The Call for Mandatory Cannabis Strain Authentication

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An interview with Cindy Orser

As science comes to the cannabis industry, it brings with it a focus on standardization and repeatability. One area where standardization is lacking in the cannabis industry is in the naming conventions used for strains. Cindy Orser, PhD, the chief scientific officer of DigiPath Labs, talked to us about why a system for cannabis strain authentication and classification matters, and what would be involved in creating such a system-and making it mandatory.

You have called for mandatory cannabis strain authentication. What should that authentication include?

Cannabis has emerged from the black market with a lack of horticultural or agronomic standardized naming conventions. Instead, the use of acronyms and nonstandard abbreviations has made it increasingly difficult to have confidence about what is on the market and to make effective comparisons and has created additional uncertainty over the ability to trademark or patent strains.

The first step toward authenticating cannabis cultivation would be to throw out the tradition of “strain” naming and replace it with the agronomic and horticultural convention of “cultivar” names. While plant varieties often occur in nature and breed true, cultivars are selected and cultivated by humans and usually must be propagated vegetatively for true-to-type clones. For example, the strain Blue Dream would become the cultivar Cannabis sativa cv. Blue Dream.

The second step would be to associate a referenced chemotype and genotype with Cannabis sativa cv. Blue Dream. The combination of the Blue Dream cultivar name with its chemotype and referenced genotype would authenticate it.

Coming in line with agronomic standards would help promote the legitimacy of the cannabis industry. In addition, consumers are willing to pay a premium for genotyped, authenticated flowers.

Do we currently have enough information about cannabis strains or cultivars to implement a classification system? If not, what additional information is needed?

Various efforts have been underway toward classification schemes based on chemotypic data for cannabis that are currently being practiced, for example by Leafly (strain tiles), David Schacter (Cannabiscope), and Ethan Russo and Mark Lewis (PhytoFacts). The classification scheme developed by Ethan Russo and Mark Lewis describes three major “chemovar” superclasses based on phytocannabinoid and terpene content to enable patients to easily visually distinguish particular attributes for optimal therapeutic impact. And genotypic-centric efforts at cannabis phylogeny are also underway by several groups including Phylos Galaxy, Medicinal Genomics’ Kannapaedia, and various academic groups including those of Johnathan Page and Nolan Kane. Both approaches-chemotypic and genotypic-are aimed to give cannabis consumers more confidence in what they are purchasing.

What is now on the horizon is a classification approach using both chemoprofiling and genoprofiling tied down to a formal registry of cannabis cultivars. Because of federal restrictions, the cultivar registry would have to be managed on a state-by-state basis.

Who should be involved in establishing a uniform strain classification system?


All stakeholders should participate, from growers to state departments of agriculture to scientists actively working in this area. State regulatory agencies will need to be active participants in creating cannabis cultivar registration systems. There are hopeful signs from the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) with their interest in forming a varietal hemp working group.

What are the barriers to developing such a system? What are the barriers to making it mandatory? How can such barriers be overcome?

The main barrier will be changing human behavior, given that cannabis variants have been introduced, named, and hybridized at will until now. I think the motivating event for adoption of a new nomenclature will occur in California, where recreational cannabis comes online in 2018. California will be the largest cannabis recreational market in the biggest agricultural economy in the United States. Cannabis cultivation will mature rapidly and a cannabis registry will be one important part of that process as the industry rapidly evolves toward big agriculture versus boutique cannabis growers; in both instances, cannabis cultivar authentication will be the key to success and keeping market share.

Research into cannabinoids and terpenes is ongoing. How can a cannabis strain authentication system avoid becoming outdated as research advances?

We can look to established agricultural commodity industries as models to see how new research findings, such as elucidating terpene pathways in the case of cannabis, or introduction of pest-resistance in the case of wheat, can easily be incorporated, lead to registration of a new cultivar, and only strengthen the intellectual property position of specific cultivars. Marketing and branding will require a more reliable experience or therapeutic outcome, and, therefore, tighter controls on authenticating what is actually being grown and processed.

Where do we stand in terms of our knowledge about the correlation between chemical and genotypic profiles of cannabis strains and their pharmacological activities? How would a strain classification system relate to studies aimed at advancing this knowledge?

We do not have a complete assemblage of the genes involved in what we believe are the pertinent pathways that contribute to the pharmacological activities of cannabis, nor do we have a complete picture of the human genetic variants that contribute to a therapeutic outcome.
Although a lot of information has been gathered by various cannabis labs and groups, because of the lack of standardization in analytical methods used to collect chemoprofile data, one can never be fully confident with cross analyses. Likewise, because of nonstandardized sequencing approaches in genotyping, not all genetic sequence data are comparable.

The reality is that a cultivar classification system or registry could serve as a framework or point of reference so that Blue Dream grown in Boston could be compared to Blue Dream grown in California. Cannabis cultivar registration would ideally require full sequencing and chemoprofile data for the given cultivation technique. The registry would also serve the purpose of preventing the re-use of an already registered cultivar name.

Cindy Orser, PhD, is the chief scientific officer of DigiPath Labs. Her talk at the 2017 Cannabis Science Conference was titled “Standardization in the Cannabis Industry.”


This interview was originally published in in the 2017 Cannabis Science Conference Final Program & Exhibitor Guide in partnership with LCGC and Spectroscopy magazines and Joshua Crossney of jCanna. The full program guide is available as an e-book here: