Why Few Call It Cannabis

By Keith Saunders, Ph.D.

For Oregon Cannabis Connection


On September 30, 2016, the state of Oregon banned the use of certain well-known cannabis strain names from retail marketing.  Green Crack, Grape Ape, and Bruce Banner will no longer be found in advertisements or printed upon store receipts.

Some people question claims that such names are targeting the children of today, pointing out that the cartoon Grape Ape last aired in 1978, making the “child” who can recall it at least 45 years old.  Others are glad to see names that reference substances other than cannabis, such as LSD, removed from the shelves.  By-and-large, however, the response among the Oregon cannabis reform community is frustration and disappointment that legalization has resulted in a regulating-out of well-known strain names.

Perhaps because of prohibition, cannabis has been given many names through the past 160 years in the Americas.  One of the earliest and most enduring of these names, the one still ensconced in federal and many state laws, is marijuana.  It originated among Mexicans who had begun adopting the practice of decarboxylating THC-A, volatizing it, and inhaling it — usually via smoking.  Other Mexican slang terms for cannabis include mota, zacate, and mafafa.

As cannabis smoking gained in popularity among working class racial minorities living along the Gulf of Mexico, and among jazz musicians (who would travel to major cities, bringing their muggles with them) we see new names adopted.  The aforementioned “muggles” as well as Mezz, named after NYC jazz musician “Mezz” Mezzrow, and the more generic grass, smoke, reefer, and gage (the last thought to be a Americanization of “ganja,” the Hindu term for cannabis that would later be adopted and popularized in the West by the Rastafarians).

From the 1910’s through the 1950’s, those generic slang terms for cannabis were noted by musicians and authors of the time.  With the mass popularization of cannabis consumption that would spread in the U.S., from about 1964 – 1979, we see an expansion of markets and a re-branding of strains.  While novices might go looking for some weed, the entrepreneurs who would go on to establish the first global cannabis distribution markets would choose to start naming their cannabis for the locales where it was grown: Maui Wowie, Thai Stick, Durban Poison, Moroccan Blonde, Acapulco Gold, Panama Red.

The 1980’s brought the Reagan Drug War, and massive resources were dedicated to interrupting cannabis supply chains.  Importing cannabis to the U.S. brought increased risk.  Many cannabis importers shifted to the much more profitable and more easily concealable cocaine.  Domestic fly-overs by National Guard helicopters, surveiling both public and private lands, made outdoor cultivation more difficult than in the prior decade.  It took a few years, but the domestic U.S. marijuana farm would more and more be moved indoors.

In 1988, High Times magazine hosted the first Cannabis Cup, in Amsterdam.  The winning strain was called William’s Wonder.  No geographic region specified.  WW was from a Dutch cultivator, carefully cross-pollinated by particular parentage.  It was perhaps the first strain of cannabis that never saw the sun, being bred and propagated solely under high pressure sodium and metal halide lighting.  Later HT Cup winners would include: Silver Haze, Blue Cheese, Cannatonic, Kosher Kush, and Chocolope.  Geographic designations disappeared, as would be expected, when the combination of “land-race” genetics and local ecology had themselves been rendered moot by the uniformity of indoor cultivation methods.

Michael Pollan, in The Botany of Desire, points out that there may be no plant species on the planet that has been more modified than cannabis.  Indeed, prohibition provided market incentives to control genetics, to maximize THC-A production (and now CBD, under a less-prohibitive model).  In the past decade, people have again been seeking land-race strains, necessary for the full mapping of the cannabis genome.  And while the original genetics of Acapulco Gold can be found among global seed companies, without that blazing Acapulco sun and Gulf breezes, the end product remains an artifice, a simulacrum of what could be had in 1974.

What are the implications of Oregon’s ban on certain strain names?  Growers, processors, and retailers will come up with new ones.  The banned names will be abbreviated or altered slightly (Oregon Ape, Oregon Banner, etc.).  Future strains will be given either more overtly commercialized names (“ThisSeedCompany’s” #22, or those celebrity brands we’re already seeing) or we may see strain names move into a more nebulous form.  Branding takes on forms that fit the production and distribution chains, and will educate and allow consumers to identify and differentiate products.

Ultimately, the differences among well-grown cannabis flowers are small, and the majority of consumers will not have the capability to differentiate between (banned) Grape Ape and (acceptable) Grandaddy Purps, outside the labeling on the package.  That there is little noticeable difference among fresh, high-end cannabis flowers is why growers and marketers have utilized such a wide spectrum of names.  People crossing cannabis strains is not a new practice, but the desire to differentiate that cross from all others is the product of a competitive marketplace.  One that will only become more competitive, under legalization.

Keith Saunders is on the NORML Board of Directors and the Principal of Colita Verde, a cannabis consultancy.  On Twitter @TheMDSiA.


© 2016 Oregon Cannabis Connection. All rights reserved.

Keith Saunders

Keith Saunders is on the NORML Board of Directors and the Principal of Colita Verde, a cannabis consultancy.  On Twitter @TheMDSiA.

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One thought on “Why Few Call It Cannabis

  • 10/05/2016 at 9:21 pm

    Very interesting article. Great history of names and how weed traveled. Not to mention reminding me of the coolest name ever: muggles. Makes me think of Harry Potter.

    I stepped into the cannabis scene when all the strains were all named for where they were grown. Not just the country, but each region in Mexico.

    Weed grown in one area could be very different than another, both due to landrace genetics of each area and the growing conditions. Thai Stick versus Columbian Gold was wildly different.

    Now, with the interbreeding between strains and all the varieties available to a grower, it’s all starting to mush together. You’d think with all the breeding talent that we’d see wildly different characteristics between strains, with those differences widening over time. But the opposite seems to be true, at least compared to the early 70’s.

    People that travel back to where landrace weed used to be grown say its hard to find the original stuff. Most plants in those areas use greenhouse-developed seeds or they’ve been cross-pollinated by designer seed. (No, not GMO, but extensive and complex breeding.)

    Given the generally excellent weed that’s available in legal states, I’m not sure I should be complaining. I smoked a lot of bad weed back in the 60’s and 70’s. But also some very memorable stuff. Not sure if my memory is reliable enough to truly judge that the good stuff in the 70’s was better than modern weed, but that’s how I remember it.

    Anyway, now strain names are changing for governmental reasons that are unrelated to the strain’s characteristics. Which muddles things up even worse.

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