The Need for a Weed Database

Strain names aren't cutting it.

The Broccoli Report 
Monday, November 9
Time to read: 8 minutes, 10 seconds. 1636 words.

Good morning! And may we just say: whew. You might’ve expected a review of cannabis-related election results today, but, just like you, we’re still digesting the chips as they fall. Yes, the Broccoli Report is about covering the issues impacting cannabis and creative realms right now, but we aim to present our analyses in a thoughtful way. If that means waiting a week to better understand how the headlines fit into the big picture, we’re ok with that.

Instead, we’re taking today to illustrate the state of cannabis classification through recent wine-inspired appellation legislation, the bruised relationship between growers and data collectors, and up-and-coming botanical archivists. I’ll be back Friday with a timely dive unwrapping the truth about gift guides. Editors and writers from across the publishing landscape will share thoughts on how best to get an editor’s attention, mistakes to avoid, when it’s worth it to pay-to-play—all the good stuff.

Thank you for your continued support! Forward this email to someone who will find it useful. ✿

Above: Weed cyanotypes from Broccoli Issue 03

Why Weed Genes Matter: The Limitations of Strain Names and Appellations.

On dispensary shelves in every legal state—and written in Sharpie on countless clandestine Ziploc baggies—appear thousands of strain names that mean close to nothing. Dawgwalker. Girl Scout Cookies. SFV OG. You may have the real deal, flower grown from seed, or a clone directly handed from the original breeder. But it’s more likely the Dawgwalker you’re smoking has different terpene and cannabinoid concentrations than its namesake. The reason for this is the absence of a standardized way to certify what you’re smoking is indeed what it says it is. Therein lies perhaps the biggest problem in the cannabis industry: the glaring lack of a concrete, science-backed catalog of cannabis cultivars and their genetics.  

The bigger problem? We’re underestimating how much this affects all of us working in and around the industry. 

Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 67 into law, creating a framework for appellations of origin only accessible to outdoor cultivators. 

The bill fine-tunes the Cannabis Appellations Program, an arm of the California Department of Agriculture that borrows conventions from the wine industry, which uses "appellations of origin" to designate where the wine is grown. The CAP aims to promote regional goods and local businesses, prevent the misrepresentation of a cannabis good’s origin, and support consumer confidence about these origins and characteristics. The idea is to ensure that weed labeled “Humboldt-grown” was indeed grown in Humboldt, and that it was grown in the actual ground—quite literally. This law specifies that appellation certifications would only apply to flower grown in the regional soil, without a greenhouse, hoop house, glasshouse, hothouse—no structure allowed. No artificial lighting, either. This disqualifies a great many distinguished cultivators responsible for some of the most ubiquitous cultivars.

Wine quality is closely tied to the varietal (or type) of grape and the terroir (a French word that literally means "land" and indicates the grape’s growing environment), so appellations carry a lot of power. It communicates the region a grape was grown, and it's part of why certain wines can command a premium price (think Beaujolais, or Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon). 

Using the appellation model in the weed realm is a logical approach, to a point. Some places do indeed have specific soil characteristics that lead to higher quality and stronger potency in sun-grown flower, and some strains do thrive in certain regions. And the industry does have a dire need for certifications akin to appellations to help legitimize cannabis products. As I touched on in the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium recap: You can’t properly market great weed without a widely accepted metric of greatness. 

However, the appellation approach does not account for modern cultivation tech that allows indoor producers to mimic outdoor conditions, often to a more controlled, consistent degree. It doesn’t factor in the widespread, totally undocumented crossbreeding behind the cannabis and hemp varietals currently in the market. How does one determine the appellation for a cross between Eastern-originating Hindu Kush and the California-born Girl Scout Cookies? It even eliminates producers who grow from seed, in a region’s natural soil, who choose to employ greenhouse structures around the plants. In the end, the stipulations of SB 67 make this particular law more useful for certifying grow techniques than legitimizing cannabis varietals.

The appellation system's limitations make it clear that there's no substitute for a scientific repository of cannabis genetics. There has long been demand for a centralized, accessible cannabis genetics resource, but navigating the delicate balance of trust and transparency with (necessarily) reclusive cultivators is no simple task. Take it from Phylos Bioscience.

In 2016, the Oregon-based biotech company was positioned to save the weed industry. Large companies were circling, looking to patent popular strains, and small growers were beginning to panic that they would lose the rights to the plants they had grown for years. The launch of the Phylos Galaxy brought the largest database of cannabis genetics to anyone with an internet connection. For growers and breeders, getting into the Galaxy meant understanding why your flower does what it does, and what strains it’s most likely descended from. It also protected them by establishing “prior art”—public evidence that your invention (or strain) is already known or available, and thus making it impossible for your varietal to be patented by bad-guy agricultural goliaths like Bayer-Monsanto. It was made possible through Phylos’ innovative in-house lab—it could accept stem samples from cannabis plants anywhere in the world and used those to build out the unique genetic profiles. Phylos amassed thousands of samples, using visualizations that looked like little solar systems within the Galaxy to depict groupings of cultivars with similar characteristics. 

Then, in April 2019, Phylos announced the start of its own breeding program, with clones available for future purchase. For some in the already skeptical grower community, the people that said they’d save them from Monsanto turned out to be Monsanto. 

Instagram became a battlefield. Farms pulled out of their relationships with Phylos left and right. Former partners leaped to separate themselves from the company in the face of a social media mob. In a Wired piece on the debacle, Mowgli Holmes, Phylos co-founder, commented on the community’s reaction:

“We were surprised. We were naive about it. We didn’t realize how threatening it would seem to people. We saw most of the cannabis industry as being composed of growers. And we thought they would be excited to have the new plants. I think we underestimated how much every grower sees themselves as a breeder as well.”

Replicating cannabis plants based on a dead stem’s genetic information is simply not possible, and the breeders whose genetics have been acquired by Phylos receive royalties through licensing agreements and purchase contracts—a novelty in this particular legal grey area. But all of that was eclipsed by the impression that Phylos was trying to steal unassuming growers’ plant genetics. And if the growers don’t trust the database enough to contribute to it, it can’t serve anyone.

Phylos survived the backlash and continues their work in the space, albeit more focused on the hemp side of things, but I think too many growers have canceled Phylos for the Galaxy to make a real comeback. The need for a science-based genetic map of weed endures.

Every time we mess this up, we lose a little more trust on both sides, sliding farther back from the unified, standardized goal. If we manage to build an ethical, equitable database that protects legacy producers, we can save weed and hemp from going the way of the monopolized soybean. No pressure, right?

The chips aren’t completely stacked against the mission. There’s talk of this international treaty on plant genetic resources providing a framework to share databases between countries, and you can look out for an article in the next issue of Broccoli about a cannabis herbarium in San Francisco collaborating with growers to chronicle cannabis’ expansive family tree. 

Regardless of whether you and your business ever touch actual plants, a science-backed database is a crucial part of progressing and legitimizing the value of U.S.-grown cannabis and hemp. Creating one the right way could protect everything we love about these industries.

Above: Another Room’s mini joint lockers, which we asked the universe for in our Cannabis & COVID-19 newsletter!

One-hitters: Cannabis News at a Glance

  • To avoid potential conflict, the breeders at DNA Genetics preemptively renamed their signature, head-turning cultivar, Miss USA, to Miss DNA. Better safe than sorry.

  • Was your business impacted by this summer’s protests? Supernova Women is providing $27,000 in CERF grants to support Black, Brown, and equity applicant-owned businesses that suffered from property damage and product loss during the uprisings sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police.

  • A recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board in the Northeast officially classifies employees at cultivation and processing facilities as “agricultural laborers,” meaning a clear path to effective unionizing just emerged for cannabis employees in Massachusetts.

  • Good news! Another Room solved another pot problem (one we’ve lamented before!). Their new mini joint lockers are sized to fit all the adorablesolo-sized joints filling dispensary shelves.

  • What do Gwyneth Paltrow, Rebel Wilson, and Bre-Z of Empire have in common? They’re all investing in Cann, a maker of infused cannabis beverages.

  • Over the past three years, Oregon cultivator East Fork Cultivars’ comprehensive CBD-focused cannabis science workshop CBD Certified has grown from an in-person visit to dispensaries statewide to an online webinar, even airing on public access TV. Now, the workshop has evolved to become Cannabis Class—free, focused educational content (in addition to the core webinar) helmed by the inimitable Anna Symonds. It dives deep into categories like Plant, People, Culture, and Products.

  • Hugging cows may qualify as a new wellness trend, and that actually makes more sense than most headlines that include “wellness trend.”

Off to smoke weed and hug cows,
Lauren Yoshiko