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The Difference Between Indica and Sativa

The cannabis industry has come a long way in just a couple of decades. Governments loosening restrictions on cannabis products has given millions of people legal access and furthered our understanding of the plant. As the industry shifts from the shadows of the black market to a billion-dollar legal industry, we are inevitably seeing major changes take place. Consumer information regarding cannabis once came from home growers, blogs, obscure books, and drug dealers. Now that a legitimate career in the cannabis industry is not only possible but highly lucrative, researchers, doctors, and scientists have moved into this space.

One of the remnants of the former black market is the terminology used to classify cannabis. Sativa and indica have long served as the means of determining the species. When a consumer walks into a dispensary, they are tasked with choosing between indica, sativa, and hybrid, then to go further by picking a specific strain.

While these terms have served the black market and the beginnings of the legal cannabis industry, they may not be the best way of determining what strain will give the uplifting effects you expect from a sativa, or the sedating feeling of an indica.

Lamarckian Theory of Evolution

Cannabis science first emerged in the late 1800s with biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck. Before Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution by observing animals' unique characteristics on the Galapagos islands, Lamarck had a theory of his own.

He believed that animals evolved over their lifespan to adapt to their environments. The theory states that the parent would pass on to the offspring traits they had acquired during their life experiences. Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, would disprove Lamarck’s theory in the 19th century.

Lamarck also had a theory about cannabis. He believed plants developed traits based on their geographical location. The plant’s physical appearance and the climate in which it had developed would determine the effects. We moved away from Lamarck's theory of evolution, but his cannabis science is still prevalent today.

Debunking Cannabis Pseudoscience

As researchers learn more about cannabis, we understand that determining the effects based on appearance is flawed. If you go on Leafly right now, you will read many descriptions of indica strains that have uplifting effects, and sativas that deliver the famous "couch-locking" qualities. In any other medical field, this would be considered unacceptable. For the industry to grow and help as many people as possible, we must evolve the ways in which we classify cannabis.

PLoS One Study

In 2015, a group of Canadian researchers conducted a study to find if there was a genetic difference between plants that are considered indica vs. those labeled sativa. The researchers examined the chemical makeup of 81 marijuana and 43 hemp strains. They found that the correlation between genetic composition and species was only moderate. Furthermore, they discovered strains that were labeled as sativa having the exact same genetics as a strain labeled as indica. They note in the study that the nature of breeding within the black market possibly led to inaccuracy in tracking the ancestry.

Dr. Ethan Russo

One of the pioneers of cannabis research, neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher Dr. Ethan Russo agrees that the current classification system is flawed. He states in an interview discussing the debate over cannabis genetics, “one cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology.”

Cannabis is a complex plant. Judging the effects based on appearance alone is no longer necessary. As the industry grows, more research is conducted, and our testing infrastructure increases, we expect to see a more science-based approach to describing the effects of cannabis.

Using Chemical Composition to Determine Sativa, Indica, Hybrid

We are already using chemical composition to classify legal and illegal cannabis. Hemp is considered to have levels of THC 0.3% or lower in the US, and marijuana is classified as having any THC level greater than hemp. Hemp and marijuana flower is tested by companies to determine what category it falls under. To better communicate the user experience, we can use the chemical composition of the plant for species classification as well.

Cannabis researchers like Dr. Russo believe that terpenes are the driving factor in what creates the experience after consuming cannabis. Strains with a high concentration of terpenes like beta-caryophyllene and myrcene are what create the indica effects. Sativa strains deliver a euphoric boost of energy due to their high concentrations of terpenes like alpha-pinene and limonene.

Genetics and geography may have once played a major role in what terpenes are most likely to be featured in a specific strain. After centuries of cross-breeding and genetic development, it doesn’t make sense to classify based on appearance and lineage alone.

Terms such as "indica-forward" or "sativa-like" are already being used in dispensaries around the world. Researchers like Dr. Russo contributed a great deal to further our understanding of cannabis. If you are interested in his work, check out his famous article, Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects.

An Ever-Evolving Plant and Industry

There isn’t another plant on earth that has been in demand like cannabis while still labeled as a dangerous drug. Part of what makes the industry special is the pioneers who helped with its evolution under the legal radar. Many parts of the black market will never go away, but it is important to understand why we use terms like indica and sativa.

In the near future, we expect to see terpenes playing a major role in people’s purchasing decisions. Taking into account the entire chemical composition of cannabis when choosing a strain will dramatically help recreational and medical cannabis users.

We aren’t calling to uproot the terminology used in every dispensary on earth, but to recognize that the current system is flawed, and to understand where it comes from. The terms sativa and indica, coined by Jean Baptiste Lamarck, will likely never go away, but to give the best suggestions possible to users, we must take into account all determining factors.


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