Photo by Esteban Lopez

Indica vs Sativa: Are They Really That Different?

Go to your favourite licensed producer (LP) website, or your local dispensary and you’ll see the terms ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’ everywhere. Generally, indica plants are short and bushy and believed to have relaxing, bodily effects, while taller sativa plants are thought to be energizing and cerebral.

But ask a scientist well-versed in cannabis, and you may hear a different story.

“We would all prefer simple nostrums to explain complex systems,” says neurologist and and International Cannabinoid Research Society president emeritus Ethan Russo, “but this is futile and even potentially dangerous in the context of a psychoactive drug such as cannabis.”

If leading cannabis experts think the terms are problematic, how did we get to them in the first place, and what’s so wrong with them?

The origin of the terms indica and sativa

The terms cannabis sativa and cannabis indica date back to the 1700s. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus had set out to name and categorize the world’s plants and animals, and in 1753 he identified one strain: cannabis sativa. At the time, the European hemp crop was grown mostly for its fibre.

Around thirty years later, biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck got his hands on some strains from India. Because these varieties looked so different from the European kind, he classified them as a new species, cannabis indica. Later, researchers introduced a third name, cannabis ruderalis, for the wild, low-THC cannabis plants in south eastern and central Russia with a look of their own.

To this day, scientists can’t agree on whether these three classifications – sativa, indica and ruderalis – are distinct species or subspecies.

What’s wrong with these terms, anyway?

The terms from the 1700s were all about visual distinctions, but did not necessarily consider effect, which is why we use the word cannabis sativa to describe both the non-psychoactive industrial hemp plant – which by its legal definition contains no more than 0.3 per cent THC, and will not get you high, and the psychoactive cannabis plant, which can contain considerably more THC and might get you high.

For now, let’s leave hemp out of the conversation and focus on what most of us think of when we hear the word cannabis – or marijuana, or weed, or pot, or ganja, if you will. We’ll also set ruderalis aside, since there’s little current demand for this plant (its slang name is ditchweed).

This is where using the terms sativa and indica get tricky, because these very real visual distinctions are conflated with expected effects, the belief being that indicas are relaxing and sativas are energizing. The problem with this common belief is that although it may once have been true, it’s not anymore – at least, not consistently.

Cannabis plants are dioecious, meaning that just like humans, they have a biological mother and father, and can inherit a wide range of variations. Although cannabis sativa and cannabis indica may have been more distinct in the past, after centuries of crossbreeding, most plants are hybrids. Just as a child may look like one parent, but act like another, a cannabis plant can look like a sativa, but feel like an indica, and vice versa.

Recent genetic studies bear this out, with researchers at the University of British Columbia concluding that while there are significant differences between hemp and cannabis, “marijuana strain names often do not reflect a meaningful genetic identity.” There are ancestral distinctions between reported indica and sativa strains, they write, but breeding has resulted in “considerable admixture” and the classifications are often wrong. For instance, they found that Jamaican Lamb’s Bread – a reportedly 100 per cent sativa strain rumoured to be Bob Marley’s favourite – was nearly genetically identical to a reportedly 100 per cent indica from Afghanistan.

To sum up, the terms indica and sativa are problematic because:

  1. A plant’s appearance doesn’t necessarily predict its genetics.
  2. A plant’s appearance doesn’t necessarily predict its effects.
  3. Most plants are hybrids anyway.

If indica and sativa aren’t reliable distinctions, what are?

Indica and sativa are problematic terms, but anyone who’s tried more than two strains of cannabis can tell you that there really are differences. Some strains are good for sleep, some for energy, some strains may reduce anxiety, some may exacerbate it. So how is a person to know?

It comes down to two factors, mainly: cannabinoids and terpenes. Each strain presents a unique mix of cannabinoids – THC and CBD are the two most famous, but there are hundreds more – all with their own properties and likely effects.

Terpenes – the aromatic compounds that provide all plants with their unique scents and flavours – matter too. Increasingly, licensed producers are providing terpene charts to explain the composition of each strain. Sedative effects can be commonly attributed to the presence of the terpene myrcene, says Dr. Russo, while an uplifted mood might signal the presence of limonene. We still have a lot to learn, but one advantage to terpenes is that you don’t need a lab to guess the dominant ones, and can train yourself to identify their scents.

Cannabis science is advancing rapidly, and every year we learn more about the plant, its components and its genetic history. One day in the not-too-distant future, we suspect the terms indica and sativa will go the way of prohibition and be abandoned for more sophisticated classifications that highlight effects over appearances. In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning to predict strain effects, ask lots of questions and pay careful attention to cannabinoids, terpenes and your own experiences.

With research and written contributions from Freedom Ahn.

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