The Strain Game

We love the new strains! They pop up every day it seems and they get us excited to try something new. Recently, my friends and colleagues at Helping Hands Medical Marijuana Center in Boulder, CO, cleverly named their latest strain after CNN medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, pulling off a PR coup. High Times snapped the story up and covered it thusly:

“We selected the strain carefully,” said Jeff Kless, owner of Helping Hands Herbals Dispensary in Boulder. “Choosing one for those who suffer from debilitating medical conditions such as cancer, MS, severe pain, nausea, anxiety and wasting, and need physical and mental recovery without the use of pharmaceuticals — or for those transitioning off pain medication.”

Gupta Kush calms the mind without compromising clarity, and is an excellent pain and tension reliever. The indica strain has its origins in the Hindu Kush Mountains of South Asia, home of the world’s most potent pot. GK has a rich green color and a thick, hashy, floral taste. Onset is said to be immediate and effects are long lasting, “causing waves of relaxation to move through the body, calming nerves, and allowing the user to get some deep conscious rest before drifting off to sleep,” said Kless.

Only a few weeks prior, Privateer Holdings, a marijuana-only private equity firm that invests in marijuana-related businesses, recently pumped millions into Leafly, a web site that catalogs and rates marijuana strains and dispensaries–sort of a Yelp for marijuana outlets (Yelp, are you paying attention?). According to the Leafly website, at Leafly you can “Browse and explore our library of cannabis varieties. Search based on type, effects, ratings and more. Find something you like and add it to your shopping list for later.”

As new strains hit the marketplace (black, grey or white), one has to wonder: What’s in a name? What IS a strain, after all?

It’s a loosely kept secret in the MJ industry that most “strains” are as much strains as you and I are individual subspecies of homo sapiens. That’s because both individual people and ~80% of the strains you will encounter for sale are F1 hybrids and have names. As much as my buddy Scott (real person) is a unique individual in this world with a personality all his own (he really does), so is the latest strain its own unique thing1–and sometimes nothing more. You wouldn’t call Scott a subspecies or a race unto himself. But that’s what gets termed a “strain” in this industry.

As anybody with a cursory understanding of genetics can tell you, the first offspring of a mated pair (designated “F1”–the F stands for “filial”) does not make a stable strain in the same sense that an heirloom tomato is a stable strain of tomato. What happens most of the time is that one individual plant is selected from among the offspring of such a mating and then is replicated asexually (cloned), and then termed a strain and released onto the market.

The effect of this is that there are two definitions for the word “strain”: 1) Any F1 hybrid intended for asexual reproduction, 2) A plant specimen stabilized over many generations2 such that it is able to reproduce sexually in a reliable manner, producing offspring as near to exactly like itself as possible.

What’s the upshot of this confusion, and is it a problem? Some great F1 recombinations are out there and since hybrid vigor is displayed in the first generation, what grower wants to take the time to backcross seven times at 90 days (minimum) per generation just so the seed can be stabilized? If I’m a dispensary owner, that’s not high on my list of priorities, but product differentiation–the need to have unique varieties for sale–sure is.

Dispensaries that grow their own always use asexual reproduction as their normal procedure for multiplying plants–even if those plants were started from stable, backcrossed seed–it is the only way to replace the hundreds of plants that are harvested every week. Creating F1 plants is the fastest way to introduce novelty into a market that demands it. When you’re already cloning, what difference does it make if the strain you’re replicating is stable for seed production? It doesn’t. And dispensaries with a rock star plant on their hands aren’t likely to want to share it with their competitors (though this does happen with less popular plants). Furthermore, many an F1 ornamental flower is rolled out into commercial production throughout the mainstream garden industry, so it’s not exactly uncommon practice.

But it does raise a problem that pot aficionados (using Leafly) should consider: How likely is it that Gupta Kush (almost certainly an F1–though I haven’t asked) is going to end up in, say CA, when it was established in CO? If Gupta Kush becomes popular, you can bet it someone will claim to have it in CA. And there’s the rub.

For Leafly, it reduces their app’s reliability to the level of the individual dispensary where such novel new strains were first produced. (Good news for Helping Hands!) For most people, finding a strain that works at a dispensary they like and sticking with it is all that matters–forget the name. But for people who travel and don’t want to carry their weed with them, preferring to shop at their destination, or for the exchange of reliable information about strains, this is a big problem. It’s not like reading a review of a car, it’s more like reading a review of a small vintage wine. Good luck getting some!

So there you have it. If someone outside of CO tells you he has gotten ahold of Gupta Kush, you can safely call bullshit. I haven’t asked them, but I’m sure that one’s not going to be shared any time soon… and it’s the only one there is!
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1 Really, one of several “twins”–because it will probably have some genetically identical offspring–depending upon how you measure “identical”–i.e., for how many traits. To see how many genetically identical offspring will result, you need to determine how many traits you are controlling for, then use a Punnet Calculator.

2 To see why this is important, consider that each parent contributes a half of its genetic compliment to its offspring, resulting in a 50/50 mix of alleles. The resulting plant (containing the desired new trait) is then stabilized by backcrossing to its opposite sex parent. The number of unpredictable alleles for THOSE offspring are halved for each recombination/generation: 100, 50, 25, 12.5, 6.25, 3.125, (1.5625-100) = 98.44% purity reached at the 7th generation.)

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