CannabisWhat is a strain?

May 31, 2019by John Cooper

Walk into a dispensary and you will see walls of possibilities. The number of cannabis strain varieties has reached the thousands and continues to expand. Blue Dream, Harlequin, Girl Scout Cookies, and Jack Herer are the names of just a few of the most popular cannabis strains. With new varieties continuing to be added, how do you know which one is right for your needs, such as easing pain, or getting a better night’s sleep?

Cannabis has been domesticated and bred for therapeutic benefit for at least twelve thousand years. Today, cannabis breeders have cultivated countless varieties with colloquial reports of their nuanced differences. The names of the strains reflect their distinct effects, though sometimes this is not obvious to the average or novice customer. For example, the Jack Herer strain is considered spicy and flavorful like the cannabis activist it is named after. Harlequin, inspired by the French term for a mischievous demon character, is considered to be beneficial for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and anxiety due to its moderate tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels and moderate to high cannabidiol (CBD) levels. One-to-One is named because it has an equal balance of THC and CBD and bred for its therapeutic benefits in promoting a positive mood and relaxation.

As early as the 18th century, cannabis strains have been sorted into two categories: sativa and indica. Sativa is characterized as a tall, narrow leaf, cannabis plant that is associated with up-lifting and energizing effects. Indica is a stout, broad leaf, cannabis plant that is associated with calming and sedating effects. Both customers and researchers are finding that plant structure does not necessarily correlate with its effects and that classifying strains based on the structure of the plant is outdated and inaccurate.

One strategy is to focus on the plant’s THC and CBD content, which are the two best characterized cannabinoids. The therapeutic and psychoactive effects of these cannabinoids is well documented in peer-reviewed studies, like in our previous blog post: Therapeutic Benefits of THC. Partially due to their notoriety, cannabis breeders usually grow strains with high THC, high CBD, or a combination of both THC and CBD. As a result, many strains of different names have essentially the same THC/CBD potency. (as discovered in a study of cannabis strains from licensed producers in Canada1). The study’s more interesting finding was that (in certain strains) cannabinoid compounds of lower abundance than THC and CBD varied in potency even when there were no differences in THC or CBD levels. This finding suggests why strains of similar THC/CBD potency may affect a person differently and highlights the need to study the pharmacological effects of the wide range of lesser known cannabinoids present in the cannabis flower.

Perhaps, a better strategy to differentiate strains would be to consider a more comprehensive chemical profile. In addition to lower abundance cannabinoids, terpenes should also be evaluated to differentiate between strains. Understanding of the pharmacological effects of each cannabinoid and terpene would allow better predictions of the therapeutic, psychoactive, and adverse effects of a strain and improve the classification of the strains2. There are over 200 terpenes that contribute towards the dynamic taste and aroma profile that characterizes a strain. Terpenes are found in vegetables, fruits, flowers, spices, and green tea and can provide a range of flavors/aromas including sweet, citrus, floral, or woody. Both cannabis breeders and researchers only have a rudimentary understanding of the effects of terpenes in people. While more research in humans is needed to understand their effects, there is evidence for the “entourage effect,” the synergistic interaction between all the chemical compounds contained in a cannabis flower that may lead to increased therapeutic benefits3,4. Current breeding programs aim to increase THC or CBD levels, but as we understand the therapeutic benefits of other cannabinoids and terpenes, we will be able to better differentiate between strains as well as predict their effects. As the cannabis industry grows, the understanding and classification of cannabis strains will surely improve.

Now that you know what makes a cannabis strain unique, how do you know which one is right for you? Pathway Genomics has developed a new at-home DNA test, CannabisDNA, to help you understand your predisposition to common cannabis-related traits and match you to a cannabis strain. Learn more about how this test can help you personalize your cannabis experience and order your CannabisDNA test here.




  1. Mudge, E.M., Murch, S.J. & Brown, P.N. Chemometric Analysis of Cannabinoids: Chemotaxonomy and Domestication Syndrome. Sci Rep 8, 13090 (2018).
  2. Booth, J.K., Page, J.E. & Bohlmann, J. Terpene synthases from Cannabis sativa. PLoS One 12, e0173911 (2017).
  3. Grof, C.P.L. Cannabis, from plant to pill. Br J Clin Pharmacol 84, 2463-2467 (2018).
  4. Russo, E.B. Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. Br J Pharmacol 163, 1344-64 (2011).


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