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Testing & Processing Cannabinoid analysis, Classification, Potency testing, Legislation & policy

Smoke and Mirrors

Well, according to a recent study, perhaps not… 

A team of researchers set out to analyze the cannabinoid and terpene diversity of almost 90,000 samples from six US states – and then compare what they found with the labels (1). Although they found distinct cannabis chemotypes were reliable across all regions, the commercial labels on cannabis products did not consistently align with observed chemical diversity. 

Specifically, Indica/Hybrid/Sativa nomenclature does not appear to be a reliable indicator of true chemical content. Strain names were slightly more reliable overall, but some strains were less reliable than others…

We spoke with Nick Jikomes, one of the authors of the paper, to explain what it all means.

Where did you begin?

We had access to a large dataset that included cannabinoid and terpene measurements from six different US states and were interested to see if any clear patterns of variation were present across states. These measurements were of cannabis flower samples within the commercial market – that is products destined for consumer use. Could we segment samples into distinct groups, defined purely by chemistry, using unbiased algorithmic methods? We strongly suspected this would yield clear results. Our real interest was comparing these quantitative results to the product labeling systems used commercially to see if they matched up with the chemistry in a clear way.

Can you summarize your findings?

The Indica/Sativa/Hybrid labels commonly used to label products and infer their effects have a very poor relationship to product chemistry. And strain names are highly variable in terms of how consistent they map to chemistry from product to product. As such, the labeling systems most commonly used to predict effects and market products in the US cannabis industry are highly unlikely to be reliable markers of how products will affect consumers.

Do you have a call to action as a result of these findings? 

One potential call to action is for regulators to become better about imposing labeling standards on cannabis products – another is for producers to be more rigorous about labeling products. However, at the end of the day, I am doubtful that either of these things will happen. Everything is simply driven by how consumers spend their money. All of the power lies with the consumers – who have the power to demand better labeling standards by becoming more discerning with how they spend their money.

And, although there should be stricter regulations and standards, I do not have high confidence that regulators have the knowledge or motivation to craft these in ways that are rooted in science.

You have plans to release your dataset into the world… 

Yes! We are making our dataset, which grows each quarter, available to any university-affiliated research groups interested in publishing their results in peer-reviewer literature. The dataset is very rich and there is certainly more we could have done but couldn't fit into a single study. There may also be fruitful ways to combine this growing dataset with other datasets. I hope other research groups will use this data to make further discoveries in the coming years.

We were limited to analyzing data from six US states, and though this made our study one of the most geographically diverse studies to date in commercial cannabis, it would be useful to analyze data from additional regions. We also had no access to genetic data, and a very worthwhile study would be to tie the patterns of phytochemical diversity we mapped out to different genetically-defined lineages of cannabis.

Image credit : Alesia Kozik /

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  1. Smith et al., PLoS one, 17, e0267498 (2022). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0267498
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