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The History and Emergence of the CBD Cannabis Strains

March 1, 2017
The History and Emergence of the CBD Cannabis Strains
Cannabidiol (CBD) trails tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as the second-most prevalent cannabinoid found in cannabis, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that walking into your local dispensary and checking out the lab tests for your favorite strains. The emergence of high-CBD cultivars into the marketplace is in its infancy and has only seen a spike in demand within the last several years. Prior to this emergence, cannabis had been specifically cultivated to meet the demands of a market fueled by bag appeal and THC potency.

The shift in interest that drove cannabis breeders to focus on the propagation and dissemination of CBD genetics derived from several origins, one being the need to further explore the medical benefits of the compound. Facilitated by the interests of a handful of scientists and breeders, high-CBD strains that were once only selected and bred with the specific intention of extracting the beneficial compounds from the plant are now being hybridized to meet the palates and needs of a new market of CBD enthusiasts. It was through this process that some of the earliest high-CBD varietals were born.

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A CBD-rich variety of cannabis can have anywhere between 4% and upwards of 18% potency of cannabidiol by volume, even higher in some rare phenotypes. Although it’s possible to achieve this potency of CBD in hybridized cannabis, these levels were traditionally most observed in non-THC containing hemp varieties. Through many years of selective hybridization, cannabis cultivators had unknowingly began to breed CBD out of the gene pool. It wouldn’t be until the utilization of gas chromatography to test cannabinoid potency when high-CBD varieties would begin to reemerge.

The credit to this moment can be traced back to 1998 in Britain with Geoffrey Guy, MD, and the foundation of GW Pharmaceuticals. Affiliated with the International Cannabis Research Society (ICRS), and with a grant from the British government to cultivate cannabis, Guy and his team sought a variety of CBD-rich cannabis strains to extract and isolate from. They found their strains through a Dutch seed company called HortaFarm, founded by expat cannabis legends Robert Clarke and David Watson. These unnamed, Dutch-bred high-CBD strains were among the first ever to be selected for CBD isolation.

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With the passing of California’s 1996 Proposition 215 (AKA The Compassionate Use Act), interest in CBD would shift the the US west coast. Word of what was happing in Great Britain disseminated through some of the earlier publications to cover cannabinopathic medicine. O’Shaughnessy’s, a California publication named after the Irish physician credited with bringing cannabis to western medicine, was among the first to credit GW Pharmaceuticals for being able to select and isolate CBD varieties.

It wouldn’t be until the formation of Oakland, CA’s Harborside Health in 2006 by Steve DeAngelo when CBD strains would begin to reemerge on the west coast scene. By 2009, Harborside Health was utilizing gas chromatography through Steep Hill Labs to test cannabinoid potency. It was through these labs that some of the first ever verified high-CBD strains would emerge. In 2010, Project CBD began to reach out to farmers who had submitted high-CBD strains for testing in an act of preservation. This fresh west coast enthusiasm for CBD genetics led to some of the first ever CBD stabilized strains.

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One of the undisputed champions of the Northern California CBD movement is Kevin Jowdry, Director and Owner of Wonderland Nursery in Humboldt, California. In a 2015 Seattle Hempfest interview, Jowdry credits the emergence of stabilized CBD to two distinct events. The first was the introduction of the Cannatonic line by Resin Seeds at Spannabis in 2008. Cannatonic’s ability as a chemotype to display a consistent range of high-CBD progeny landing all over the potency chart from 1:1 to 18:1 (CBD-dominant) made it a prime candidate for breeding projects.

According to Jowdry, Jaime, owner of Resin Seeds, distributed these genetics to a breeder in California, who led the first US Cannatonic “sift,” or genetic section process. The CBD variability of the Cannatonic line was capitalized on by the hybridization of several sub-varieties. A few of the heavy hitters born out of this cataclysm of CBD genetics were the C6 line (popularized for having a consistent 18:1 CBD/THC ratio), as well as ACDC, which was among the first sought-after CBD flower varieties.

Coincidentally, Lawrence Ringo of the Southern Humboldt Seed Collective was also breeding for stabilized CBD, and after testing his “Swiss Gold Genetics” for high-CBD markers, he created what would become known as “Sour Tsunami.” Kevin Jowdry worked closely with both breeders through Wonderland Nursery to offer CBD stabilized clones to all of Northern California and the Emerald Triangle.

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Through the Northern California CBD breeding projects came two distinct patterns in cultivation and propagation. On one end were the stabilized Cannatonic varieties that were bred almost exclusively for oil production. These strains often exhibited unpalatable terpene profiles consisting primarily of spiked levels of myrcene and caryophyllene. The Cannatonic lineage, especially the C6 line, was known to be a heavy-yielding strain, but not very flavorful. For oil production, having a less than desirable flavor profile was of no concern as the most popular method for extracting medical-grade CBD oils is typically subcritical C02 (which kills terpenes, anyway).

On the other end came more palatable strains such as the Sour Tsunami and Harlequin lines. Unlike the Cannatonic varietals, these strains tested higher in limonene and pinene, exhibiting more desirable aromatic characteristics. Although lower yielding, these strains contained much more bag appeal and a higher THC ratio (in some cases), and contributed to their rise in popularity among a more recreationally driven artisanal market of consumers.

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The market development for CBD-rich cannabis cultivars undoubtedly began, and to some element still exists, around the desire to fuel the CBD extraction market. However, a new cultivar-specific model has emerged, one that champions flavor and bag appeal to cannabinoid ratio. This new wave is fueled by the sweeping legalization movement and the demand to fill dispensary shelves with cannabis strains more diverse in their cannabinoid ratios.

Although still few and far between in many markets, high-CBD strains do exist and are rapidly growing in popularity. The next time you stop by your local shop and see a Tsunami variety on the shelf, give a nod to Lawrence Ringo and the rest of the CBD pioneers.

Patrick Bennett's Bio Image

Patrick Bennett

Patrick lives with his wife and daughter in Denver, where he spends his time writing, photographing, and creating content for the cannabis community.

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  • Angel Vasquez

    HortaPharm did have CBD only varieties in the late 90’s that they had developed for medical use and were licensed to GW. This was a decade before any other high CBD only varieties, They also developed high CBC varieties, as well as high CBG only, THCV only, etc.

  • Open Minds

    I know this article is about high CBD strains but you have to mention Dr Mechoulam’s contribution without which CBD would have never come to the fore.

  • Think a little further

    Seriously, not mentioning CBD Crew? That has to be a mistake. The first ever company to stabilize a collection of CBD/THC rich seeds in 2012, started by Resin Seeds and MrNice/ Shantibaba? Still the absolute leaders in producing stable seeds, now making seed for a lot of other companies like ,Barneys Farm, Dinafem, Dutch Passion, etc etc? 🙂

  • Margo Koeller

    My favorite CBD was Charlotte’s Web but it’s become very hard to find so I now get harlequin,or Cannatonic

    • Coleen M Padilla

      I work for a company that produces a hemp/CBD oil using nanotechnology. I could send you some information if you’d like.

    • Two Bears

      My favorite high CBD strains are

      Northern Lights
      Hawaiian Dream

      Not much Charlotte’s Web.

      Arizona only got Harlequin about 2 years ago.

      Still dont have Charlotte’s Web as far as i know.

  • James

    My favorite CBD comes from http://www.deltacbd.com. Been using this for 6months to help with my anxiety and it has made my everyday life sooooo much better. Definitely recommend this company to anyone looking at CBD for help. I know they have some coupon codes, i think preferred10 will give you 10% off.

  • BenSamizdat

    Officially archived as one of the more excellent Leafly articles – gj Mr Bennet. My question – why does Cannabis actually produce Cannabinoids? The traditional answer: the plants use Cannabinoids for many purposes, but mainly as a UV sunblock to keep from getting cancer. The acids like THCa are the plants form of our Melanin, so the higher the THCa content, the more “TAN” the plant can be said to be (!) As proof – ALL of the high-THCa strains once originated as High-Mountain strains, or “Berg-Rasse” (Mountain Races). Knowing that, we are looking at the acids as Isomers and asking “If only THCa is necessary to block UV light, WTF are all of the other Cannabinoids actually good for???” The answer is intriguing, and perhaps it can be found by zooming in to the topology of the plant and taking a look. Go right down to the surface of the leaf and we can see that the resin crystalizes into little pyramids which cover the stoma.

    These PRISMS serve multiple functions but the primary purpose is simply to break down one color of light into other colors, mainly by turning white light into all other colors of the rainbow. Delving down into the stoma we can find specific pigments that capture specific colors, so it is necessary for the plant to do this! Now zoom out a bit and we can investigate the Trichomes. Are they REALLY just for blocking UV light? Because there are so few of them the answer is categorically NO. First, let’s get rid of the idea that there are just one or two types of Trichomes. There are many dozens – even the roots are trichomes after all. But glandular Trichomes tend to produce bulbs at the end which clearly use the leaf’s phototropism to track the sun. Therefore the bulbs are little Rawlemon Spheres which serve to focus the light into an intense coherent beam that is then shunted down the stalk which serves as a Fiber-Optic cable. This sends what is essentially a bio-laser deep down into the stoma super-cell and 100% of the energy is collected.

    Now, back to CBD. What is the purpose of having so many Cannabinoids? To answer this we go back into the distant past when the Earth had very little Ozone. UV levels were much much higher. When we look at plants and animals in the UV spectra we find many vestigial remnants of when flora and fauna fought to survive those early intense conditions. Setting this knowledge aside, we can look at the traditional maps of High-THC strains around the world and see that they basically occupy the niche centered around thhe 30th parallel N and S. As you go towards the equator, the Ozone layer is thicker so the metrics we seek are hidden and THC % falls. But as you go North (south works too, we just run out of Real-Estate to study), suddenly all of the naturally high CBD strains appear. This can only be happening because over the millenia there has always been an Ozone hole and these plants are being exposed to UVC light!

    Let me reiterate – the strains at the 30th parallels are High THC because these are all around 6000 to 12000 feet up from Sea Level – the Sweet Spot for UVB. But as we progress North, the Ozone hole means more UVC light gets through. What I’m suggesting is simple. All Cannabinoids are ISOMERS of each other and can therefore be converted back and forth in a lab using simple changes in pH. Occam’s Razer dictates that there must be a very simple explanation for the 113+ Cannabinoids and this can only be because the plants need to create a special blend in order to CAPTURE (not block) different qualities of light. In the case of CBDs I suggest that the sweet spot might be Middle UV (200 – 300 nm) moreso than Far UV (122 – 200 nm). As evidence for my theory (you won’t find in any book), please consider the fact that the bulbs serve the opposite purpose of the Prisms and Grisms; the bulbs are FOCUSING the light and making it more intense. The Cannabinoids inside are blocking certain wavelengths but the Trichome structure itself is enhancing the intensity of other wavelengths.

    • Michael Portereiko

      Interesting speculation, but where you suggest that you have “evidence,” I struggle to see it. What experimentation have you done to suggest that what you are saying is true?

  • DV & Child Custody

    Where is the “Best” place to purchase High Rich CBD Seeds ! Harlequin, etc Thanks !

  • The ratio of THC to CBD has no business in medicine. This ratio, as with all ‘ratios’, is easily manipulative and was derived by the UNODC as a method of determining “drug type” cannabis from fhat of “fiber”. The ratio had no usefulness in forensics and is very misleading in medicine.

    • James L

      Whats misleading about it?
      Seems like its just showing ratio to show respective differences in concentration. Maybe there are issues in other applications, other than just showing respective differences in concentration. If so what are they?

  • Jeff Johnson

    Suncritical co2 extraction does not ‘destroy terpenes’, it is actually one of the best methods around in extracting them. Otherwise a good read, but ya may want to amend that statement.

  • GreenBridge Medical

    I am an Internist, having finished my residency in 1979 from UCLA. I practiced Internal Medicine for over 20 years, before starting my medical cannabis practice in Santa Monica, Ca. I am now 13 years into practicing cannabis medicine. For the past 8 years, having access to laboratory equipment with the new labs in California. The ratio of CBD:THC or any other cannabinoid, is just as critical as the dose. In fact, the ratio is partly woven into the dose. For example, if you have a 2:1 CBD:THC plant/oil, by necessity, the THC is 1/2 the amount of the CBD. Ratios, vary from 30:1 CBD:THC to 30:1 THC:CBD.

    Generally, for anxiety, a higher CBD:THC ratio is better, however, for most pain related conditions, nearly always a bit more THC is needed. How much more? Well, by having a number of ratios and doses, i can work with the patient and find the right ratio which leads to the correct dose.