam coffee shops sell, for the most part, good quality cannabis. But exactly what the coffee shops are buying is never clear when the black market is the unregulated source. Is a Kush really a Kush? or just an appealing name for a strong variety. Many people in the cannabis industry feel its time to let science take its part in the way we understand the genetics. Until then, for many people the best way to guarantee that you have the right buds in the jar is to grow known, consistent varieties from a trusted cannabis seed bank.
Cannabis has never been less illegal since the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Regulation is improving, taking cannabis out of the black market and making the genetics more transparent. Eventually the cannabis market will see full regulation and science to complement the old-school breeding techniques which have got us this far. One day it would be great to see the original Dutch seed companies working closely with the emerging cannabis science start-ups to create pure-bred genetic lines with predictable effects for the best medical and recreational experiences. The seeds could be grown at home, for the coffeeshops, the cannabis social clubs or the dispensaries. But the resulting buds would have the right effect that you are looking for, guaranteed, and there would be no more uncertainty about the genetic heritage of your cannabis.