Connect with us


Is It Time for 
a New Cannabis Taxonomy?

We can do a better job of matching the marketing promises of our product’s effects with actual consumer experiences, via molecular research combined with purposeful consumption.




CONSUMERS KNOW WHAT they want out of the products they seek to purchase. Meeting product expectations is straightforward in many industries. Unfortunately, that’s too often not the case in cannabis.

It’s been very difficult for us to establish a taxonomy for cannabis products where the classifications accurately reflect their perceived outcome.

When will the day arrive when the sativa we purchase gives us the productive day in perfect flow that was advertised? When the indica we bought locks us deep into a meditative space? It has been discussed before that a better classification system for cannabis is needed and yet an antiquated taxonomy remains pervasive.

I’ve found myself standing in a dispensary exhausted from a long day and requesting a relaxing indica, ultimately giving over to essentially being lied to about the likely effects of my purchase.


How do we get to a more useful dialog to set realistic expectations and how can we better support the evolution of the industry to something more reliable?

Understanding the driving force for the current state of things can be helpful. Consumers would like guidance on their shamanless journeys through plant medicine. But to give good guidance, fairly consistent outcomes are needed to learn from and point towards.

Herein lies the problem. Looking at the plant, we see that cannabis does not fit into the neat box we’d like it to. It’s a diverse plant that is highly adaptable, causing a wide range of variance in its chemotypic expressions.

The Beginning of Classificaton

The history of the cannabis plant shows how we have struggled to fully comprehend its complexity. Over the years, cannabis has been sorted into as many as four major classifications. These classifications are widely debated and certainly not universally accepted but here they are:

  • Cannabis sativa
  • Cannabis indica
  • Cannabis ruderalis
  • Cannabis afghanica (or kafiristanica)

The origins of this cannabis taxonomy trace back to 1753 when Swiss naturalist Carl Linnaeus decided all cannabis plants would be a single species named cannabis sativa. Years later, French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck proposed a new classification system after noting that the appearance of cannabis plants had a lot of variance.

Lamarck decided cannabis plants that were generally short with thicker, shorter leaves would be classified as indica and taller plants with thin, wispier leaves would be classified as sativa. Lamarck noted that the plants offered different effects in addition to their physical variance.

Later botanists argued that Lamarck’s method of classification was flawed, as variances in effects and morphology were often due to the plant’s adaptability to different growing environments.

Some of the plant’s most abundant and desired compounds are the most influenced by environmental factors. Terpenes for example, exist as part of the plant’s defense mechanism against pests. Delta 9 THC potency is greatly impacted by the intensity of solar radiation to which the plants are exposed. THC acts as a sort of sunscreen for the plant.


With environmental factors being so impactful and the plant being so diverse, this means that even if a cultivar (a particular cannabis strain or genetic expression) is found to be favorable for a consumer, the likelihood they will get consistent effects from one farm’s version of that cultivar to the next is low. Even a cultivar grown by the same farmer can vary from one season to the next.

Indoor grow environments with strict conditions can minimize variables from crop to crop. This helps produce consistent commercial strains— even eventually providing a broader industry standard for those strains.

With all of the learning we have done to understand the plants’ composition, science has been the most conclusive. Through molecular testing performed in recent years, most now agree there is only one species, cannabis sativa L.

Guiding the Expected Outcome

We now generally agree on what the plant is called but that still doesn’t produce the parameters needed for a predictable consumer experience. For this reason, the best method for determining what works remains in individual consumer’s hands as they explore different genetics.
With each new experience, a consumer should note the chemotypic expression of the plants they enjoy. This can be done by referring to the certificate of analysis, commonly called the test result. Consumers can track the composition and effects the plant they use by keeping notes that answer these questions:

  • What are the primary and secondary compounds in the plant, including cannabinoids and terpenes?
  • What’s the listed level of potency for the amount I consumed?
  • What effects did I experience?

It’s important to understand that the amount consumed will have a large impact on the experience and effect of a cultivar. Consuming a microdose can produce a lighter euphoric feeling while a heavy dose of the same genetic can be debilitating.

Build Strain Loyalty

After a consumer has explored different available cultivars and found ones that resonate, loyalty should be encouraged. Retailers can encourage repeat purchases by offering discounts on sequential purchases of the same genetics. Producers can encourage retailers to buy the same genetics again by offering a strain-loyalty program as well.

Making this change in how cannabis is thought of and purchased requires consumer education and a cooperative approach from all legs of the supply chain. Doing so will serve all parts of the industry better:

  • Producers benefit from having more uniform nutrient and care needs for a smaller number of cultivars.
  • Retailers who have been stuck with aging, overly variegated inventory that doesn’t resonate with consumers benefit when they can stock more popular products that sell quickly.
  • Consumers we have surveyed say what they really want is to find a cultivar they enjoy that they can consistently and continuously purchase. They also say it’s frustrating when retailers don’t carry consistent genetics on their shelves.

Who needs to drive this move to a better taxonomy and more consistent product offerings? The burden falls heaviest on the retailer, in our opinion. Producers want to sell their product and they want to remove risk. But producers need retailers to tell them what is selling best to the end user so they can adjust their operations accordingly.

Promoting Genetic Diversity

One last argument we’ll make for strain loyalty might seem counter-intuitive. How can identifying more popular strains to produce help genetic diversity in cannabis? It can do so by steering us away from the potency-guided hyper-breeding state we exist in.

As we have bred for potency, with little regard for the plant’s other compounds, a significant loss of invaluable phytochemistry has been occurring. To date, roughly 150 different terpenes and approximately 100 different cannabinoids have been identified.

There are many more to discover. Of the compounds found, many are understudied and have only anecdotal evidence to support what consumers should expect when interacting with them.

We can all do our part to support productive conversations centered around the science of what we know. We can be more honest about what we don’t. We can share accurate knowledge and guide expectations to be in line with our real knowledge of this magical plant.

Most importantly, we can continue to push for increased awareness of the compounds that resonate and to promote loyalty to our favorite genetics.

Von Dellinger is director of innovation at The Hemp Collect, an Oregon-based manufacturer working with quality-focused brands, processors and retailers in cannabis and hemp. Want to be at the forefront of quality and innovation? Get in touch.



Cannaconvo with Peter Su of Green Check Verified

Cannabis Last Week with Jon Purow interviews Peter Su of Green Check Verified. Peter Su is a Senior Vice President with Green Check Verified, the top cannabis banking compliance software/consultancy in the space. A 20+ year veteran of the banking industry, Peter serves on the Banking & Financial Services committee of the National Cannabis Industry Association. He chairs the Banking and Financial Services Committee for the NYCCIA & HVCIA. He is an official member of the Rolling Stone Cannabis Culture Council. And, he is on the board of the Asian Cannabis Roundtable, serving as treasurer.

Promoted Headlines

Most Popular