Grape Ape, Jack Herrer, Cinderella 99, White Rhino, Blue Dream – these are just a few of the strains I can recall from my time at the caregiver co-op. Our caregivers grew a fairly wide variety of cannabis, under the supervision of our grow masters, which allowed our patients to find something appropriate to their needs. Usually, patients would find a favorite strain or two that worked best for them and we would know exactly what to get them when they came in. On the occasion that we didn’t have what they wanted available, knowing their preferred strains made it easier to make recommendations for replacements.
My experience with cannabis started when I was 16, and all I knew was that I was smoking pot. If we called it anything, we called it dirt weed. By the time I was 19 or 20 and had discovered where my mom “hid” her stash – thanks, momma – I had somehow learned that I had upgraded from dirt weed to “‘dro”. I do not remember how this information entered my brain – or if what my mom had at the time even was hydroponically grown – but I do know that I could tell the difference between what I was now pinching off of my mother and what my friends and I were smoking behind the hookah lounge. Not only were the effects stronger and the onset quicker, visually the differences were striking. I was most familiar with dry, brownish, vaguely square-shaped things akin to buds, not the super pungent nuggets of varying shades of green that ranged in smell and texture. Pretty much all of the dirt weed looked the same.
Now, almost a decade later, I can’t remember half of the strains we had available for patients and I used to know all of them – ok, most of them – and how they might benefit a certain patient. I used to pride myself on being able to match patients with a strain that addressed as many of their concerns as possible with one flower or to mix and match smokable flowers with topicals and edibles to achieve the desired effect. Besides just being forgetful, I left Arizona relatively early into its medical cannabis journey for Texas, a state whose medical program is so limited I often forget that it exists.
However, the absence of a cannabis industry similar to that in Arizona hasn’t stopped the cannabis consumers I know from seeking out specific strains by name, as difficult as that can be in where we live.
Indica, Sativa, and Hybrids – Should We Still Care? Kinda.
By now, we should all be familiar with the three categories that cannabis is often split into; indica, sativa, and hybrid. I remember learning the differences between indica and sativa varieties and the now-common “indica, in da couch” mnemonic device when I first started learning more about cannabis. What I learned is that indicas worked well to ease pain and insomnia and that sativas were best for focus and energy – and that almost every variety we had access to at the co-op was a hybrid of the two.
As oversimplified as this explanation is, it was a useful starting point for the patients and me to find an appropriate match for them. Scientifically speaking – and let’s face it, individually – it’s not that simple. First and foremost there’s the fact that indica and sativa refer to the species of a particular cannabis plant, not necessarily the effects of that particular plant. Characteristics like leaf shape, growth pattern, and preferred temperature all differentiate Cannabis sativa from Cannabis indica. For example, a pure indica plant is typically short and bushy with wide leaves, compared to tall and narrow-leafed sativas. The scientific consensus seems to be that indica and sativa are mostly useful for differentiating the physical characteristics of the plants, and are less accurate for the functions of the cannabinoids in individual varieties.
Secondly – and I harp on this constantly, so you’re all probably sick of it by now – we’re all individuals with unique bodies and endocannabinoid systems and I think it’s pretty rare for two people to have identical cannabis experiences. The more we learn about cannabis, the harder it is for me to put as much stock as I used to in the indica and sativa categorizations. We know that your unique endocannabinoid system, terpenes, and the entourage effect can all impact your cannabis experience as much as or as little as its classification.
On top of all of that is the fact that it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll ever encounter a pure indica or sativa variety. The most commonly available cannabis strains are hybrids and are classified by whether the dominant strain is a sativa or indica. While this may not be as important of a distinction to consumers as it once was, strain names and the physical characteristics distinguishable by indica and sativa remain important to growers. The plant species will affect the growth cycle, ideal growing environment, and even yield, so knowing these specifics and cultivating your plants accordingly is as important for cannabis as any other plant.
Hybrid genetics are – surprise – complicated, but all cannabis genetics can be traced back to a plant that developed in the Hindu Kush mountain range of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. As humanity brought this useful plant around the world with them, it stabilized and flourished in new environments like Central America, Asia, and the Caribbean. The natural evolution and stabilization of these cannabis plants in new and unique environments created the landrace strains we know today, like Acapulco Gold from Mexico and Durban Poison from South Africa. Knowing the genetic lineage of different strains of cannabis remains crucial to growers, breeders, and seed distributors in order to produce the best crops or desired effects from specific crossbreeds.
The Name Game
Being so long and so far removed from the medical and recreational cannabis industry has made it somewhat difficult to stay plugged in to the culture and functionality of it all. From what I see across the internet, my “indica and sativa are reductive” epiphany isn’t new and things like “chemovars” – chemical varieties – are more available for patients to consider when picking a strain. If you have any experience purchasing cannabis outside of a legal state, however, it’s likely that you know how different the two experiences can be.
Just because we don’t have recreational laws or a widespread medical program doesn’t mean that people don’t know their stuff when it comes to cannabis. The internet exists out here and it’s as easy for a Texan to learn about cannabis as it is for you. What we don’t have is any way to reliably validate the claims being about whatever is being offered to us at the time. This isn’t to stir up any theories about laced cannabis or tainted carts, just to say that consistency is something you get used to missing out on.
When we first moved here all we had access to was what I would have considered dirt weed in Arizona. Here it’s schwag – or swag? The correct pronunciation always escaped me and an obligatory double-check on the internet didn’t help with my confusion. The cycle I went through when I first discovered cannabis began again; schwag, ‘dro, and finally buds with names. It was exciting to know the name of the flower we had but eventually, we stopped asking.
In my time at the co-op, I learned a lot about identifying various strains by sight or smell. I’m no oracle or expert, so my skills were limited to what I knew about the physical characteristics of indicas and sativas combined with what I knew about the plants we had in our facility. For example, my White Rhino plant was small and bushy, with wide leaves and thick branches indicative of most indica varieties. Unfortunately, these plant identifying skills and ability to cross-reference with our own “stock” didn’t translate into this new market, so to speak.
Sure, I could spend all day sniffing different cannabis flowers and making educated guesses, but that’s pretty much all I would be doing; guessing. When your cannabis comes from a person who got it from another person, who got it from some other person who got it from their cousin, there’s no real way to verify anything. You can tell me that what you have is Girl Scout Cookies or is 25% THC, and all I can do is say, “sure, thanks”. Maybe I’m incorrect, but from what I’ve gathered from across the internet, in legal markets it’s pretty easy to figure out where your cannabis is coming from; from seed company to grow facility, there’s some level of regulation to verify quality claims.
The issue I have is that I’ve noticed more of an emphasis put on particular strain names here, outside of the legal sphere, and particularly among people who consume cannabis for mostly medical reasons. This bothers me because they are doing this for very good reasons; usually because whatever they are asking for is something that worked well for them in the past and they’d like to find it again. It breaks my heart to know even if they’re told that a strain is the same, there is so little assurance that it will work for them as well as the last batch. When you’re operating outside of regulatory standards, and when patients are often restricted to a single source due to illegality, it’s easier to be less than truthful with your customers.
Now, I’m not suggesting that all people selling cannabis illegally have nefarious or even not great intentions. My experience has actually been the opposite. Most of the “street-level” folks I know genuinely care about the satisfaction of the people who come to see them, and it’s just as frustrating for them when quality and consistency are so hard to ensure. Most are able to provide a baseline level of quality – ie. schwag, ‘dro, or even “medical” – but they usually don’t have access to lab testing or chemovar information, or even THC content most of the time. Sometimes you’re lucky if you even get a choice of strain.
With all of the advancements we’ve made as a country towards understanding and accepting the wide range of uses for cannabis, from industrial to medical, it’s frustrating to watch prohibition states fall so far behind. I checked out the website for Texas Original Compassionate Cultivation – a Texas-based medical cannabis provider – again, to see what I could find out about the types of cannabis going into the medicines here. Turns out there isn’t a ton of information available for legal patients, either, which isn’t surprising considering the narrow scope of our program. At TOCC, they offer distillate tinctures that they call “Pure” tinctures and contain only THC, CBD, and a carrier oil and are therefore not strain specific. They also offer what they call “Pure Plus” tinctures that blend those distillates with terpenes extracted from their own cultivar, Waterloo. Whole plant blends are not available due to the restrictions of the Texas Compassionate Use Program. They go on to list the terpenes and percentages and assure patients of “state-of-the-art analytical testing methods to ensure patients receive consistent medicine that is free of heavy metals, microbials, and chemical contaminants.”
Perhaps this whole article is just a long-winded lament at what seems to be Texas’ painfully slow crawl towards any type of cannabis progress. A moment of screaming into the void that “I want to go to a dispensary too!”, but I think it’s more than that. It’s a desire to give the people I know and care about here just a taste of the cannabis experience I had in Arizona. No worrying about getting caught, less struggle to find it, more consistent quality and availability – I think the whole country should have these things. The whole world should! And I’m remaining hopeful that I’ll be around to see and experience that here.
Kelly Mahoney worked at a medical cannabis Co-op with her mother, Laura Mastropietro, dealing mainly with helping new patients acquire their medical cards and helping them find the best strains and methods. Diagnosed at a young age with spinal muscular atrophy, she was also a medical cannabis patient and still advocates for the incredible benefits, and downright fun, of cannabis. She now lives in a prohibition state as a cat mom and gamer wife.
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