Current Affairs

Selecting Products by Their Names = An Exercise in Futility

As you very well know, there are lots of names circulating for different cannabis cultivars. Too many, in fact. What do these names really convey to the consumer, especially people who are using cannabis in treating medical conditions? They may provide a way to shop, but product variability can make selecting items by their marketing names a serious act of futility.

At the end of the day, the most important aspects of any cannabis product are the glut of molecules comprising the medicine, or in the language of today, a plant’s chemovar. When considering cannabis flower, the cannabinoid concentration typically does not help differentiate cultivars [1-3], unless the plant has been farmed to be dominant in another cannabinoid like CBD or CBG. Then, you could distinguish the plants from each other. The bulk of the marketed flowers, however, are THC-dominant.

Terpenes, on the other hand, are the differentiators that can lessen or worsen anxiety [4], induce relaxation and sedation [5], or provide any number of individualized physiological responses to cannabis. In most states, however, terpenes are not required to be analyzed by testing labs. Thankfully, regulators in Nevada (and Pennsylvania) had the foresight to make terpene analyses mandatory, as a recent study by several organizations, including GB Sciences, Digipath Labs, Chaminade University of Honolulu, and the University of Hawai’i, has further highlighted the misguided process of consumers having to select products based on name only, or name and THC-content. [3]

The study evaluated 396 differently-named cultivars using a combination of ultra-performance liquid chromatography for cannabinoids and headspace gas chromatography with mass spectrometry detection for terpenoids. In sum, the researchers measured 2,662 flower samples to quantify 11 cannabinoids and 19 terpenes.

What they found was that there were only three chemistries being commercially sold under almost 400 different names! The evaluation of the cannabinoid concentrations revealed that 93% were part of the same cluster, meaning that they were similar in their potency composition. As expected, more variability was found within the terpene evaluation, and the three clusters detected represented 59%, 33%, and 8% of the samples studied. The specific terpene combinations that differentiated each of the three clusters were as follows: Cluster 1 contained 1,582 samples with the dominant terpenes/terpenoids of β-myrcene, limonene, α-pinene, β-caryophyllene, and α-humulene; Cluster 2 had 200 samples, with the dominant terpenes γ-terpinene, terpinolene, β-myrcene, α-humulene, and β-pinene; and Cluster 3 contained 880 samples, with limonene, β-myrcene, β-caryophyllene, and nerolidol representing the dominant terpenes/terpenoids.

The authors concluded that “when analyzing the chemical testing data using a variety of statistical methods, we found that there was surprisingly little variability in the chemical profiles among the 2,662 dried flower samples”. And yet, there were nearly 400 different products being vended as though they were different.

Similar to the collective body of research conducted by Fischedick and Hazekamp [1, 6, 7], this study turned to a sophisticated statistical analysis to help identify clusters, or groups of similar chemistries amongst the individual plants measured. The plants’ chemovars.

The authors added “Alternatively, lack of patient and physician education on the medical benefits of the minor cannabinoids and terpenes may also contribute to the dominance of THC in this medical market.”

We need to change the way that we educate nascent people to this mushrooming industry. Consumers need to know what specific molecules are in a given product, and what other products lining dispensary shelves might provide similar physiological effects should their favorite be out-of-stock. Without this information, consumers will continue to be befuddled by whimsical names that impart no real information (unless they are legendary, and genetically accurate), all the while guessing as to the possible effects. Without this information, budtenders, patient care specialists, and medical professionals cannot adequately recommend specific chemistries.

So, the next time you enter a dispensary, and browse the myriad of marketing names, ask what the chemovars, the specific cannabinoids and terpenes in a given product, are. While your line of questioning may be met with an equal serving of bewilderment to your own from scanning through any number of words on the menu, the more we ask for this, the more dispensary personnel will listen. And hopefully, this conversation will migrate to the growers, processors, lab personnel, and ultimately to regulators such that the current rules can be broken, re-vamped, and implemented such that everyone has access to pertinent information that is beneficial to one’s well-being.


[1] Hazekamp, A. & Fischedick, J. “Cannabis – from cultivar to chemovar”, Drug Test Anal., 2012, Volume 4(7-8): Pages 660-667. [journal impact factor = 2.506; cited by 43] [2] Orser C. et al. “Terpenoid chemoprofiles distinguish drug-type Cannabis sativa L. cultivars in Nevada”, Nat Prod Chem Res. 2018, Volume 6: 304. [journal impact factor = N/A; cited by N/A] [3] Reimann-Philipp, U. et al. “Cannabis Chemovar Nomenclature Misrepresents Chemical and Genetic Diversity; Survey of Variations in Chemical Profiles and Genetic Markers in Nevada Medical Cannabis Samples”, Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, 2019, open access. [journal impact factor = N/A; cited by N/A] [4] Kamal, B. et al. “Cannabis and the Anxiety of Fragmentation—A Systems Approach for Finding an Anxiolytic Cannabis Chemotype”, Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2018, Volume 12: Article 730. [journal impact factor = 3.566; cited by 1] [5] Gullini, N. et al., “Cannabis Essential Oil: A Preliminary Study for the Evaluation of the Brain Effects”, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2018, Volume 2018, Article ID 1709182, 11 pages. [journal impact factor = 2.064; cited by 9] [6] Hazekamp et al. “Cannabis: From Cultivar to Chemovar II—A Metabolomics Approach to Cannabis Classification”, Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, 2016, Volume 1.1: Pages 202-215. [journal impact factor = N/A; cited by 33] [7] Fischedick, J. “Identification of Terpenoid Chemotypes Among High (-)-trans-Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol-Producing Cannabis sativa L. Cultivars”, Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, 2017, Volume 2.1: Pages 34-47. [journal impact factor = N/A; cited by 9]

About the author

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

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