Indica Or Sativa? Cannabis Strain Labels Can Be Inconsistent And Misleading, Study Finds


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

Weed strains.

“This is a real challenge for an industry that is trying to professionalize itself," said one of the study co-authors. Image credit: OpenRangeStock/

Cannabis dealers and dispensaries often offer a menu of strains with all kinds of weird and wacky names that must have been dreamt up by a stoned person. However, new research suggests that this labeling might often be little more than misleading marketing. 

A new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, examined tens of thousands of weed samples from commercial dispensaries and found that the strain labels were often inconsistent, confusing, or downright wrong.


Although cannabis has been legalized in certain states for 10 years and has since grown to become a multi-billion dollar industry, there's still no standardized labeling system, which the researchers say is leading to inconsistent labeling.

“A farmer can't just pick up an apple and decide to call it a Red Delicious. A beer manufacturer can’t just arbitrarily label their product a Double IPA. There are standards. But that is not the case for the cannabis industry,” Nick Jikomes, study co-author and director of science and innovation for the e-commerce cannabis marketplace, said in a statement.

The study is the largest to chemically analyze commercial dispensary-grade cannabis to date. They looked at over 90,000 samples across six states, looking out for popular strain names regularly seen across the country.

Some strains, such as “White Tahoe Cookies,” were surprisingly consistent from product to product regardless of where the researchers bought it from. However, other strains, such as “Durbin Poison”, were found to be “consistently inconsistent.”


Despite whatever the label said, the chemical components of the strains could be all over the place. The team used chemical analysis to understand the concentrations of cannabinoids. This included THC, the major psychoactive constituent in cannabis; and terpenes, chemical compounds that provide aromas and flavors.

Just as you'd expect, the vast majority of cannabinoids in recreational cannabis were psychoactive THC. Meanwhile, the terpene content tended to fall into three separate categories: those high in the terpenes caryophyllene and limonene, those high in myrcene and pinene, and those high in terpinolene and myrcene.

However, these three categories did not always correspond to the Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid labeling scheme.

“In other words, it is likely that a sample with the label ‘Indica’ will have an indistinguishable terpene composition as samples labeled ‘Sativa’ or ‘Hybrid,’” the study reads.


The researchers said some cultivators appear to be paying close attention to quality, ensuring that their product contains precisely what it says on the package. However, the cannabis industry still is a bit of a “Wild West” with relatively few regulations in place, allowing some producers to become lax with labeling. If the cannabis industry wants to become legitimate, the researchers argue, this needs to change. 

“Our findings suggest that the prevailing labeling system is not an effective or safe way to provide information about these products,” said co-author Brian Keegan, an assistant professor of Information Science at CU Boulder. “This is a real challenge for an industry that is trying to professionalize itself.”

Along with market regulation, the team also believes we need a more comprehensive understanding of cannabis strains’ chemical make-up. Eventually, perhaps we could start seeing labels that show consumers the full list of ingredients they’re putting into their body, including THC and CBD, but also terpenes, flavonoids, and other compounds.

“It’s like if your cereal box only showed calories and fat and nothing else,” added Keegan. “We as consumers need to be pushing for more information. If we do that, the industry will respond.”


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