Classifying Cannabis: Indica vs Sativa

Can the Indica and Sativa dichotomy truly help to determine the type of experience felt from cannabis?  

Over the years, the common belief has become that cannabis is organized into three general categories: Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid. Furthermore, many believe each category is associated with a specific type of consistent experience. For example, cannabis labeled ‘Indica’ is often thought to produce a sleepy or relaxed effect, while products labeled Sativa initiate a creative or happy experience. 

Today, however, most cannabis varieties found in the marketplace have a mix of Indica and Sativa genetics. These hybrids are a combination of many different types of cannabis genetics blended together through breeding over time. Think of it this way – you may own a “purebred” Labradoodle, but it is still technically a “hybrid” of a lab and a poodle. With such a hybridized population, it becomes next to impossible to use the standard Indica/Sativa distinction to help us determine experience. So, where do we go from here? Let’s map the history of cannabis and examine the alternatives for determining experience. 

Cannabis has existed for over 70 million years and humans’ relationship with this powerful plant dates back for millenia. However, it wasn’t until 1753 that a man by the name of Carl Linnaeus first classified a species of cannabis. He introduced the term Sativa and defined the species by its lanky structure and narrow leaves. In 1785, another taxonomist by the name of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck classified an additional cannabis species he had found in India. Lamarck believed the cannabis variety had enough morphological differences from Linnaeus’ Sativa, so he categorized a new species and thus Indica was born! Lamarck defined Indica by its short, bushy stature and broad leaves. The species were originally defined by the way in which the plants grow. The two definitions in no way suggest anticipated consistent effects associated with their consumption. 

Even if at one point in time the terms Indica and Sativa correlated to a consistent experience, it would be of little relevance today given today’s cannabis strains are hybrids. Through the rich history of cannabis, seeds have been moved, traded, and grown in various places around the world for generations. As these seeds were introduced to new regions, they were combined with local genetics, or landraces. (Landrace is cannabis which has grown in a particular region with little to no outside influence from other cannabis genetics, usually for a long period of time.) Columbian Gold, original Thai, Indian, and Moroccan cultivars are all examples of landraces. As enthusiasts traveled and gathered seeds, they began mixing various genetics, creating many of the cannabis strains we know and love today. Strains such as Sour Diesel, Cookies, Gelato, Chem Dawg and even the classic OG’s are the fruits of labor from many growers’ years of experimentation and dedication to the plant. 

If we can’t readily rely on the the Indica or Sativa distinction to determine experience, what about the strain names? Well – due to prohibition – plant genetics, delivery methods, and naming conventions have rapidly evolved in secret without access to proper documentation and research. The names of  various strains are seemingly endless as cultivars have been named, renamed, and mislabeled for decades, creating a complicated understanding for scientists, businesses, and consumers alike. Instead of Indica, Sativa, or strain names, we must look to the actual chemical compounds found in each cannabis variety to best predict experience. 

The term chemovar refers to the combination of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids in each individual plant. While usually very similar, chemovar profiles can vary even within the same strain due to minor differences in growing conditions. Knowing each plant product’s chemovar profile, not just the product name, is necessary to help us better understand the potential therapeutic benefits. 

This being said, we are generally not in favor of the “classic” Indica and Sativa classification as a means to predict experience. Instead, we prefer in a simple and effective form of classification focused on cannabinoid ratio. Type I cannabis contains all varieties that are THC dominant. Type II cannabis cannabis all varieties that contain a mixture of THC and CBD, typically expressed in a 1:1 ratio. Type III cannabis represents all varieties that exhibit CBD dominance. From this general categorization, it is important to identify the terpenes in each product and understand how they may too affect your experience with cannabis. 

So next time you want a heavy Indica for sleep, think to yourself, what is it that I’m really looking for? Choosing a cultivar based on its chemotype – in this case, Type I with terpenes such as linalool and myrcene – may give you a better experience than if you chose a cultivar because it was arbitrarily labeled ‘Indica’.  Always remember to start slow, experiment, document, and ask questions. There is no one size fits all and we must all pay attention to what our own bodies need to determine what best for ourselves. However, even in the incredibly personalized nature of cannabis, we can make better predictions regarding how a product might make us feel. This necessitates a move beyond the generic Indica/Sativa towards an investigation of the chemotype to help us better predict experience produced by cannabis products.