In Which We Explore Cannabis Vocabulary & Its Accuracy
Tytron and I have been consuming a lot of documentary content lately; from film to long-form nonfic essay and everything in between. Some of the greatest evidence of mary jane’s slow creep into mainstream consciousness, culture, and vernacular can be seen in the explosion of well-made and funded media available – especially in streaming channels. There are stand-up comedians whose entire acts are weed-related, who participate in entirely weed-themed comedy shows. Various weed documentaries detail everything from the legal struggles of up and coming cannasseurs, to celebrity spiritual journeys, and coming-of-age tales, to women and POC in the cannabis industry, from farmer to consumer, to the industries that have sprung up around the multi-billion dollar legal cannabis industry.
Explain It Like I’m High
A couple nights ago, we watched the weed episode of Netflix’s “Explained” series, and I haven’t been able to get it off my mind. It was mostly good, but some of the cannabis elitism I saw really rubbed me the wrong way. I’ll begin by saying this: They’re not wrong. The topics they discussed were relevant, timely, the information was correct, and the experts they call on are legitimate. When it comes to slick, well-made documentary television that’s supplying accurate and valuable information, this show does it.
Sativa / Indica – What’s the Difference?
Truth: the traditional/pervasive vocabulary we use is largely outdated and scientifically incorrect. Most of us would say something like this mnemonic to remember that Sativa at Sunrise is good for the day — focused, elevated, clear, bright, conversational. Take indica when the sky is indigo for feelings that are sleepy, body heavy, pain relieving, floating, restful, calm. And, of course, there are cross-breeds of the two, which make hybrid strains we call “indica dominant” or “sativa dominant,” for obvious reasons.
But because of how many times these strains have been cloned and bred and cross bred over many decades, and because a “purity baseline” was never established before we began; to bring us to the point of current potency and — as Michael Pollan (plant expert, author of The Botany of Desire) says in the show — flowers that are so disproportionately large that it’s kind of grotesque, there is no way we can truly separate the two “strains” anymore. The original versions of the strains no longer exist for comparison, not to mention that they’ve all now been interbred to create desirable traits.
The colloquial knowledge to identify strain by appearance: a tall, spindly plant with thin, widely spaced compound leaves that connect at the petiole is sativa or sativa dominant, and that lower, bushy plants with fat compound leaves that overlap are indica or indica dominant, is also no longer considered accurate.
I can repeat all the things I’ve read, or watched in documentaries, or I can just show you some of the expressions of our Groot strain, and you can see for yourself. (PS. I do highly recommend this episode of Explained on Netflix for a crash course in basic cannabis knowledge and an idea of where we’re going with future pharmacological development.)
The Many Branches of Groot
A completely unscientific case study of gene expression over multiple generations and clones of one plant
Part 1. Groot’s Origin Story
Groot is the strain we have primarily been growing over the past few years. The mother was grown from a seed that we were reasonably certain came from some NY Sour Diesel we purchased from a dispensary. Whether or not that strain was accurately labeled is beyond my knowing.
Groot 1, grown from seed: tall, robust, tall bud formations that hug the stems, a strong, central trunk, and huge, well spaced, purple foliage.
Groot 2, cloned from Groot 1 Small, perfectly formed pale green leaves and extremely white, frosty buds and very extended sugar leaf growing prolifically in small groups over entire surface of plant.
Groot 3, cloned from Groot 2. Small, uniform, perfectly formed and outward facing bright green leaves. Bushy, low plant. Buds grow in round balls at branch termini.
Groot 3b – green, long leaves, spindly trunks with propensity to grow into and up through other plants, almost like a vine. Sometimes, the compound leaves are joined into a single leaf at the base, well before reaching the stem. Bud grows in baseball sized cluster at topmost terminus of the plant, and in several points down the stem. (The pictures I have of this guy aren’t great, sorry)
I just went out to the coast to visit some Groot clones we left with a friend. One bush is small-leafed and creating many upward lifting cone-shaped buds. The other is growing more vertically and producing balls of buds, has the large, dark fat leaves. It’s hard to believe all these girls come from the same seed mother, but they have. What’s even stranger to me is that multiple clones of the same mother are so different, as they should be genetically identical. Not only that, but the smoke, while definitely less profound than the appearance, does vary from one generation or clone to the next. Anything can change your final product, from minute changes in growing conditions to the harvest and curing method + duration.
With that in mind, and knowing there’s no baseline for comparison, this shows you how differently a single plant across three generations, just in one location that was fairly consistent (with the exception of our indoor/outdoor grows), can turn out. Now, imagine all the Groot clones we’ve given away, planted in the wild, etc., and how those plants, in just a generation or two of growing in different conditions under guidance and care from other humans, may express their lineage.
When dealing with live plants and organic processes on a small scale, it’s easy to understand why there’s not a lot of ability to control growing conditions to the point that one can guarantee a consistent end result. I find this to be true for any organic processes, like brewing, culturing or fermenting, food gardening, livestock keeping, etc. Until you’re dealing with an operation at the level that includes absolutely consistent (a) growing medium (b) total light control (c) total air flow control and filtering (d) human care (e) water flow, filtration, and nutrient levels, as well as space-wide humidity control, there’s no way you can get an absolutely consistent grow. There exist a million variables that affect how a living organism expresses itself, and even under tightly regulated conditions, a grow can vary from one crop to the next. Add to that poor documentation as clones and seeds are passed from one grower and collector to the next, decade-after-decade, and who knows what you’re smoking.
How is This Relevant
Lemme bring this back around. What I’m attempting to do is break down some of what they’re discussing around strain unreliability and how labeling means nothing, and so forth, in a way that’s a little easier to understand.
So, how do we talk about strains if we’re not using sativa and indica, and all the other language we’re familiar with? One of the experts shows us some medical extract packaging and suggests we go with the scientific names, which are boring, sound the same, and no one’s going to remember. This is where I think they have it wrong.
Even though there’s no real way to figure out what strain came from what lineage, and whether or not those were i/s dominant or pure is beyond us now. We can’t go backward from where we are. Meanwhile, discussing cannabis using these identifiers has gone on for decades, and a lot of people understand these terms as a way to describe strains. It has its benefits: familiarity and verbal shorthand; and it fails for scientific accuracy. Where is the halfway point?
How Conversational Language Works
Maybe where we’ll go is determining which sets of compounds make up what we’ll call sativa, and which make up what we’ll refer to as indica, and then all the hybrids in between are shades of green. In that way, we’d have a familiar vocabulary attached to a scientific scale, and then we’d have a reasonably good idea of where specific crops fall within those guidelines…not strains, just crops. Because we know how different one crop to the next can be, and because strain parentage is difficult to track, and because life is crazy and it does what it wants, and there will always be people out there growing their own special strains. You can’t contain life. So under that system, if you’re selling, you’d grow, harvest, get tested, and get an indication of where your crop falls on the scale, and that’s the end of it. Call it whatever you want; at the end of the day, the only true way to describe a specific harvest is by its chemical attributes.
Even still, we need a vocabulary we can use in day-to-day speech.
It’s already overwhelming to people who’ve never talked about cannabis to get deluged in new vocabulary. It’s important right now to make sure people don’t feel left out because they don’t have the language to talk about cannabis. Part of making it accessible to everyone is being inclusive, and that means not being an elitist who makes people feel like crap because they’re just learning.
It’s a good way to communicate what we want out of the smoking experience, and we have to have that vocabulary, and it can’t just be proprietary chemical names. If these experts think all of us who enjoy using cannabis are going to want it in pill form, they’ve gotten it more wrong than they can possibly know. One of the things that attracts quite a lot of people to cannabis is its natural gentleness, and the ability it gives one to play both farmer and apothecary. Many medical users have come from pharmaceuticals to cannabis, and I don’t think most of us would relish the thought of going back to that way of managing our health.
No one’s going to rattle off lists of numbers and stats and active compound percentages. No one’s going to want to use Latin names or pharmaceutical names. Seriously.
Man, all I want is a good sativa-dominant hybrid.