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Beyond just sativa, indica and hybrid, Leafly, the Cannabis information website, has created a new interpretative approach to Cannabis identification and presentation — one it hopes will help consumers choose the best Cannabis strain for their needs.

By now, even the most casual of Cannabis consumers knows the holy trinity of strain types: Sativa is synonymous with “up.” Hybrid is a wild card. Indica puts you “in da couch.” No company did more to evangelize the trinity than Leafly, an online resource and strain library that has become ubiquitous in the industry. The company’s categorization became so popular that its color code – red/green/purple – was adopted by dispensaries and brands in legal states all over North America.

Now, after a decade of bringing the three category system to the mainstream, Leafly wants you to forget it. The company recently scrubbed its old system for a new one – a far more complex combination of shapes and colors they refer to as “Leafly Flowers.” It’s a bold move for a company to toss aside one of its key calling cards and attempt such a significant pivot.

Why the change?

The old paradigm was based on the same system carried over from the illicit market, which categorized plants based on looks and aroma, to which Leafly added subjective user-submitted information. No testing was performed, so no hard data was available. Though growers and retailers attempted to predict the effects their products would offer, the system has been imperfect at best.

Nick Jikomes, Principal Research Scientist at Leafly, says that now that state and local governments require third-party laboratory testing for all legal products, research is catching up with the lightning-paced growth of the burgeoning industry.

Leafly partnered with labs in multiple regions and culled anonymized data for all of the strains the labs tested.

“We went and got that data, and we said, ‘Let’s just look.’” Jikomes said. “Let’s see how different indicas, sativas and hybrids are on average. How different are different strains? Are there really 3,000 different strains out there, or is all weed basically the same?”

They found that most strains are fairly similar. According to Jikomes, around 85% of strains on the market are THC-dominant, and around 40% of them are heavy with the terpene myrcene.

A picture started to form.

When you discard strain names, and instead focus entirely on the scientifically measurable properties of the plant, Cannabis starts to divide itself into its own, more complicated categories.

“Cannabis is a complex plant. It’s a complex product in a complex space,” Jikomes said. “It’s this amazing plant that has dozens, potentially hundreds of active compounds in it. They’re gonna have different types of psychoactive, recreationally oriented effects, and medicinal effects. And if you want to very precisely understand how to get someone to the right strain or the right product, you have to understand the plant at that level. You have to understand it from the inside out.

“You need a simplified way to get around that complexity for the average person.”

Jikomes compares Cannabis flowers to wine grape varietals. Over centuries, the wine industry has divided grapes into categories based on measurable properties.

“I know that I like Pinot Noirs and Syrahs more than Chardonnays and some other types of wine,” he said. “They have organized their products in a way that I can get a bottle of wine with confidence anywhere on the planet … I’ve been able to map my own tastes onto a simple categorization system that’s based on objective attributes of those types of products.” With the new Leafly Flowers, Jikomes believes that the company is getting closer to a comfortable level of consumer awareness, and informed buying.

How it works

“The important thing we wanted to do was create a way for a consumer to see if and when different strains are actually different from each other based on objective features of their ingredients, without having to understand what they are actually looking at,” Jikomes said.

When looking at a Leafly Flowers, there’s a simple code – diamonds are THC, circles are CBD. The stronger the concentration either way, the more pronounced the shapes become.

The team then compiled all user-generated, effects-based data points from their community, and assigned color schemes based on corollary terpenes. Terpene profiles commonly found in strains associated with relaxation show up as cool colors like blue or green. Terpenes regularly found in energetic strains present as hot colors such as orange, yellow, and red.

“We’re using shapes and colors to communicate about cannabinoids and terpenes, some of the stuff inside the plant,” Jikomes said. “There are some basic patterns that start to jump out in terms of the diversity of landscape of the flower products that are out there. There are thousands of strain pages on Leafly, there are thousands of brands. There’s all this diversity, but really, there are just a few basic types of Cannabis out there.”

In theory, if you find a strain that you like, you can look for a flower with a similar pattern of shapes and colors, and should be able to have a similar experience. It’s far more reliable than strain name, which often has no basis in actual genetics.

“(Consumers) are no longer at the mercy of the strain names and the branding and marketing tricks that are so pervasive right now,” Jikomes said. “That’s something I’m super passionate about.”

That means that if you find a phenotype of GMO Cookies that you love, you can enter the testing information (if available) into the Leafly system, and it will show you a number of other strains that have similar, scientifically measurable, properties.

“When you look at the strain pages, what you see on the Blue Dream page is basically the most common chemical composition associated with Blue Dream that’s out there, based on aggregating thousands of data points together across hundreds of growers,” Jikomes said.

If Leafly’s grand vision works, Jikomes says it will mean a safer, more fine-tuned experience for consumers, eliminating confusion at the counter. It comes back to the wine analogy.

“The system allows me to find what kind of wine I like, even though I don’t have an expert level knowledge of it,” Jikomes said. “Part of what we’re doing with our education efforts, is we’re building tools to help people figure out what kind of Cannabis they like. The basic idea is, you want to learn, ‘Oh, I like orange ones. I don’t really like blue ones.’ Or vice-versa.”

What’s next

As Leafly continues to roll out these changes, the company’s education division is holding budtender seminars in order to help familiarize those on the front lines of the industry. The team also continues to unveil educational tools on the company website, Leafly.com.

“The vast majority of purchases in the industry are happening, basically, at the recommendation of the budtender,” he said. “They’re an important educational touchpoint for many consumers out there. So, we’re making sure the budtenders are educated.”

In the end, Jikomes says Leafly is trying to eliminate the rampant confusion and misinformation currently plaguing the industry. Some of which, he admits, was perpetuated by years spent promoting the sativa-hybrid-indica trinity.

“If you go on the internet, you can find people that say, ‘Indicas make you sleepy because they have more THC,’” he said.

“You can find other websites that say, ‘Sativas make you excited because they have more THC.’ You can find people saying, ‘Indicas make you sleepy because they have more myrcene.’ People have been trying to figure it out, but at the end of the day, you just have to go and look at the data … Getting that data is easier said than done, but that’s basically what we did.”

story by Tom Bowers @propagateconsultants

When looking at the new Leafly Flowers, there’s a simple code: diamonds are THC, circles are CBD. The stronger the concentration of either Cannabinoid, the more pronounced the shapes become.

Nick Jikomes,
Principal Research Scientist at Leafly, says “Consumers are no longer at the mercy of the strain names and the branding and marketing tricks that are so pervasive now.”

Image courtesy of Leafly