This is definitely Blue Dream, but what about the stuff labeled "Blue Dream" at your neighborhood pot shop? (Ry Prichard, The Cannabist)

Five questions: Why your marijuana isn’t always what budtenders say it is

So you’re about to buy legal marijuana, and you have something specific in mind: Blue Dream.

You pick up an eighth at the neighborhood shop, but its buds don’t resemble previous Blue Dream buds you’ve seen. It also doesn’t smoke like Blue Dream should, and its effects on your body and mind are a far reach from Blue Dream’s typical territory, too.

Why doesn’t this Blue Dream look and smell and behave and taste like previous Blue Dreams?

Because it’s not Blue Dream.

So how do you know you’re actually buying what the budtender is claiming to sell? That’s what we’re here to talk about.

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The longstanding black-market history of cannabis has created a variety of distinct issues that we as consumers have to work through as marijuana transitions into the relatively new medical and legal marketplaces.

• First, the true origins of many of today’s most popular strains are, at best, debated — and, at worst, completely untraceable — making true lineage tracing very difficult at times.

• Second, even when a strain’s genetic lineage is known (for example, Blue Dream), any given dispensary could have a mislabeled strain masquerading under that name. (Remember our review of the U.S. Cannabis Cup-winning “Pure Power Plant”? Yes, those scare-quotes were intentional.)

• Finally, and perhaps most important, many “strains” in the cannabis world are not actually a distinct genetic line but rather just a single female plant chosen from a large population of offspring from X mother and Y father (many of which are also then renamed, adding further confusion).

The implications of the last one especially are quite serious: Even though two plants are “the same strain” genetically, depending upon the specific expression of each plant (called a phenotype in technical terms), they could be very different in appearance, aroma, time to mature and other physical qualities. But they can also be very different medically, which carries a higher level of importance for those seeking a repeatable experience and/or trying to medicate a specific condition.

For example, a 50/50 hybrid composed of a racy, heavily sativa variety and a calming indica can show genetic expressions that run the gamut, and a dispensary could have any one of them.

So what does this all mean for the discerning shopper going into a weed store? Here are five questions and answers about marijuana in Colorado dispensaries.

Q: What are the origins of the many cannabis strains we’d see in Colorado shops?

A: Colorado dispensaries have a different standard of plant tracking than anywhere else in the world currently and must produce at least 70 percent of their product in-house (though that is about to change with new wholesale regulations effective in October, which allow for retail-only and production-only facilities). The remaining 30 percent of their inventory can be purchased wholesale from other dispensaries, which can add some confusion to the mix depending on how thorough and accurate the originating dispensary is with their information and how well the shop educated their budtenders on their purchases.

Overall though, the “vertical integration” of Colorado dispensaries generally means that pretty much any quality shop will at least have some idea where their product came from, how it was grown and a little bit about the plant’s lineage. The questions begin to creep in when it comes to the actual sourcing: currently, the strains that dispensaries acquire can come from a variety of sources.

Sometimes new genetic lines are grown from seed, meaning that seeds were either purchased online at many of the retail outlets available (primarily from Amsterdam and the UK). In other cases they were sourced somewhat locally in-person or were produced internally using the dispensary’s existing genetics. Aside from seeds, the other way that cannabis is propagated is via cloning, where a cutting is taken from a “mother plant” and rooted, thereby creating a genetically identical clone of the mother. 

Finding a shop that tightly controls its genetics, does its own breeding and has staff that can tell you the source and lineage of every strain on the shelf is extremely, ridiculously rare. The unfortunate reality is that most dispensaries, in Colorado and elsewhere, sourced their genetics from their previous life as a closet/house grower.

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Q: Are there benefits to cloning versus growing from seed?

A: In short, clones are easier and cleaner for a commercial operation because you get a single female plant with distinct traits and know that’s pretty much what you’ll always have. This enables dispensaries to plan their harvests much more efficiently as well as offer a very stable strain list to customers.

When plants are grown from seed, there will be a variety of expressions (i.e. resembling the mother, resembling the father, somewhere in-between, as well as random genetic mutants) and in the case of regular (meaning non-feminized) seeds, the possibility of producing both male and female plants. For a dispensary just trying to keep weed on the shelf, a male plant is of no use to them because only the females produce flowers suitable for smoking; only the most advanced dispensaries have their own breeding programs, and that is the only possible use for male plants.

Also, in any pack of seeds there are winners and losers depending upon what the grower or dispensary is looking for — so they could be devoting space and resources to plants which may ultimately never see the shelf, or worse, may be genetically unstable and showing intersex traits, which carries the possibility of accidentally pollinating their entire garden and causing crop loss.

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Q: And those original mother plants, the ones being passed around as clones now, where did they come from?

A: The original mother plants that clones come from were of course originally grown from a seed at some point, but many of the strains have been in existence for 20+ years as cuttings, being passed around from grower to grower until ultimately ending up in a dispensary.

Going all the way back to early 2010, before HB-1284 fundamentally changed the way the Colorado cannabis businesses operated, genetics could easily be sourced from friends and other local growers and brought into the dispensary operation without a hitch. The advent of plant tracking has put a slight kibosh on the whole thing, but shops still manage to introduce new genetics to the shelf.

Many of the most popular strains in Colorado dispensaries can be traced back to the early days of the medical scene. Since then, though, they’ve been passed around, mislabeled, lied about and lost countless times, leading to a moderate level of uncertainty about what any of them actually are.

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Q: So basically it’s kind of a crap shoot?

A: That’s where the interplay between consumer and dispensary becomes very important. When it comes down to it, you need to try something in order to know for certain how it will affect you. Because of the phenotype issue (and more insidiously, the mislabeling issue), one shop’s Deadhead OG may be far different than another’s — sure, you can increase your chances of finding something you like by just sticking with strain names that you’re familiar with — but ultimately, the way a strain is grown by any given dispensary and the specific plants that end up on the shelf may drastically change the results.

(For example, one of the plants could be sick, which can vastly reduce the quality.)

A good dispensary with an educated staff should be able to give you feedback from other customers, summarize their own personal experiences with the strain and share internal knowledge about the source of the dispensary’s specific plants, including whether the genetic was grown from clone or seed. This type of information is essential to customers trying to make the most of their dispensary experience. Finding a shop that meets these high demands is tough, but they are definitely out there.

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Q: What about some general shopping tips for those who don’t want to waste their money on something they don’t like, or worse, something that aggravates their medical condition?

A: Prepare for your visit by educating yourself as much as possible. This means doing your homework and trying a variety of strains until you figure out what your “type” is in terms of the surface qualities such as aroma and flavor, as well as making sure you know most of the key terms that are thrown around in dispensaries (our cannabis lexicon can help with that). Having a proper set of tools at your disposal will enable you to truly make heads and tails of all the information that will surely be thrown your way. If you are primarily purchasing for effect and planning for medical use, then unfortunately, sticking with a specific strain from a specific dispensary might be the only way to get a very reliable, repeatable experience from cannabis.

Once you’ve started experimenting with different strains and different dispensaries, it is very helpful to keep a written log of your experiences. This enables you to remember the subtleties that exist in different strains and providers, serving as a road map of sorts when you’re entering a new store. You can also do Internet research on your favorite varieties to help increase your understanding about them and improve your ability to spot a fake.

The final major thing is that you need to talk to the staff — like really talk to them. Even if you don’t know anything about any of the strains on their shelf, you can get a good idea of what’s what by asking intentional questions. Ask for the lineage and the sativa or indica dominance as you browse, the whole time really thinking about how they respond.

Do they quickly and clearly answer the question, or do they waffle around before ultimately shrugging their shoulders? Ask them what their personal experiences are with the strain and what they’ve heard from other customers. Again, focus on how knowledgeable they sound, and if doubt creeps in or they simply cannot tell you some piece of information, you may want to try shopping elsewhere.

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Closing thoughts: There’s no denying that it’s tough to get a reliable experience with cannabis, even in a regulated market like we have in Colorado. But if you have issues, just think back to the “dark ages” when you had to just hope that whatever random bag of weed the random friend of a friend you were buying it from was decent, much less had a definable name or would help your Crohn’s disease.

Those of us in states with dispensaries are fortunate to even have the option to buy cannabis with traceable lineage, and with a few exceptions, most dispensaries try their best to provide accurate information and an educated staff. Keep in mind some of these tips and you can be an expert shopper in no time.

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