indica vs sativa label cannabis

Unraveling Cannabis Labeling: Chemical Composition 10x More Important Than Strain

by | Nov 18, 2022

indica vs sativa label cannabis
Detroiter Karhlyle Fletcher is the host of High Lit, a cannabis research and classic literature podcast featuring leading voices and independent music. In addition to years in written and video cannabis journalism, he is also a traditional author.

Discover the significance of chemical composition in cannabis labeling and its impact on consumer choices. Explore how terpenes redefine cultivars, paving the way for informed decisions in an evolving industry. Learn about the potential improvements in cannabis labeling and the importance of consumer education for better transparency.

For the cannabis industry to empower effective choices, a consensus must be established regarding what substances in cannabis products should be listed on their packaging. After standardized testing is mandated, standardized cannabis labeling must follow.

cannabis labeling, cannabis packaging

Cannabis Labeling: Chemicals Define Cultivars

While it may seem overly particular to consider that everything humans ingest is a mixture of chemicals, it’s true. Labels detailing the chemical composition of products are standard throughout most industries. The cannabis industry has adopted something approaching this systematic approach, yet there are many issues with it when examined by a chemist. Not only do some recreational markets not offer adequate cannabis labeling, but some labels can also prove false or misleading.

Chemical Clusters and Terpene Classification

In May, the PLOS One Journal published an analysis confirming what has been common knowledge in the industry for a while: Sativa and Indica are chemically irrelevant categories when classifying consumer cannabis. Yet, perhaps a more exciting finding is there are distinct clusters of cultivars when classified by terpene concentration. Three clusters of cultivars contain elevated amounts of caryophyllene and limonene, myrcene and pinene, or terpinolene and myrcene. These clusters manifested in samples from all American markets. 

In the words of the study, “it is likely that a sample with the label “Indica” will have an indistinguishable terpene composition as samples labeled “Sativa” or “Hybrid.” By comparison, when samples are labeled by their dominant terpene, there is a better visual separation of data points by their label and a higher mean silhouette score. These results indicate that even a simple cannabis labeling system, in which THC-dominant samples are labeled by their dominant terpene, is better at discriminating samples than the industry-standard labeling system.”

cannabis labeling

Shifting from Strain-Based Cannabis Labeling

The researchers also categorized cultivars into THC-dominant, CBD-dominant, and balanced cultivars. There were by far more THC-dominant cultivars, as THC is the cannabinoid that cultivators are historically most concerned about maximizing. Due to this plurality, THC-dominant cultivars also have the most terpene diversity. In contrast, the CBD-dominant and hybrid cultivars have abundant myrcene across most samples. Interestingly, even the CBD-dominant cultivars expressed over 0.3% THC, meaning they could not be classified as hemp. No scientific reason exists that these varieties cannot be bred to express more terpene and cannabinoid variation.

The study also describes how we need in vivo studies to confirm that cannabis compounds interact with one another to prove they have a synergistic effect. To effectively do so, grouping cannabis cultivars by the chemicals expressed by them rather than marketing terms is an excellent step to prepare for such research.

Again, from the research, “if it is true that different chemotypes of THC-dominant Cannabis reliably produce distinct psychoactive or medicinal effects, then a sensible starting point is to design studies comparing the effects of common, distinctive commercial chemotypes, such as those described by our cluster analysis. Likewise, if there is any modulatory effect of specific cannabinoids or terpenes on the effects of THC, then this should be tested using formulations designed to match the ratios people choose to consume under ‘ecological’ conditions.”

For consumers to know what the product they’re buying does, first, we need the research proving the effects and education on these compounds to be commonplace.

Cannabis Labeling: Supplement, Medicine, or Something Else?

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Throughout the media cycle, celebrity brands and leaders in the industry, such as Cookies, often take the limelight. Most consumers know cultivars such as Sour Diesel and Jack Herer, but few know about the activist Jack Herer or the scientist Raphael Mechoulam. The terms used to popularize cannabis have mixed impacts on informing consumers.

Practices inherited from the street continue to define the industry. To this day, “sativa” and “indica” remain among the most common ways to organize cannabis products. Cultivar names are also common but may not adequately correlate to consistent chemical profiles. So, while a store might offer flower with no helpful information, an educated consumer knows Blue Dream is likely rich in myrcene and pinene – as long as the plant has been grown properly.

The industry isn’t in complete anarchy, and savvy consumers can make wise choices with the available information, but the most helpful strategy moving forward will be creating standards and providing consumer education.

Implementing Effective Cannabis Labeling Standards

Until the science is settled on how the chemicals present in cannabis affect the human body, it is impossible to have a concrete standard for cannabis labeling. However, listing cannabinoid and terpene content is an excellent place to begin.

Next, investing in consumer education through familiarization with cultivars and their corresponding chemical components can help spread knowledge throughout the industry. As this is a substance, our understanding is still developing; there will always be the chance other chemicals should also be listed on the label, but beginning to publish the concentrations of already known active components helps consumers track effects. Pairing this with apps that allow consumers to report their experiences to a database allows for some actionable and distributable information to get around the industry.

 All the tools exist; now, it’s just a matter of widespread adoption.

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