Debunking the Indica Sativa Myth

Most of us in and around Cannabis are all too familiar with the terms Indica and Sativa.

They refer to two different species of Cannabis: Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Sativa.

However, many people in the community have adopted the Indica and Sativa terms to describe two distinct experiences: Indica “In da couch” = sleepy and Sativa = energizing. 

This Indica/Sativa vernacular was a product of the black market; a pseudoscience born from the lack of research and communication allowed because of the prohibitive legislation. But now that we are emerging from the dark ages, using Indica/Sativa to describe effect is just not good enough. Let’s take a look at the Indica/Sativa breakdown, where the terms come from, what they actually mean, and how we should be talking about Cannabis moving forward. 

We have a long history with Cannabis. Cannabis most likely originated on the Asiatic continent in wetlands. Human nomadic groups also temporarily settled in climates such as this and thus began our long coexistence with hemp. A domestication of hemp happened as we humans realized the amazing potential of this plant - textile, edible, medicinal, psychoactive. Over centuries, we selectively bred the plant to have specific properties.

In 1753, a man named Linnaeus found a tall, skinny plant and gave it the name Cannabis sativa. According to the rules of classification, Cannabis is the genus or family and sativa is the species. In 1785 Lamarck proposed two separate species of Cannabis: sativa (grown largely in the Western continent/Africa) and Indica (grown largely in India). He classified it this way because of the morphological differences he saw. Sativa grew tall and skinny while Indica grew short and bushy. And that’s how the two species were born. 

Fast forward roughly 250 years of illegal Cannabis breeding and cultivation. We now have a plethora of strains named by growers who had no actual naming conventions or accountability to adhere to. Because of the black market, growers were forced to keep their mouths shut when it came to what genetics they had. Therefore, nobody communicated about the genetic progeny with any degree of scientific legitimacy. 

According to Rob Clarke, renowned ethnobotanist, “All modern drug Cannabis varieties are hybrids.” 

This is because the two species, Indica and Sativa, have been bred so many times that no Cannabis plant exists with pure “Indica” or “Sativa” genetics. Everything is a hybrid. 

The lack of pure genetic lines or ‘landraces’, as they are often called, actually gives us an incredible opportunity to move away from using the genetic species of a plant to help us determine its effect. Because it is not the genetic makeup of the plant that makes you feel a certain type of way. 

Even if we had a plant with pure Sativa genetics, it may not make us feel energized. It is the chemotype or chemical compounds found in the Cannabis flower that determine the effect it will have when consumed. And those compounds can and do vary widely among Cannabis genetics. For every batch of flower grown, we must look to the actual compounds that are interacting with our receptors to explain why some strains make us feel giggly or sleepy or sexy or hyper or somewhere in between. 

READ ALSO: How Micro-Dosing with Cannabis May Help Anxiety

When we talk about the chemotype of Cannabis we are referring to cannabinoid concentration (THC,CBD, etc) and terpene concentration. Terpenes are the essential oils found in plants; they give plants their smell. But they also correlate to certain physiological effects. For example, a strain that smells like citrus may make you feel more euphoric. This is because of a terpene called limonene, found in the rinds of citrus fruits, that gives a pronounced anti-anxiety effect when consumed. 

Instead of relying on the terms Indica or Sativa to help you find your desired effect, make more informed choices with your nose. Pick up a jar of Cannabis and deeply inhale. Do you smell citrus notes or a deep earthy grass? If you’re looking for something more euphoric pick up a strain with citrus notes. If you want something a little more relaxing go with that earthy cultivar. Start choosing Cannabis with your nose because as we say in the biz, the nose knows.

Of course there’s more variation than this simplified method, but hey, that’s another article. The next time you’re in a dispensary ask your budtender what cannabinoids and terpenes are in each strain. Don’t rely on Indica or Sativa. They don’t mean much of anything anymore.