Amanda Siebert:

Pay-to-play panels do a disservice to consumers

There is a general consensus in the cannabis community that consumer-friendly information is lacking, particularly when it comes to cultivars and their lineage. Many purport to know they have the inside scoop on a particular variety’s history, while many more who purport to know the same are, quite frankly, full of shit.

Given the history of the once-illicit industry, much of the information pertaining to strain origins is shrouded in mystery—and that’s often the way growers want to keep it. But with legal companies being able to use black market genetics and many more choosing to shirk history and rebrand these strains to fit current trends, consumers—myself included—are left confused and often misinformed. On more than one occasion, I have found myself asking, “What am I actually smoking here?”

In my mind, all of this confusion means it’s up to legal cannabis companies to be even more diligent in vetting the information they are presenting to consumers, whether it’s online, in a retail setting, or at an event. But with so few ways to market their product, some companies have opted to take questionable steps to familiarize consumers with their brands’ offerings.

Last weekend, I attended Consumer Day (January 11) at the Lift & Co. Cannabis Business Conference in Vancouver. I was intrigued to see a panel called, “Strained: The Stories Behind Your Favourite B.C. buds”, which advertised the unpacking of “some of the secret stories” behind so-called classic B.C. cultivars. I thought I’d attend to get an idea of what sort of information was being offered up to consumers at one of the country’s biggest cannabis-focused conferences.

Like any industry-focused conference, sponsors play a huge part in how big or small the event is. More often than not, they affect how its content is curated. This year’s conference featured two “presenting partners”, Alberta-based licensed producer (LP) Sundial, and B.C.-based LP Pure Sunfarms. Presenting partners get their logos featured in prominent areas of the conference floor, including on swag bags and in promotional booklets. In these booklets, they are highlighted in company profiles and given ad space in preferred places (like the front or back cover). They also have larger booths than other sponsors, and are “given an opportunity” to deliver a presentation on the event’s main stage.

Giving the schedule a scan before attending the panel, I noticed that it was the only presentation during the entire course of the weekend that featured more than one representative from the same company: three of the four panellists were employees at Pure Sunfarms. (Conferences like Lift regularly offer “pay-to-play” panels—though they won’t call them that). It was obvious that I would likely be in for a watered-down discussion on cultivars that, while they may have at some point been grown in B.C., were very likely just strains offered under Pure Sunfarms’ umbrella of dried flower.

And, I was right.

From left to right, Alana Armstrong, Sujinder Juneja, Devin Melnyk, and Rob Baldwin (Danielle Hoogenboom photo)

The panellists spent half an hour offering up elementary details on four of the company’s eight strains: Afghan Kush, Headband, White Rhino, and Purple Sun God.

From the get-go I found myself questioning the characterization of some of these cultivars as “B.C. bud”. But being a mere journalist, I recognize that my skepticism can sometimes cause me to jump to unnecessary conclusions, and that my knowledge of strain lineage and history is practically that of a zygote compared to, say, that of a recognized cannabis researcher or plant breeder.

So after the panel, I enlisted the help of a few longtime B.C.-based cultivators and breeding experts (Ryan Lee of Chemovar Genetics, Mat Beren of House of the Great Gardener and the newly launched Great Gardener Farms, and Sarah Campbell, director of the Craft Cannabis Association of BC) to help determine whether Pure Sunfarms was being honest, or whether they had spoon-fed the audience of unsuspecting consumers a load of well-branded bullshit.

First, I recognize that there is no cut-and-dry definition for what qualifies a particular variety as B.C. bud. I wanted to know how the information for the panel was sourced, and what compelled the team to classify these four varieties as such, so I followed up with an email.

“What unites these strains as ‘B.C. buds’ is not just that they were refined in B.C. within the pre-legalization market, but also that these strains thrived in our climate, and that their reputation and popularity spread from this province outward,” wrote communications manager Danielle Bronson in an emailed response to Inside the Jar.

“To inform the panel, we did our research and retrieved content and information from multiple sources, including the internet, seed companies (i.e., seedfinder.eu), the original ACMPR breeders, and most reputably, from our team’s experience with strains in the legacy market.”

But it was the information that the panellists themselves presented to the audience that left me wondering how accurate their classifications were. Afghan Kush is, by Pure Sunfarms’ own account, a landrace strain that originated in the Hindu Kush mountain region. While it is certainly available in British Columbia, classifying it as B.C. bud is, in the eyes of some cultivar aficionados, flat-out misinformation. Yes, the strain might thrive in B.C.’s climate, but according to Lee, there’s “absolutely no” reason to categorize the strain as B.C. bud.

“I mean Afghan Kush, it’s a mountain region between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Lee told ITJ by phone. “Whether the seeds that they’re talking about come from there or not, to me, that doesn’t say B.C.”

Headband, as described by Pure Sunfarms, is a California-bred strain that came to popularity in Ontario in the ‘90s and eventually “found a happy home in B.C. when material was transferred here.” This, too, left me scratching my head. How does a strain bred in California that rises to popularity on the other side of the country deserve the title of B.C. bud?

“Headband is a Cali variety, it has nothing to do with B.C.,” said Lee. This was confirmed by Beren and Campbell.

According to Pure Sunfarms, White Rhino is “a cross between the already popular White Widow and select Brazilian and sativa strains”. While it may have been popular among B.C. growers and is one that our own Travis Lane grew for a long time, it was pointed out to ITJ that White Rhino is actually a cross between White Widow and Afghani. Both Beren and Lee also noted that White Rhino was developed and rose to fame in Holland.

“The cannabis community likes to create these little stories because it gives some kind of pseudo-provenance or credibility to the product, but most of these things aren’t really developed that way,” said Lee.

From left to right, Alana Armstrong, Sujinder Juneja, Devin Melnyk, and Rob Baldwin (Danielle Hoogenboom photo)

“There were a lot of things that were popularized in B.C.; Grapefruit and Texada Timewarp, and the Hash Plant clones all the bikers were growing back in the day, but none of the strains you’ve mentioned so far.”

Purple Sun God, on the other hand, is closer to fitting the bill. It’s a Pure Sunfarms strain that crosses Purple God Bud with UBC Chemo, two strains that are synonymous with the B.C. bud legacy.

“I’ve never heard of the cross, but those two others are classics,” Beren told ITJ. “It’s tough, some of these strains may have been grown in B.C., but their origins aren’t here. If you’re someone who’s grown weed for 10 years in B.C., and you’ve only ever grown one strain, you might say, ‘aw yeah, that’s classic B.C. bud, man’... But if you’re in the know, you know where strains come from.”

At this point, you might be wondering what I’m getting at. It’s understandable given the restrictions on marketing that producers are forced to resort to this kind of activity—Pure Sunfarms is by no means the only LP to have done so, and Lift is certainly not the only conference to enable it—but should such marketing-based misinformation be presented as fact? In an immature market with so few consumer resources, it is even more important that marketing material and educational content is presented honestly to those who might be keen to learn about cultivar lineage, but realistically have no way of verifying what they’re being told.

“This is a big marketing dance made to look like a panel,” said Lee. “These are all the ways that Lift does a disservice to the community… it shouldn’t’ be a [pay-to-play] narrative where companies just get to present a bunch of information that benefits them with no benefit to the community, and it’s not even true.”

Beren likened LPs that rename strains and classify them without any sort of structure to karate schools: “There are 1,000 karate schools out there, and a lot of them are like your McDonalds-type karate schools. But some of them, when you ask the teacher, ‘what’s your lineage?’ He’ll tell you, ‘I learned from this master, who learned from this master,’ and you can trace his lineage back and say, ‘okay, that guy’s the real deal’,” he said.

“The cannabis industry is the same… especially in the modern LP era, because everyone just changes the name of everything. They try to create their own patentable, trademarkable name for a strain, and it’s a cash grab.

“The biggest problem with all of that is they’re just not telling the truth.”

From left to right, Alana Armstrong, Sujinder Juneja, Devin Melnyk, and Rob Baldwin (Danielle Hoogenboom photo)

In the end, who is responsible for the precariousness with which “information” is disseminated at these conferences that are so focused on marketing? Does accuracy have a price? Are sponsors interested in the truth, and is this the kind of respect licensed producers want to bestow upon early adopters who might later learn that they’ve been wildly misinformed?

What’s more, what are consumers to do when they stumble upon these over-inflated descriptions online?

Perhaps the most important consideration is, if I write enough zeroes on a cheque for the next conference, can I stand up in front of the audience and hawk my product under the guise of it being “educational”?

“This is the opportunity, this is the time for those stories and the roots of the strains that should be considered B.C. bud,” said Campbell. “We need to provide people, the growers, the breeders, with those platforms to tell those stories... There should be the opportunity for those that do care to know the whole story.”

Regardless of where you stand in the “Is this B.C. bud” discussion, panels that exist to allow LPs to market their product to unsuspecting consumers are sure to leave consumers and experts alike with a bad taste in their mouths. Lee hopes that in the future, the trend of lying about genetics—something he says is “nothing new” in the industry—will eventually go the way of “strain”, a word he says is historically misused and actually means a type of bacteria or virus. He prefers “cultivar”.

“I would like to think that in this new world, maybe a new system grows out of this, where that kind of information is based on science,” he said.

“We’re lucky to start having lab analysis and maybe even genetic analysis that is going to put an accurate story together of where these cultivars came from.”

I’m not here to die on the “well technically, that’s not B.C. bud” hill, but I’m as good as dead on the “factcheck your shit” hill. This may be a young industry, but it's one where misinformation runs rampant and the spin machine always seems to be on overdrive. It’s time to rewrite the narrative.