Despite what your dispensary or licensed producer might tell you, that’s probably not Purple Kush you’re smoking. In fact, a Canadian researcher suggests marijuana strain names are often nonsense.

“We know extraordinarily little,” said Sean Myles, a 38-year-old associate professor in the Department of Plant and Animal Sciences, Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

“When you get Purple Kush from one place and Purple Kush from another, chances are they’re no more genetically related to each other than they are to some random other stuff.”

Myles started off his career examining the genetics of grapes in the United States, later moving onto apples. However, seeing marijuana as the most commonly used illicit and legal drug, and suspecting not all was how it appeared, the Fredericton-born researcher and his team decided to examine the genetic structures of strains of hemp and marijuana.

Typically, marijuana is divided into two distinctive subspecies: indica, which supposedly gives you “couch lock” when smoked and is characterized by wide leaves; and sativa, which has more narrow leaves and supposedly gives you a more energetic high.

Myles said as marijuana became increasingly legitimate to grow in Canada and the U.S., and with questions tied to medical marijuana lingering, he saw folk-knowledge move into those discussions.

He said some of the more dubious claims involve the ancestry estimates of strains.

“There were often claims about, ‘oh yeah, this particular strain that we’re going to sell you from a legitimate company, under a federally licensed company, is 75 per cent sativa and 25 per cent indica,’ ” he said.

As a professional scientist involved in plant breeding and genetics, he found these claims highly doubtful.

“First [the distributors are] making the assumption that there’s two distinct subspecies of cannabis that are easily identifiable and have distinct genetic backgrounds,” Myles said.

“Second, they’re assuming that the breeders who have generated this culture around it that are selling to you, have been careful enough in their breeding schemes to actually be able to accurately estimate the ancestry that is in that strain.”

Myles' team examined many strains

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To conduct the research, Myles and his team worked with one of the first licensed producers of medical marijuana in Canada, Peace Naturals, who collected and grew as many strains as it could.

Peace Naturals extracted the DNA, provided Myles’ team leaf tissue and told them what the seed company or the distributor claimed it to be. Myles’ team examined DNA and released a paper of their finding.

The good news: people generally know the difference between hemp and weed.

The bad news: they don’t know much else.

While the research did suggest there might be something to the indica and sativa divide, it also showed when it came to labelling, these distributors had little or no knowledge of what they were talking about.

“When you buy a bottle of Pinot Noir from California, you expect it to be the same variety of grape if you buy it from Australia or from France,” Myles said. “We found it was often the case that varieties (of marijuana) with the same name were more genetically related to varieties with different names than the ones with the same.”

When Myles’s team examined the strain known as Jamaican Lambs Bread, labelled to be 100 per cent sativa, it was found to be nearly identical to a reported 100 per cent indica strain from Afghanistan.

“It’s a goddamn mess,” Myles said. “When they say it’s 75 per cent indica and 25 per cent sativa, the standard response should be, ‘horseshit.’ ”

Myles examined strains for Peace Naturals only, but he said the overall conclusions of the paper apply everywhere equally. He suspects this weak correlation between what distributors say they’re selling and the actual genetic ancestry is rooted in the underground market.

While there are databases containing all strains of apples, no such database exists for cannabis. 

Additionally, in the world of apples, the consumer knows the difference between a McIntosh and a Honeycrisp. Myles said this isn’t the case for marijuana.

“They’ll say you do, but they don’t,” he said. “They have no idea.”

What’s encouraging, said Myles, is the study was assisted by a licensed producer, Peace Naturals, and partially designed by Anandia Labs, which is interested in giving licensed producers a cheap, cost-effective method of evaluating the ancestry of strains. Individuals from both organizations were co-authors on the final paper.

“[There] is interest in the industry now to go that route,” he said.

Joseph Tunney is a freelance journalist based in Saint John, New Brunswick. He focuses on news, arts, culture and humour.