Is medical marijuana genetically modified (GMO)?
This is a common curiosity among many folks, including cannabis connoisseurs.
There are thousands of different strains of marijuana, created for all sorts of reasons. The last decade has seen an incredible increase in the understanding that certain strains of marijuana are better for certain ailments, and growers and caretakers have bred plants specifically for those diseases. In a recent CNN special, for example, Dr. Sanjay Gupta profiled the strain “Charlotte’s Web,” which was created with a high CBD content and low THC content, contributing to its effectiveness in treating a child’s violent seizures without the “high” typically associated with THC.
Is all that marijuana what we’d call “GMO”? No.
Part of the confusion rests in the public’s understanding of plant science. Since practically the dawn of agriculture, people have taken the traits they like in two different plants and bred the plants together, hoping the offspring would embody the good traits of each and none of the bad. And just as humans only produce offspring with other humans, plants can only breed naturally with like plants — you’ll never see a tomato, for example, breeding with fish.
In other words, say you want a cannabis plant that’s easy to grow and has a high CBD (cannabidiol, a cannabinoid known for its therapeutic impact) content. Cannabis plant A is easy to grow, but has a low amount of CBD. Cannabis plant B is harder to grow, but has a high amount of CBD. By breeding the two together, you could get hundreds of seeds. You plant them, and then test them using a machine to determine which plants have your desired qualities. Those are the plants you keep. The plants that didn’t yield those qualities, you destroy.
This is classic breeding, and it’s a natural process, using “biotechnology” to test and confirm what aspects of the breeding were successful. Yes, humans are assisting, but they aren’t splicing into the cannabis plant’s DNA a gene from a tomato plant to create red-colored buds, for example. That would be an unnatural process — cannabis plants don’t breed with tomatoes. And that is what GMO frequently is all about: genetic modification, by putting something into the plant or taking something out in a way that would not naturally occur. It’s an intentional removal, or addition, to the plant’s DNA.
People confuse “ ‘I’m using biotechnology’ with ‘genetically modified,’ ” says Anndrea Hermann, owner of The Ridge International Cannabis Consulting, an international consulting group concerning all things cannabis. (Hermann is also an expert in plant science who serves as the president of the Hemp Industries Association.) “I’m using a tool, a machine, that can look at an attribute, a quality or a trait, to tell me early on in my breeding program if that’s a good plant to keep. Early detection of the quality is what we’re looking for.” Think of early detection of a disease in your body — no one wants to waste time or money or health waiting until the disease is out of control. The same is true with cannabis plants.