We’ve all been there, sitting in front of a bowl, rig or vape pen wondering why our strain of choice just isn’t cutting it. The effects just are not nearly the same as you remember. There are several factors that go into making your high different, which can make it hard to just pinpoint one at a time. Some have to do with genetic makeup of the plant and how it was grown, while others have to do with our own internal chemistry and how we remember the high. The practice of farming cannabis in the modern format, where the scientific method is properly applied, is still in an infantile stage when compared to every other farmed plant. Little testing has been done in regards to the genetic differences of the varying cannabis strains as well as which farming practices produce certain metabolites in the cannabis plant. Even less scientific research has been done on how the wide array of cannabinoids and terpenes interact within the human body, as that requires government funded research to provide trusted results.
A Few Terms to Know:
Phenotype: The set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment. A phenotype results from the expression of an organism’s genetic code, it’s genotype, as well as influence of environmental factors and the interactions between the two. Genotypes allow growers to consistently identify plants and group them beyond shared physical traits.
Genotype: The part of the genetic code of a cell, and therefore any individual, which determines one or more of its characteristics (phenotype). Genotype is one of three factors that determines phenotype, alone with inherited epigenetic factors and non-inherited environmental factors. A genotype is not set in stone but rather defines a certain range of characteristic possibilities.
Epigentics: The study of heritable phenotype changes that do not involve alterations in the DNA sequence. This includes several mechanisms that center around gene regulation and which ones along the DNA sequences are expressed or not.
Chemotype: The chemical phenotype (a.k.a. chemotype) is the phytochemical expression of a given phenotype. Phytochemical, in the case of cannabis, is any cannabinoid, terpinoid and flavonoid that the plant produces. Chemotypes are classified by their particular chemistry and determined by the results of analytical lab tests.
Chemovar: A chemical varietal. It is a new classification that moves beyond indica, hybrid and sativa labeling to reflect differences in the composition of secondary metabolites. Eventually, and possible very soon, these chemovar’s will be used to determine the desired effect of a particular cannabis strain among it’s various phenotypes.
Cultivar: A plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding, such as when cannabis varieties differ enough that it is given a new strain name. Nearly all of the world’s food crops and many ornamental flowering plants are cultivars.
Landrace: A landrace is a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of species of animal or plant that has developed over time, through adaptation to its natural cultural environment of agriculture and pastoralism, and due to isolation from other populations of the species. In cannabis, this would include both strains that were cultivated over time by isolated groups of humans and those that were still isolated, until recently, in nature continuing to evolve with the surrounding habitat.
Cannabis is the most chemically diverse plant on the planet, so you will see bigger differences in phenotype expression than say your common household broccoli or orange. With over 200 unique terpenes, over 20 known flavonoids, and over 60 cannabinoids there is a massive array of possible combinations. On the other hand oranges only have 8-10 known terpenes, 2 flavonoids, and 3 types of sugar with only one terpene being major, which is always limonene at over 90%. New crosses of the citrus genus do not produce radically different fruit and take many guided generations to produce a new strain of fruit, such as tangerines or lemons. This is unlike cannabis, where a new cross of two slightly different cannabis parents can create a lineage with phenotype outliers in the seed stock that produce very different results than either of the two parent plants. Much of this diversity is attributed to the fact that cannabis can be grown just about everywhere and has been at this point. Cannabis formed its own specific genotype dominant strains suited to the climate in each corner of the world.
To expand on this, most of us have heard of Thai, Hindu mountain and Jamaican landrace strains but many would be surprised to hear even Russia and Australia have their own old lineages. Humans have been cultivating this plant as a fiber and medicine for thousands of years, with 2,700 years being the oldest intact stash currently found. Cannabis, specifically of Hemp variety, was found to be originally indigenous to Central and South Asia and our earliest findings show evidence of it on the Japanese islands. Archaeobotany discoveries have discovered remains of dumps containing hemp fiber rubbish dating back 7,000 BC among old Japanese villages and even hemp leaf imprints have been found on Chinese pottery dating back as far as 5,000BC.
Throughout the years since, cannabis has been moved around into every imaginable climate, which has further evolved it rapidly. A few have had wild adaptations such as varieties found in Russia that require no change in lighting to produce a budding plant, unlike a normal photoperiod plant that requires a certain level of sunlight to start or stop flowering. As well those strains native to the Hindu mountains are squat, thick leaved and can survive intense winter climates while those strains of African/Australian descent have incredibly thin or small leaves which do immensely better when temperatures are high and water is scarce. Lastly on this topic, the natural predators found in each climate required the surviving plants to evolve to have chemicals that ward off pests and predators, which is where the large variety of terpenes comes into play, and are used in the same fashion as any other aromatic food such as herbs, citrus fruits, and trees. While cannabis is considered a mutt in the horticulture world, the vast range of distinct landrace ancestry still lives on just waiting for the right cross of strains and growing conditions to release a combination of its former traits to produce another new unique cultivar.
Aside from its diverse lineage, sprouting a new cannabis seed will never be an exact copy of the other seeds in the stock, much like how we wouldn’t expect siblings born at different times to act or look exactly identical. This can either be convenient or inconvenient to a grower, depending on if they want to have diversity to search for a keeper phenotype or if they are looking for a specific trait remain consistent amongst all seedlings. If a strain has been crossed with itself several times, with all offspring used for breeding matching the original strains phenotypes, then seedlings are more likely to act like fraternal twins, with consistently shared characteristics and little variation, than regular seed siblings would. That is generally notated with a F (such as F2, F3, and so on) to show generational milestones for the strain. Eventually when you get to F7 or beyond the strain is considered an IBL (inbred line) where, if the grower has done a good job of selecting parents along the way, seedlings will have similar enough traits to each other that they could be considered twins. Some popular examples of this are Sour Diesel, White Widow, Northern Lights #5, Herijuana and of course all andrace strains.
Speaking of twins, if a cannabis grower wants to keep a strains exact phenotype in their garden then they have to take a clone of the strain, by cutting and rooting a branch, which produces an identical copy of the original strain. As long as the environment stays the same then the clone will act exactly like the original plant, usually referred to as the “mother”. However, if it is grown in a different environment, whether it be soil/water composition, temperature, or light intensity then the plant will show different expressions of its genotype. A example you can see in humans would be how even identical twins, while still genetically closer to each other than anyone else on earth, will still end up as distinctly different people over time with divergent traits such as height, personality and skin color. Let’s say you got lucky and just bought some great looking nugs of your favorite strain that were made from a clone from the same grower that you originally had your favorite strain from, the environment it is grown will very likely be different enough to cause changes to the cannabinoids, terpenes and overall look of said bud. The change in cannabinoids and terpenes will then form a new high that is akin to, but slightly different, than the original. This change is easy to observe on a farm with cannabis plants that are all on the same regiment of bottle fed nutrients, rather than creating an organic soil that works with microorganisms to feed the plant, which is seen in hyrdoponics, coconut coir or rudimentary soil sets ups, as this strict nutrient regimen will cultivate a similar aroma in all that farms flowers. This can be helpful to study because when you create an environment that is unchanging among a variety of strains then the cultivars will show the exact changes that specific environment has on the average cannabis phenotype, such as all plants on the same regiment testing for the exact same top testing terpene. This is why some farms will have all their strains regularly test high with one uncommon terpene that is rarely found in large amounts in one strain, let alone an entire menu of differing genetics.
Even if you do find a grower of your favorite strain that consistently produces the same flower in the same conditions, odds are it still won’t work the same for you every time and that has to do with how the body reacts to chemicals over time. When you build any habit, your body starts to get used to the motions in one way or another and that extends easily into the marijuana world. As with any drug, your bodies cells start to get used to the influx of chemicals that cause certain reactions. Those receptors that tell the cell to react to the chemicals slowly start to become less sensitive to those signals, causing the user to need more to see the same effects. This can easily be felt when smoking high THC strains as even after a few weeks of daily use the body can build up a tolerance to the psychoactive effects. If it happens with THC, then it can be assumed that the other cannabinoids and terpenes work in a similar manner, meaning over time the delightful effects of favorite strain slowly starts to dwindle unless you increase your intake. If you stay in one place while you get high, then you develop a habitual mindset for those surroundings but if you smoke the same amount in a new place then there won’t be habits left to fall back on leaving the mind to feel higher.
Apart from building a tolerance, your mood and health levels can have an affect on the strains effect for better or worse. As an example, if you have a strain high in limonene, which has been shown to help lower depression, but you are more depressed than usual that day then the effects of consuming the strain will help reduce your depression more so than on an average day. A novel way to think about it is like terpenes being the nutrients for our mood and we are hungrier for whatever your bodies needs to repair, such as craving protein based foods after an intense workout. While these changes can happen quickly on a day to day basis, they aren’t the only ones that can take place. Larger lifestyle variations can cause changes in not only the effectiveness of cannabinoids but also their immediate effects on the body. Many users have reported THC to relax them when their life outside of recreational use is relaxing yet over the course of a few weeks to months, such as switching jobs, can rapidly change the psychoactive effects of THC into causing the user to have overtly paranoid and anxious feelings instead of those of being their old relaxed self. Others have reported it from making them laugh uncontrollably to feeling incredibly sleepy.
As cannabis is further studied and legalized these changes in effects will be less convoluted, but at this point all the above topics are still in their infancy of understanding. These are merely some guidelines to follow and solid basis for the continuation of our journey with this complex plant. If you would like to read more on how changes to your own environment alter cannabis’s effects, you can do so here. More on the history of cannabis can be found at Wikipedia or their linked sources such as Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany, where you can find a preview of the text.