Medical Marijuana 101: Cheese? White Widow? What's Up With The Names?

I'm standing in a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado, reading the list of available strains.

There’s Cheese, recommended for patients with multiple sclerosis, insomnia, a lack of appetite or constipation.

Neon Super Skunk is supposed to help with menstrual cramps, fibromyalgia and back pain.

Kind of silly, whatever.

Then I see White Widow, for patients with PTSD and hepatitis C. And Jack the Ripper is billed as relief from chronic pain, depression and anxiety.

Really? My vet buddies are going to try White Widow to ease symptoms of PTSD?

And a patient with anxiety would put their faith in Jack the Ripper for relief?

Several websites caution patients that “it can be hard to put aside the names and focus on what really counts — symptom relief.”

But Dr. Paul Bregman, who runs Medical Cannabis Consulting in Denver, disagrees.

“People are not put off by a name,” Bregman says. “If someone tells you that Jack the Ripper will help your rheumatoid arthritis, people will use it, despite the name.”

Strains are named by their breeder, the person who uses cross-pollination to create a new plant variety. Pretty much anything goes, although some dispensaries do not stock strains that contradict the image of marijuana as a healing agent (like Green Crack and Alaskan Thunder F---).

There does not appear to be any real movement to align recommended medical use with a name.

“That conversation is beginning,” Bregman says, “but it’s in the very early stages, infancy.”

I searched two online marijuana databases — Leafy and EU Seed-finder — and found just three strains with the word “pain” in the name, out of thousands of varieties.

Of course, common medications used to treat anxiety and most ailments fail the name confidence test too. For anxiety, your doctor might prescribe a serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Paroxetine (brand name Paxil) or Sertraline (Zoloft) or a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) called venlafaxine (brand name Effexor XR).

Your eyes skipped over the names of these meds, right? What’s the point of trying to remember them? My goal is to memorize the first three letters of a prescription and hope my doctor or pharmacist has my medical record handy.

The rules for naming FDA-approved medications are incredibly intricate.

Take a look at the "guiding principles" used by the United States Adopted Names (USAN) Council for nontrademark drugs. Here are some of the highlights: Names should be one word, not more than four syllables; prefixes that imply "better" are not allowed; and some letters are off-limits to make for easier foreign language translation.

Two labs that test marijuana in Massachusetts sent me lists of the strains they see most often. The names are pretty tame: Blue Dream, Girl Scout Cookies, Sour Diesel and various types of Kush. But still, nothing that implies it will reduce tremors, cramps, headaches and the like.

We don't want false advertising, and the research on the effectiveness of different strains is thin. But as supporters of marijuana as medicine seek to prove it is effective, maybe they could also come up with some names that sound more like relief for what ails us.

And hey, USAN, maybe you could follow suit?

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Martha Bebinger Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.



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