How to read chemotype data
The new criterion for predictability.
Portland is full of cannabis, to say the market is flooded would be an understatement. New dispensaries pop up every month and the process of choosing a gram can be incredibly daunting. For a lot of folks, certain “strain” names carry inherent expectations, but is every Blue Dream really the same? How important is a name, and is there any guarantee that you’re really getting what you paid for?
Not only is there overwhelming variety in the market, but overwhelming misinformation. And cannabis is complicated: everything is a hybrid, no batch of flower turns out exactly the same, and the names we use to distinguish between the different varietals are often genetically inaccurate and arbitrary. In other words, there’s always a chance that what you’re smoking isn’t actually what you think you’re smoking at all (unless it’s genetically certified).
Even if this Blue Dream was grown at the same farm as last time and the genetics are what the retailer/grower says they are, it’s possible that a user’s experience with this batch will be different than the last one they tried. This is because each grow cycle can result in distinct phenotypes (externally observable traits like appearance and aroma). The expression of these traits is dependent upon myriad environmental factors which bring about differences in chemical profiles (chemotypes) in each go-round.
What’s more, just the act of consuming something named as evocatively as “Green Crack” or “9-lb Hammer” is likely to affect one’s experience– no matter the chemical composition. Despite potentially misleading monikers, your sense of smell can certainly help in picking apart familiar or desirable characteristics. But the nose doesn’t always know how something is going to affect you– take for instance Roquefort cheese or GMO Cookies (named after its distinct aroma of garlic, mushroom and onion)– let’s just say it’s… savory. Moreover, when we smell a jar of flower it’s likely our noses can only detect the dominant terpenes, but there may be dozens of others at play in the overall effect.
Chemotype data– More than a “strain”
So how are we supposed to find what we’re looking for (or know what to expect when we find it) when faced with all these inconsistencies? Farma’s director of education Andrea Sparr-Jaswa has an idea: we can — at least to a greater extent– trust the chemotype data.
A chemotype is a plant’s chemical makeup; cannabis chemotype data gives us a full breakdown of a strain’s cannabinoid and terpene content. This can help you fine-tune your experience and narrow in on key compounds you want and avoid the ones you don’t jive with. With reliable data to inform your decisions, you can count on more predictable effects– no matter where you buy your weed.
What to look for
Before you get to the dispensary, have a check-in with yourself. What does your body need? At the end of the day, the most comprehensive data won’t do you much good unless you know how you feel and recognize what your body needs.
Okay. So, you have an idea of what you want and you’ve got some lab results. Now what?
1. Type Category
If you’re looking for flower, start by identifying the “type”–or potency category— of your cultivar of choice.
- Type I – refers to high-THC, low-CBD varietals of cannabis, with THC potency that typically ranges from 10%-34% and up, with CBD content at or below 2%- .01%. A “Type-1 high” implies intoxication and is associated with both recreational and medical use; the effects of Type-1 cannabis are typically described as moderately to heavily psychedelic with cerebral and cognitive changes in perception and sensory awareness. It can produce significant physiological changes in heart rate and blood pressure, for instance, as well as intensify relief from symptoms like nausea or pain.
- Type II – refers to combination or “mixed percentage” varietals of cannabis, which usually contain a THC potency ranging from 3%-10% and a CBD potency ranging from 1%- 14%. A “Type-2 high” implies intoxication, albeit to a lesser degree than a Type-1; the effects of Type 2 cannabis are typically described as mildly to moderately psychedelic with cerebral and cognitive changes in perception and sensory awareness. Mixed cannabinoid ratios can also prove more effective at treating symptoms with lesser negative outcomes.
- Type III – refers to low-THC, high-CBD varietals of cannabis (sometimes referred to as “hemp”) with a THC potency that ranges from 0%-1%, and a CBD potency that ranges from 5%-20% and higher. A “Type-3 high” implies very low to no intoxication; the experience is typically described as a subtle shift in consciousness and perception, with potential for functional mood regulation, spasticity relief, and mild to moderate pain relief with little to no cognitive impairment (although highly sensitive users may experience mild cognitive changes).
2. Cannabinoid Ratio
Whatever your method of consumption, you can easily identify the THC:CBD ratio of the product or flower you’re using. Knowing the broad Type category (above) will give you a general idea of how high you want to be, and for some users, that information is enough. Others may want to fine-tune the experience by getting more specific with THC:CBD content, as different ratios may be suitable for different needs and effects.
THC content is traditionally listed first in ratio to CBD (THC:CBD), but many CBD-rich products hitting the market have begun to emphasize the once secondary cannabinoid by presenting it first in ratio (CBD:THC). Pay attention to this and choose accordingly. Like Indica/Sativa, this market-driven misnomer is not going anywhere soon.
- Type I – Flower with a 20% THC and 1% CBD content would be considered a 20:1 (THC:CBD) ratio. Primarily composed of THC and is associated with moderate to heavy intoxication (depending on user tolerance).
- Type II – An edible that contains 10mg THC and 15mg CBD would be considered a 2:3 (THC:CBD) ratio. Composed of a combination of THC and CBD and associated with mild to moderate intoxication (depending on user tolerance).
- Type III – A patch that contains 1mg THC and 20mg CBD would be considered a 1:20 (THC:CBD) ratio. Primarily composed of CBD and is associated with minimal intoxication (depending on user tolerance).
Now that you know what to expect as far as intoxication goes, you can identify the dominant terpenes, as they will dictate much of your experience. If you’re not getting terpene data from your dispensary, kindly ask them to make it available. Data determines predictability (to the extent that it’s possible at this point in time). You can find detailed breakdowns of individual terpenes and what they can mean for your experience here, and also here, here, here, and here.
If you can specify the terpenes you’re looking for in conjunction with the type category and/or THC:CBD ratio you want, you can expect a far better recommendation from your budtender and be more confident you’re getting the closest thing to what you came in looking for.
If you don’t know what the terpenes are called, your nose and a chat with your budtender will prove useful. Do your best to describe the flavors or scents that you’ve liked or disliked, and we can go from there. Be warned of generality: when you come in and ask for something as broad as “something more on the Sativa side” you might be going home with budtender’s choice rather than something tailored to harnessing the entourage effect to your specific needs.
When at Farma, you can ask your budtender to pull out a lab report or our famous terpene book; an ultra helpful tool complete with hand-colored graphs to make the search for your perfect flower easy and fun (and oddly satisfying–for those that know).
4. Minor cannabinoids
This one might not be relevant for most folks yet, but we’re heading in that direction as research on these compounds develops. Minor cannabinoids like CBG, THCV, and CBC can modify your high and add unique therapeutic dimensions to your experience. You can read more about minor cannabinoids here, and if you really wanna get nerdy, check out this video with cannabinoid researcher and neurologist Dr. Ethan Russo (and skip to minute 26).
Note: The literature on minor cannabinoids is still limited, so don’t stress if the only ones listed on a label or lab report are THC and CBD. Just focus on the THC:CBD ratio and the terps, and consider this step extra credit.
Finally, if you’re curious to see whether what you’re smoking is what you think you’re smoking, you can check out the Phylos galaxy to see if the chemovar in question is genetically certified, and how its DNA relates to varietals you’ve had in the past.
Breaking it all down
This is the future of retail cannabis: we’ve entered an era in which the consumer can skip the Indica/Sativa label altogether and interact directly with chemotype data, batch-to-batch. Of course, the big disclaimer is that the experience of cannabis is highly subjective, and we’re still a long way from total effect consistency. What we know is this: the better informed our choices are when faced with such dizzying variety and misinformation, the more predictable outcomes we can expect when we buy cannabis.
The future is exciting, and there’s a whole lot of numbers involved. For now, ask your budtenders for chemotype data whenever possible, and don’t forget to log your experiences in a journal– for science.
(2019) Rethinking Strain Names: Interpreting cannabis through chemistry to ensure better consumer experiences.
(2018) Pharmacological Foundations of Cannabis Chemovars:
(2018) Practical Considerations in Medical Cannabis Administration and Dosing:
(2017) Identification of Terpenoid Chemotypes Among High (−)-trans-Δ9- Tetrahydrocannabinol-Producing Cannabis sativa L. Cultivars.
(2017) This paper is a comprehensive breakdown of major and minor cannabinoids and terpenes and their functions.
(2015) The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp.
(2011)Taming THC: Potential Cannabis Synergy and Phytocannabinoid-Terpenoid entourage effects.
Video- Dr. Ethan Russo lecture on minor cannabinoids and terpenoids.