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12.09.19

How to Choose a Cannabis Strain (Spoiler: Easier Said Than Done)

by Matan Weil
1789 Words
Somewhere down the line, Indica and Sativa were used to describe two distinct kinds of cannabis. It's a bit more complicated than that.

Choosing a cannabis strain can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a challenge. After months, or even years of searching for the right strain, some patients are still not getting the desired results.

Though there are no promises in the cannabis realm, this article will arm you with the tools you need to adopt a calculated, smart and responsible methodology when looking for the right kind of cannabis for you. 

In short, there are two approaches for finding the right strain of cannabis. And spoiler alert, neither of them is adequate on their own.

The first approach to finding the right strain of cannabis is to literally choose a strain of cannabis: Indica or Sativa. Sativa strains are said to be more uplifting and energetic, while Indica is attributed with relaxing and calming effects. We’ll call this the “Indica-Sativa Method.”

The second approach requires quite a bit of work looking into scientific research, of which there is nowhere near enough, and trying to build the right profile cannabis compounds will best treat your condition — and then finding a product that most closely resembles that profile. We’ll call this the “Active Compounds Method.”

By combining the two approaches and throwing in a fair amount of trial and error, you’ll have everything you need to find the right strain. It’s a little more complicated than that, but by the time you’re done with this article you’ll be much better equipped to solve one of the most stubborn questions hanging over medical cannabis treatment today.

The Indica-Sativa Method

One of the most common methods that people use to choose a cannabis product is simply going by the taxonomic definition of Indica or Sativa method. What’s the difference between Sativa and Indica? Well, that entirely depends on who you’re asking — botanists, medical researchers, or your average cannabis user.
Sativa and Indica are Latin terms, loosely translated as “cultivated” (Sativa) and “Indian” (Indica). The difference in the classification is mostly only about how tall or short the plant is, whether it has a fibrous or woody stalk, what its optimum growing climate is, and what part of the world it comes from. 

The disagreement among botanists is mainly about the hierarchy of the two: are they two distinct species of cannabis, or is Indica a subspecies of Sativa?

But most of us are not botanists.

At some point in the mid 20th century, probably in the 1960s or ‘70s, cannabis enthusiasts began using the terms Indica and Sativa to describe distinct kinds of cannabis

Fast-forward a few decades, and Sativa products are still described as more uplifting, energizing and generally producing a cerebral head high. Indica products are described as being more calming, relaxing, sedating, and helping with pain relief. The latter is generally thought of as producing more of a “body high.”

So should you choose your cannabis strains according to their Sativa or Indica origins? Well, if you ask Dr. Ethan Budd Russo, one of the leading medical cannabis researchers of our time, the answer would probably be no.

In his words: 

 “The sativa/indica distinction as commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility. One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given Cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology. The degree of interbreeding/hybridisation is such that only a biochemical assay tells a potential consumer or scientist what is really in the plant. It is essential that future commerce allows complete and accurate cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles to be available”. 

There is scientific data backing up that assertion that there is no real difference between Sativa, Indica, or hybrids of the two. It doesn’t really matter if we say cannabis strain X is Sativa/Indica dominant or we say it is “George” or “Mary” dominant. What’s important is the user’s experience of that particular product or plant — uplifting, sedating, calming, etc. That those characteristics are based purely on experience and not on science doesn’t mean we should completely ignore them. On the contrary, we can simply take that information under consideration and acknowledge that it’s subjective.

The Active Compounds Method

Despite everything we know today, some of the biggest brands in medical cannabis still classify their products as Sativa or Indica. They also present other important data alongside those classifications — information about the product’s cannabinoid structure, primarily its THC and CBD content and ratio. There are, however, dozens, if not hundreds of other important cannabinoids that are likely present in each of those strains or products. And it’s not just cannabinoids you should be paying attention to.

Terpenes, a group of oils responsible for the aroma and taste of cannabis (and a variety of other plants), are also often presented next to the THC-CBD ratio and Sativa-Indica origins of a cannabis strain. Dr. Russo, along with other scientists, has shown that the varying sedating/uplifting effects of cannabis is a result of their terpenoid profile as opposed to the ratio of THC or CBD. A number of scientists also believe that terpenes influence cannabis’ therapeutic effects in a medical context.

Here are some of the attributes of some major cannabinoids and terpenes

  • THC, the most well-known cannabinoid, is accepted as a potential analgesic, anti-depressant, anti-nauseant, and helps with muscle spasms and sleep disorders.
  • CBD, also a cannabinoid, is a powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-seizure and anti anxiety agent. 
  • CBG, a cannabinoid, is a potential neuro-protectant and anti-bacterial agent.
  • Myrcene, a terpene, relaxes motor neurons, and is related to sleep regulation and general relaxation.
  • Limonene, another terpene, is known as a potential relaxant by its anti anxiety and anti stress properties.
  • β-caryophyllene, yet another terpene often found in cannabis, is anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial.

All things considered, the tendency of cannabis marketers to indicate the cannabinoid and terpenoid profile of their products would seem to be a positive development. It allows users to examine the active ingredients in their cannabis products as opposed to only their taxonomic origin.

But a cannabis strain’s active ingredients is not the whole story. Inactive compounds, and the combination of them all, may play an important role as well. That idea, that the synergy of compounds inside the cannabis flower plays a role in its therapeutic effect, is commonly referred to as the “entourage effect.” 

Various researchers argue that the entourage effect might explain why plant-based cannabis treatments are sometimes more effective than pharmaceuticals with a single, isolated active cannabinoid compound. Even though one isolated cannabinoid or terpene might show therapeutic effectiveness in the laboratory research, consuming of whole-plant products with hundreds of other active components might even be more efficient.

Researchers are trying to understand if and how the entourage effect works, but that might take some time. Professor Dedi Meiri, of Israel’s Technion University, has been leading advanced cannabinoid research in the past few years. His research is focusing on trying to understand the minimum number — and combination — of cannabis compounds required to treat a given illness (cancer, in his case), assuming that isolated cannabinoids won’t suffice. You can dig into Meiri’s work in this lecture

It will probably be a few years before we know enough about how cannabis compounds work together before that alone can give us enough information to choose a strain on that basis alone. Nevertheless, it can still be useful.

The Importance of ‘Stabilized Strains’

We’ve already discussed two key elements for finding the right strain of cannabis: the crowd wisdom about the differing effects of Indica vs. Sativa, and the growing knowledge base about the active compounds in cannabis and what they do. Those two pieces are great, and have lots to offer someone trying to find the right strain. But without one last piece of the puzzle, they are still not enough.

That last piece of information comes down to how strains are named, grown, and marketed. Because there was no regulation for so long, breeders were able to grow anything they want and call it whatever they want. In most strains you’ll encounter today, there is not necessarily any genetic consistency among products bearing the same name.

Stabilized strains, on the other hand, are cultivated by authorized growers and lab analyses ensure the product consistently contains the same profile of active compounds. Most medical cannabis companies in regulated markets that use a GMP standard, such as Canada and Germany, are obligated to follow such guidelines. Some dispensaries even follow them voluntarily. 

It’s important to understand that unless a cannabis strain is stabilized and certified, its name isn’t a reliable indicator of what you expect from it, or that its effect will be replicable with the same product over time.

Scientifically speaking, we can’t yet match specific cannabis strains as proven treatments for specific conditions. All we have is the ability to say that “some strains works for some people, suffering from some conditions.” That makes having stabilized strains with predictable and consistent biochemical characteristics crucial for successfully using the trial and error method. 

The Trial and Error Method

So how can you put all of that together to actually use the trial and error method to find the right cannabis strain?

First, take a look at what science has to say about the symptoms or condition you want to treat. (You can find much of that research by looking up your condition here on The Cannigma.) For example, if the research says that CBD is very effective for seizures, you should look for strains that are high in CBD as opposed to high-THC strains. The same goes for research into terpenes.

Following that logic, if the research says full-spectrum CBD is more effective for epilepsy compared to products with isolated cannabinoids (which it does), you should aim for high-CBD, full-spectrum cannabis products. 

Next, look for stabilized strains from a reputable and regulated distributor. Among the stabilized strains you’ve found, you should consult either what the majority of users have to say about its properties, or follow its Sativa/Indica origins (remembering that this classification is subjective).

The bottom line: consult with a licenced medical professional who specializes in medical cannabis, and together with your doctor, decide how to go about your trial and error process. Then, keep trying different strains until you find the one that works for you. 

By following these steps, and basing your choice on what science knows (as frustratingly little as that might be), on other users’ experience, and by sticking to stabilized chemovars, you’re improving the odds of finding a product that meets your expectations — and since it’s stable, keeps working for years to come.