By Noelle Crombie
Before Lemon Haze and Super Skunk, it was mostly just good and bad weed.
But walk into any place that sells medical or recreational pot today and customers face a staggering variety of marijuana strains — each with its own funky name, its own smell, appearance and the high it promises to deliver.
These modern strains, some of them highly sought after, are the product of a generally secretive, outlaw marijuana culture, where few records are kept and word of mouth rules.
But how do you know the gram of Lemon Haze in your vaporizer is actually what it’s supposed to be?
A Portland scientist is trying to solve that fundamental question of the cannabis world.
Nine months ago, Mowgli Holmes, 42, started Phylos Bioscience in Southwest Portland with entrepreneur Nishan Karassik, 44, with the aim of using cannabis DNA to untangle the genetic makeup of as many marijuana strains as they can find.
Their ultimate goals: to certify marijuana strains so consumers know what they’re getting and to provide pot growers with a kind of “stud book” of strain genetics to help guide their breeding.
“There is no reassurance that if you’re a Sour Diesel fan, that you could go into a dispensary and get Sour Diesel,” said Holmes, a microbiologist. “It’ll say Sour Diesel, but it will be something totally random.”
Their work is the latest example of scientists getting into the business of pot. So far they’ve focused mostly on lab testing for things such as potency and pesticides — a requirement in places like Colorado and Washington, the only two states with legal recreational marijuana programs, and Oregon, one of 23 states that allow medical marijuana use. An initiative on Oregon’s November ballot also would legalize the drug here.
In California, lab testing isn’t required, but consumer demand for lab-tested pot has spawned an industry. Scientists, too, have gotten involved in helping marijuana companies fine-tune extraction methods to meet the growing market for potent cannabis concentrates.
But cannabis genetics remains a largely untapped field, said Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. She said marijuana genetics overlaps with intellectual property and U.S. patent issues, areas complicated by the federal prohibition on the drug.
“It’s a very controversial topic,” West said. “We haven’t seen a lot of our businesses talking about that particular area of science.”
The way Holmes sees it, identifying a strain’s particular genetic makeup is a major step toward being able to assure strain-fixated marijuana consumers that what they’re smoking is what they were told it was. Genetics, too, can help growers breed with more precision.
“Our biggest project really is to solve the question of consistency in this industry,” Holmes said.
There is some reason to the rhyme of how strains are named now – for instance, names that include lemon generally have a citrus scent and diesel strains have a petrol odor – but often that’s where the similarity ends.
Marijuana aficionados, Holmes said, are as preoccupied with the differences among strains as wine critics are about grape varietals. Imagine, for instance, walking into a wine shop and asking for a Malbec only to be handed a Merlot.
Erin Wallace, a medical marijuana grower in Gladstone, can relate. She recently bought a seedling marijuana plant labeled as Maui Bubble Gift from a dispensary, thinking she was getting a strain known for being lower in THC and higher in cannabidiol, or CBD. Many patients say CBD has a more therapeutic effect than THC. After harvest, Wallace had the flowers tested at a lab only to discover that the strain had a higher THC than she expected.
“From a grower’s perspective, it’s just impossible to verify that you have gotten what they say you have gotten,” said Wallace.
Janice Patten, an Oregon medical marijuana patient who uses the drug to treat migraines, said it’s common to pick up an inaccurately labeled strain.
“Until a patient gets a hold of it, no one really knows,” the Beaverton woman said. “It’s like getting a prescription from the doctor and having a bad reaction to it.”
Some longtime marijuana growers say they welcome more transparency and clarity when it comes to strain genetics, but described Holmes’ mission as a daunting one.
First, there’s the question of how Phylos Bioscience will keep up with new strains that enter the market.
Then there’s the tricky issue of figuring out which strain is the real Lemon Haze or OG Kush?
“Do you take it to the original breeder?” said Dru West, a medical marijuana grower in Bend and author of “The Secrets of the West Coast Masters,” a guide to growing pot. “It sounds good to say you can do that, but a lot of that is myth and fable. A lot of that stuff exists in chat rooms. There will be a lot of convoluted information.”
Holmes agrees. He’s considered crowd sourcing the matter and letting consumers pick the real Lemon Haze based on its appearance, smell and high. He’s thought about hiring “non-stoner grad students” to conduct historical research into whatever records may exist to find the earliest mention of Lemon Haze. Maybe a panel of pot experts should make the ultimate call.
Holmes said some California lawyers are planning to start a strain registry, a step that might resolve the question.
“This part of it,” Holmes acknowledged, “is a bloody mess.”
Until last year, Holmes used his Ivy League Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology to research HIV, work that over time, he said, started to feel increasingly hopeless, like a problem that science might not ultimately solve.
He returned home to Oregon, eager to dig into another, more promising, area of research. Seeing that marijuana had become a burgeoning industry, Holmes did what scientists do: He started asking questions.
“Immediately I looked around and said, wait, no one is doing a genetics study of cannabis?” Holmes said. “No one is doing an evolutionary map of cannabis?”
(Asked about their own experience with cannabis, Holmes and Karassik are circumspect. “We are not stoners,” said Holmes, after careful consideration, “but we believe strongly in all forms of research.”)
He’s teamed up with his former professor at Columbia University, Robert DeSalle, an evolutionary biologist, to help create the map using marijuana DNA. DeSalle, a curator at the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, will ultimately create what is, in essence, a family tree of pot. The tree starts with “landrace” strains, the plant’s original forebears, and ends in the messy jumble of modern-day strains like Girl Scout Cookies and Orange Kush.
“It’s a really good biological problem despite it being cannabis,” DeSalle said. “If someone had come to me and said these are watermelon, I would have jumped on this project in a second. It’s a perfect modern day tour de force that technology can figure out.”
In addition to the genetic mapping, Holmes’ company uses DNA sequencing to help cannabis growers quickly determine the sex of seedlings so they can cull male plants. Unpollinated female plants produce far more THC, the psychoactive component that gives marijuana users a high.
Holmes and his colleagues also use genetic material to screen plants for microbial contamination, such E. coli, salmonella and mold. Oregon requires medical marijuana sold in dispensaries be tested for potency, some pesticides and mold and mildew.
None of the scientists at Phylos Bioscience handle marijuana; droplets of plant DNA arrive in the mail from eight labs across five states that perform cannabis testing. The labs extract DNA samples and ship them to Holmes’ lab. So far, they’ve collected hundreds of samples, including a 2,700-year-old pot stash found in a Gobi desert grave.
Growers and consumers can take cannabis to one of the testing labs Holmes’ works with to have it added to the project. He’s especially interested in older, oddball samples.
“People can get DNA from frozen wooly mammoth legs,” said Holmes. “We can get DNA from roaches in your guitar case from 1975.”
For scientists like Holmes, the field of cannabis research offers a new frontier.
“Scientists are always searching for something that hasn’t been looked at and in crowded fields it’s hard to find a project that hasn’t been done,” he said. “People have explored every little corner of the biological world.”
Holmes has already dreamed up a dozen research projects on pot.
“It’s wide open,” he said. “There is so much fun stuff to look at.”