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July 01, 2020

Indica vs Sativa: Forget Almost Everything You Know

indica cannabis leaf (left) and sativa cannabis leaf (right)One of the most exciting things about cannabis is that we are learning new things about this wonderful plant every day. This new information not only changes the way we understand cannabis plants, it requires that we change the way we talk about cannabis. If you haven’t noticed, the cannabis industry is trying to move away from the words Indica and Sativa. There are many legitimate reasons for us to want to move away from these terms; unfortunately, Indica and Sativa hold a large space in the cannabis culture and carry a lot of meaning. Finding a replacement for them is no small task -- let alone convincing people to use them. So, before we can honestly talk about creating replacements for these words, it is important we spend some time addressing what Indica and Sativa have meant up to this point. 

The First Thing You Learn

 If you are like me, the first thing you learned about cannabis is that there are two different types -- Indica and Sativa. When I started in the cannabis industry, I was taught that Cannabis Sativa plants are different from Cannabis Indica plants in how they look and how they make you feel. If you want to get technical with the language, they are going to have different phenotypes (physical characteristics) and chemotypes (the chemical profile that dictates effect). I was told that Sativa plants are tall and thin. The plant takes longer to mature and produces wispy flowers. Indica plants, I was told, are short and stocky. They reach maturity quicker than Sativa plants and produce flowers that are dense. Sativas offer uplifting and energetic effects, and Indica products produce effects that are sedative. When you breed the two types together, you get a third type of plant called a Hybrid, and the physical characteristics and chemistry of the plant fall somewhere in the middle. 

Within this context, Indica and Sativa are being used to help customers understand how the cannabis product is going to make them feel. This is problematic for two reasons. First, there are roughly 500 different compounds that contribute to the effects of cannabis. The effects are dependent upon the quantity and ratio of these chemicals (cannabinoids and terpenes) and how these chemicals interact with each other. This interaction is referred to as the entourage effect. This result is a large spectrum of experiences -- not just sedative or uplifting! Second, even if your budtender has experience with the product you intend to purchase, it will not affect you the same way. Cannabis works by engaging a person’s endocannabinoid system, and everyone’s system is unique to them. In other words, each person’s cannabis experience is going to be unique. 

The effects-based understanding of Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid is how most people use these terms today and represents the position from which we are being asked to move; however, it is not the only way Indica and Sativa have been used.

cannabis sativa plant (left) and cannabis indica plant (right)Species Of Cannabis 

Now, if you really want to nerd out about cannabis, I recommend reading Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany by Merlin and Clarke. This book is a great resource for understanding where cannabis came from, how it evolved and moved around the world, and how it is classified. From a botanist’s perspective, Indica and Sativa are two different species of cannabis. Sativa is the word used to classify hemp varietals. Hemp produces very low levels of THC and is used mostly for making food, fiber, and CBD products. The Indica dominant varieties are known as the “drug-type” plants. These are the marijuana strains you will find at your cannabis shop, and they offer high levels of THC and CBD. 

So, within this framework, all of the cannabis you are going to find in a cannabis shop is technically Indica. The “Sativa” that is being sold to you is actually a subspecies of Indica that is defined by its narrow-leaves, wispy buds, and tall plant structure. The “Indica” you find at a shop is the broad-leaf subspecies of Indica. This subspecies is short and produces dense flowers. Sound familiar? 

A potential problem with this use of Indica and Sativa is that it does not speak to the effects of cannabis. Some people have argued that narrow-leaf cannabis offers uplifting effects, and broad-leaf cannabis offers sedative effects; however, considering that basically all the flower you find in a shop will be Hybrid strains and the conditions in which a plant is grown affects its chemical profile, it is best not to assume that a plant’s physical characteristics will guarantee a specific effect like a sedative body high. This is a reason why people are arguing that we move away from using Indica and Sativa; however, we still have to figure out something to put in their place.

A New Way To Talk About Indica & Sativa

The biggest obstacle in replacing Indica and Sativa is that they have been woven into the fabric of the cannabis culture -- it is almost impossible to avoid them. You are going to keep seeing them on cannabis packaging because that is what people know, and producers are going to create a product that customers believe they can understand. Therefore, instead of completely abandoning these terms, I think it is best that we just acknowledge them for what they are -- a starting point to a more complex conversation. If someone says to me that they are looking for a Sativa specific strain, I do not explain to them why they are wrong for using these terms -- pretentious budtenders are the worst! I ask them a follow-up question like: “What type of Sativa are you looking for?” or “What side effects are you looking to avoid?” This provides me with an opportunity to transition the conversation to something that both educates and empowers people in their cannabis purchasing. 

The conversation can get complex, but the facts are pretty straightforward. The effects of cannabis strains are determined by chemical compounds called terpenes and cannabinoids. The chemistry is the result of its genetics and the environmental factors that contributed to its growth. These compounds play off each other to produce an effect. That experience is unique to the consumer, as we all have unique endocannabinoid systems. These chemicals offer a spectrum of effects that include, but are not limited to, sedative and uplifting. What this means is that, when we are talking about a specific effect, we are talking about a specific cocktail of terpenes and cannabinoids. Like cocktails made with alcohol, you are going to find that you like some more than others. The trick is finding the terpenes and cannabinoids that meet your needs. Happy hunting! 

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