There’s a pot strain for almost everything — if you believe marketers and the internet. Smoke Blue Dream for “gentle cerebral invigoration”; Green Crack for “sharp energy and focus”; OG Kush “to crush stress under the weight of heavy euphoria”; or one of thousands of others based on your desire to boost creativity, relieve muscle spasms, fall asleep, and more.
The only catch? Much of that stuff is bullshit, says pot scientist Jeff Raber.
“It’s not controlled and it’s really not reliable, therefore you’re not going to be able to draw solid or consistent conclusions that you could rely on,” Raber tells Inverse.
Raber, a chemist and the founder of cannabis testing company The Werc Shop, says the first challenge with predicting the effects of pot is that most pot is badly labeled. His own research includes a 2015 study showing huge variation in weed marketed under the same name.
“OG Kush is really not able to be mapped to any particular chemical composition whatsoever,” he says. “The more popular the name, the less likely it would be to have a very consistent chemical composition.”
Similarly, Raber says, how marijuana is cultivated and prepared for market lead to huge variation in the final product, which is often poorly communicated to consumers. In another 2015 study, he showed highly inaccurate THC counts in marijuana edibles products, with 83% of products tested being off by more than 10%. And that’s not even getting into questions of contamination — “a big problem,” he says — such as when a cultivating agent, herbicide, fungicide, or some other unwanted substance gets into products.
Even when pot strains are correctly labeled, there’s very little science establishing their varying effects.
“I don’t believe that we have a really good way of saying this particular name of a cultivar will map towards those specific chemical compositions which then most likely will elicit this desired response,” Raber says.
It’s true there’s some consistency in the strain effects described in user reviews. The extensive crowd-based reviews on Leafly, for instance, suggest general agreement that Sour Diesel has a more energizing effect than Skywalker does. But crowds can be misled.
“You can’t definitely say [what works] because you’re not really placebo-controlling it,” Raber says. “Is it a suggestion from already looking it up and [users] agree with what’s there? Did they actually feel that way? Maybe they couldn’t discern really what they felt because there weren’t options to plug into the website.”
Leafly did not respond to a request for comment.
There’s also the reality that pot affects people differently.
“Everyone’s unique in their own needs,” Raber says. “We’re not even sure how much you may need different types of chemicals … throughout even the same day.”
And there’s more variation introduced with different methods for getting high.
“Oral is very different than inhaled, which is very different than topical, which is very different than potential sublingual or suppositories,” Raber says.
What we actually know about the varying effects of weed is pretty limited. Most studies focus on the effects of a single molecule found in weed even though it’s recognized in the field that the effect of weed depends on the interaction of dozens of cannabinoids like THC and CBD and pungent oils called terpenes. This principle is known as the entourage effect.
We might know how THC and CBD interacted with a single cell receptor based on a petri dish observations, for instance, but a molecule like CBD actually “interacts with 60 different receptors in the body,” Raber says. Or we might associate the terpene linalool with sleepiness, but “there’s a lot of linalool in a whole bunch of cultivars that no one would ever claim made them feel sedated.”
The degree of uncertainty surrounding marijuana is, of course, problematic for a substance that millions are turning to as medication. For Raber, the biggest risk is that prospective patients will decide weed isn’t for them based on bad information. He imagines an insomniac who smokes a supposedly sedative indica strain, ends up staying up all night, and promptly gives up on marijuana — even when another strain might have had the perfect effect.
Then again, this variability is also one of the most exciting things about weed.
“That complexity is a double-edged sword of how you can help so many different people in a broad-based set of ailments, but then, on the other side, how do you figure out which strain’s the right one,” Raber says.
How should patients proceed in this uncertain environment? Raber recommends that people do their best to seek out reliable strains, including stuff that is lab-tested and certified or comes from a trusted provider; and that people should be ready to draw their own conclusions about what works for them.
What will it take to reach a better era for weed?
Raber says pot companies will have to do their part: “We hope that cultivators and producers will start to standardize their methods and produce reproducible products, consistent ones that will be lab-tested and verified for their chemical composition, and affix the proper label to those names.”
So will government: “We’re seeing the draft regulations and new laws in California that are really going to start to dictate that you must be accurate with what you put on your labels. They’re not seemingly going to be very tolerant of grandiose marketing claims without any sort of substantiation by them.”
So, of course, will science: “The pace is starting to increase. As we see regulations move forward and further efforts to solidify the operations and allowing everyone to operate in this fashion more, scientists and scientific sophistication are jumping in. We’re lucky enough to have great tools nowadays to capture [this level of complexity.] I think we going to get there.”