In the not very distant past, coffee drinkers drank Maxwell House and beer drinkers gulped Bud without a second thought. They were also the days when people bought and sold and smoked pot without asking its strain or name.
Not anymore. The return of craft production has altered our choices when it comes to coffee and beer, as well as chocolate, salt, cupcakes, toast, porridge, grilled cheese and damn near everything else.
Some would say marijuana's already artisanal, since in Colorado, small-batch production is mandated by law, with centers required to grow at least 70 percent of what they sell. From there, medical and recreational buyers can choose among indica and sativa strains for their supposed downer or upper effects, respectively, as well as from among dozens of names like Sensi Kush, Vanilla Sky, Fuzzy Sugaree and Cherry Chem Dawg. But do those names and distinctions mean anything?
Dr. Jeffrey Raber isn't so sure. Raber — who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Southern California and owns The Werc Shop, a Pasadena, Calif., botanicals company and research laboratory — reports that his ongoing study of the chemical profiles of more than 1,500 brands and strains of marijuana sold medicinally in California is at best inconclusive when it comes to differences between sativas and indicas. And Raber has discovered little consistency among the strain names. "Is OG Kush this week the same as OG Kush next week?" he asks rhetorically.
Raber says marijuana strain names among merchants are typically as inscrutable as patent medicine labels before the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906."We've actually witnessed when a cultivator has come into a dispensary and said, 'Here's my product,' and they say, 'We'll just change the name,'" he says. "I'm very confident there's very little naming integrity in the California market, and I think it's a pretty similar situation in other states."
The chemical profiles and the effects of the products Raber has tested "can be drastically different," he says — differences that don't necessarily correlate with an indica or sativa designation or a name. And he says the differences between the indicas and the sativas he tested appear to have been exaggerated.
"One problem there," he says, "is when we say, 'Hey, insomniac, you need something to put you to sleep, so I'll give you this indica' — when it may be uplifting."
The above-board market for marijuana must evolve, Raber argues. "Now that we know there are differences, we need to come up with chemical-classification differences, not just flavor-of-the-week party names. We know how we can get there, but it's going to take a large community effort, a lot of feedback from a lot of people."
One essential step, he says, may be collaboration between researchers and growers. "We're trying to say, 'Hey guys, if you want to know what you have and keep the brand, we can help you with that.'"
Jesse Stanley could be the kind of grower Raber has in mind. One of the five Stanley brothers who grow marijuana exclusively for the two Colorado Springs Indispensary shops, and provide it wholesale to between seven and 10 other Colorado businesses at any one time, Stanley says he's not surprised that a researcher like Raber would have found the differences between indicas and sativas murky. Common labels notwithstanding, he says, "as far as I know, there are very few 100 percent indicas or 100 percent sativas."
"Some have a nose to them, like Bubba Kush, so that you know what you've got is some [variation] of that plant," Stanley continues. "However, we live in Colorado, where anybody can say whatever they want to say, and it doesn't matter."
Stanley proudly vouches for the consistency of strains such as the well-known Charlotte's Web that he and his brothers developed for its high-CBD characteristics, and now tightly control. But when he goes to another dispensary or shop, he says, he's not always reassured.
"I've heard of people cutting off the tops of buds that have more color and selling it as one thing, and then taking the bottom of it and calling it something else," he says. "There's some integrity in this business, but there's some I've seen where they don't care what they call it as long as it sells."
Ian Barringer owns Rm3, a Boulder laboratory that tests marijuana for medical and recreational markets, and he shares some of Raber and Stanley's wariness. "To my knowledge there isn't any real good analysis out there of the different strains, of what's being sold at this dispensary as Sour Diesel and at that dispensary as Sour Diesel," Barringer says. "This is an area we hope to start studying ... to answer those kinds of questions."
In the meantime, if Barringer goes to a Colorado dispensary or recreational shop, how comfortable is he with the strain and product names?
"I wouldn't be terribly confident," he says. "I've tested Durban Poison from one dispensary and from another, and they're far from identical. I know there are inconsistencies within the market. Over the last three years we've had such an explosion of production that it's not surprising that names are applied to the wrong plant, and even that some people aren't caring what the label is on their plant."
If one follows the historical trail from patent medicines to today's Big Pharma, the sale of marijuana would be due for federal regulation in the not-too-distant future. The idea doesn't always sit well with industry types. Regulation is "a hard question," Barringer says. "But ultimately, what's more important is that you're getting marijuana that's of a strength that's reasonably close to what's advertised and doesn't have pesticides and things like that, isn't it?"
Stanley is a little more fatalistic. "I think ultimately if they want it to be legalized across the nation, I don't know of another industry the government hasn't regulated in one way or another," he says. "So yes, I think that's the way it's going to go. I don't necessarily agree with it, but there has to be some kind of regulation."