Indica and Sativa: Words that Fooled the Weed Community for 200 Years
By Alex Saez
Imagine your typical trip to a dispensary. You’re not entirely sure which strain you want, other than something relaxing - ideal for sleep or getting over a rough day.
You walk in and chat up the budtender, describing your ideal product. The first question you’ll likely hear is, “do you want indica or sativa?” The fine distinction between energizing sativas and relaxing indicas has become the go-to mentality for people chasing specific effects.
Although “indica” and “sativa” are legitimate terms, using them to predict a strain’s effects is about as scientifically legitimate as Bigfoot.
A two-century-old mistake is now firmly entrenched among weed users of all experience levels.
If the community’s understanding is wrong, what do indica and sativa mean? What - if any - bearing do they have on a given cannabis plant’s effects?
Origins of the Myth
We’ve seen plenty of mistakes and “fake news” spread like wildfire in the days of mass media and virtually instant communication. But the indica/sativa confusion predates that by leaps and bounds.
The first classification came in 1753. A biologist named Carl Linnaeus identified cannabis under the single category, cannabis sativa (or “C Sativa”). This interpretation is what most botanists use today.
The cannabis he studied was from Europe and parts of Asia - used chiefly for raw materials and seeds.
But in 1785, Linnaeus’s findings were challenged in a publication by another expert named Jean-Baptist Lamarck. He pointed out the physical differences between C sativa and another plant, incorrectly concluding that it was a separate species. He called it cannabis indica (a.k.a. “C indica”), as it was prolific in India and parts of the Middle East.
But unlike Linneaus, Lamarck made this connection without even seeing the plant. In fact, his classification came from third-hand reports and sample pieces sent to him from outside sources.
Nonetheless, Lamarck wrote:
The principal effect of this plant consists of going to the head, disrupting the brain, where it produces a sort of drunkenness that makes one forget one’s sorrows, and produces a strong gaiety.
Lamarck was clear that he felt cannabis indica provided a sense of relaxing intoxication.
This was the beginning of what would soon become a debate spanning two centuries.
The final and least-supported classification of a third species, cannabis ruderalis, came from a Russian botanist named D. E. Janischevsky. Like Lamarck, Janischevsky separated C ruderalis from the rest due to its physical traits.
However, even he wasn’t sure if there was enough evidence to support cannabis ruderalis as a separate species - another cannabis debate that’s still alive and well.
Although the average layperson may still misunderstand the sativa and indica concepts, experts want us to know that this is bunk. One particularly vocal critic is Dr. Ethan Russo.
Russo, a certified neurologist, psychopharmacology researcher, and cannabis expert, explains in an interview:
“There are biochemically distinct strains of Cannabis, but the sativa/indica distinction as commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility. One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given Cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology. The degree of interbreeding/hybridization is such that only a biochemical assay tells a potential consumer or scientist what is really in the plant.”
In other words, a plant’s physical appearance can’t predict its general effects, especially considering how strains (aka cultivars) have been interbred and altered throughout the years.
But not knowing what to expect from a cultivar is a real problem. Does this mean that shopping for the right flower is just a shot in the dark? Well, we have some good news. There’s another way to see what a strain will do - one that lets you predict it with way more accuracy.
Cannabinoids play a key role in guiding the medical and recreational effects of a cultivar. However, they’re not the only compounds responsible.
The Role of Terpenes
Terpenes are oily, aromatic compounds. Although the chatter about them focuses mainly on cannabis these days, terpenes exist in all plants.
Wonder how a mango fruit gets its aroma? You can thank a terpene called myrcene for that. Next time you smell lemon, remember that limonene is behind the sharp, citrusy scent. The fresh, evergreen pine smell you notice in the forest comes from the appropriately-named pinene.
The list goes on. But while certain plants are limited to a few terpenes, there are literally thousands of cannabis cultivars, each seemingly borrowing terpenes from all over the plant kingdom.
More importantly, terpenes play a crucial role in how you’ll feel after smoking or vaping your chosen bud. Myrcene, for instance, is highly relaxing and - incidentally - also the most common terpene in cannabis.
Other terpenes, like humulene, can completely impact what a strain does. In this case, humulene is a known appetite suppressant. Try a strain high in humulene, and you might not be hungry later..
Terpenes are also essential to medical users. For instance, people looking for pain relief should find strains high in myrcene, pinene, caryophyllene, and eucalyptol. Epilepsy patients should look for linalool - the only terpene known for its anti-seizure properties.
Below are common terpenes and their traits:
- Humulene - suppresses appetite, anti-inflammatory, helps with pain
- Pinene - increases alertness, anti inflammatory
- Linalool - sedative, relaxing, helps with insomnia and stress
- Caryophyllene - no physical effects, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, helps with pain, insomnia, and muscle spasms
- Myrcene - relaxing, induces euphoria, anti-inflammatory, has antiseptic and antibacterial qualities
- Limonene - elevated mood, relaxing, helps with depression and anxiety
So if terpenes are so valuable for predicting how a strain affects you, why are we still so focused on the vague indica/sativa system? The main reason is that not all markets require licensed producers to list terpene content on their labels.
As Dr. Russo adds in the interview we covered earlier, “It is essential that future commerce allows complete and accurate cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles to be available.”
Basically, we need to list cannabinoid and terpene profiles the same way food companies list their ingredients.
The Entourage Effect
Russo's groundbreaking paper would change our understanding of cannabis forever.
The theory behind the entourage effect was put forth by Dr. Ethan Russo in his 2011 academic publication, Taming THC: Potential Cannabis Synergy and Phytocannabinoid-Terpenoid Entourage Effects.
The entourage effect describes a synergistic relationship between cannabis compounds, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In other words, cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other compounds in cannabis work together to achieve a synergistic effect - something you don’t get when focusing on single molecules.
Essentially, potency and specific benefits come from a combination of multiple minor and major cannabinoids, in addition to terpenes. There’s been a lot of focus on this dynamic between THC and CBD which, despite their many differences, complement each other and seem to work best together.
How do Indica and Sativa Apply?
To the average user, indica and sativa are clearcut. Indicas are sedating while sativas are uplifting. We’ve established why that’s not true, but that doesn’t mean those words don’t have a place in weed terminology.
Lamarck was right when he distinguished the indica variant by its physical differences, even though everything else was off the mark.
So if indica and sativa don’t serve as compasses to determine which strains will relax or energize us, then what - if any - use do they have now?
To better understand that, we need to look at the schools of thought around cannabis classification.
There are two ways to look at cannabis. Depending on which way you classify it, you’ll fall into one of two groups.
First, we have the “lumpers” who follow Linnaeus’s classification. In contrast, others view cannabis as three different subspecies - indica, sativa, and ruderalis - based on their cannabinoid ratios, physical differences, and other relevant factors. These are called “splitters.”
Who, if anyone, is correct? Let’s take a closer look at the two groups.
Lumpers stick to the original classification of cannabis sativa being a single species under the cannabis genus. Rather than depending on plant size and shape, they separate cannabis based on its chemical makeup.
There are three main chemotypes, but a fourth and fifth are now also on the table.
Chemotypes I, II, and III
The term “chemotype” refers to a plant with similar physical characteristics (internal or external) but different chemical makeup. In our case, chemotype classification uses cannabinoid content as the benchmark, an approach introduced in 1973 by Ernest Small and H.D. Beckstead.
Scientists use the chemotype method to define the chemical makeup of cannabis strains and organize them accordingly.
Chemotype I refers to THC-dominant cannabis. The strain needs to contain more than 0.3% THC and less than 0.5% CBD to fit this bill.
Until CBD became a household term, chemotype I strains dominated the legal and underground market, reaching levels as high as 30% THC in some cases.
Some examples include:
- Gorilla Glue #4
- Girl Scout Cookies (GSC)
- Amnesia Haze
- Godfather OG
Chemotype II strains contain a relatively balanced ratio of THC and CBD. Strains in this category have various cannabinoid levels, but the percentage of THC to CBD remains fairly even.
Balanced strains are highly sought-after by medical users, who benefit from the combined effect of both cannabinoids.
Some strains in this group include:
- Sweet & Sour Widow
Chemotype III covers two types of cannabis. The strain needs to have less than 1% THC and over 0.5% CBD to fit this group. Many medical strains land in this category because low THC and high CBD levels provide health benefits with little to no impairment.
Chemotype III also includes cannabis classified as "industrial hemp" in the U.S.
“Industrial hemp” is a legal term to describe cannabis with less than 0.3% THC (in the United States). This type of plant is also a source of raw materials, food, and CBD products.
A few examples of high-CBD strains include:
- Charlotte’s Web
- Critical Mass
- Sour Space Candy
- Sour Tsunami
Chemotypes IV and V
The first three chemotypes cover all the bases with THC and CBD. But there are over 100 other cannabinoids that we’ve barely had a chance to study.
In recent years, experts decided it was time to expand beyond the big players and look at the benefits of other cannabinoids. To that end, two more chemotypes were born, describing plants bred for cannabinoids other than THC or CBD.
THC and CBD might take the spotlight, but your flower has many compounds dictating its effects. One cannabinoid receiving attention is cannabigerol (CBG).
Research is far from over, but there’s evidence suggesting CBG can help stabilize mood, improve appetite, reduce pain, and help relieve inflammation.
Chemotype IV plants also contain CBD and THC levels of less than 0.5%.
Of all chemotypes, this one stands out. Its chemical makeup flies in the face of everything we think about with cannabis.
Chemotype V contains almost no cannabinoids (less than 0.2%) but still produces terpenes. We don’t really know what its purpose could be. According to Jeremy Plum, Director of Production Science at Pruf Cultivar, chemotype V is a more efficient source for terpene production.
Lumpers have a lot to think about when trying to place cannabis plants into the right boxes. You’re not alone if the concepts make your head hurt. The lumper approach also isn’t that useful for people outside the scientific realm.
Although less accepted in the scientific community, the splitter approach divides cannabis into three subspecies - indica, sativa, and ruderalis.
Indica, Sativa, and Ruderalis
Unlike the cannabinoid-focused lumper approach, splitters consider various factors when placing their plants into one of the three subspecies.
A strain’s original habitat, physical makeup, and cannabinoid ratio determine where it lands in the three branches.
- Originated from Europe and parts of Eurasia
- Typically covers cannabis with THC as the primary cannabinoid
- Also includes low-THC, high-CBD cannabis, such as industrial hemp
- Plants grow very tall with noticeable space between leaves
- Native to places throughout Asia and the Middle East
- Generally refers to cannabis with a balanced CBD: THC ratio, where either cannabinoid (more often CBD) is slightly more dominant.
- Plants are short and bushy, with little space between leaves
It’s important to note that, while the general rule for cannabinoid ratios in indicas and sativas are consistent, genetic mixing between cultivars is rapidly blurring that fine line.
Unlike indica and sativa, ruderalis plants aren’t suitable for harvesting. Although high in CBD, the yields are so small that cultivating them for the flower isn’t worth the trouble. But growers found a more practical use for ruderalis.
Many growers cross their indica/sativa strains with ruderalis to create more robust, faster-growing variants. Ruderalis is very resilient and can survive harsher conditions than indica or sativa plants.
- Short, dense, and grows quickly
- The least preferred source for cannabinoids, but breeders take advantage of its genetic traits to strengthen their own cultivars
Which do You Use?
Whether you’re a “lumper” or a “splitter,” each school of thought has benefits and drawbacks.
The lumper approach is precise and can be handy for large licensed producers or scientific research. Lumping all cannabis strains under cannabis sativa helps classify plants with total emphasis on cannabinoids, terpenes, and other compounds.
On the other hand, splitters tend to be for breeders who need to understand climate, size, yield, and any additional information they can get for ideal growing.
Because each system serves a different role, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to look at it. It all boils down to whether you view cannabis classification from a scientific or practical standpoint.
But one thing we do know is that the indica and sativa concept hammered into us every day is, as Ethan Russo perfectly said, “total nonsense.”
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