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Cannabis Sativa Vs Indica: Is There a Difference?

By Nicole Gleichmann

Published: Jul 09, 2019   
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Walk into any dispensary around the US and you’ll almost surely be given a list that splits your options into one of two categories: indica or sativa. If you go with a sativa, you’re choosing a more uplifting experience, and when you opt for an indica, a calmer, more sedative one. 

But what if I were to tell you that this sativa vs indica distinction is rooted in inaccurate science?

That’s right; what many marijuana aficionados have been using as a guide for many years isn’t what they think it is. 

In this article, we are going to pull the veil off marijuana strain classifications, separating fact from fiction. We’ll end with the best way to categorize marijuana that is both scientifically valid and extremely helpful when it comes to knowing what to expect from any strain of weed.

Indica vs sativa - the beginnings

Way back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck was busy at work proposing interesting theories that were destined to be proven wrong. 

One of these was the Lamarckian theory of evolution, where he proposed that animals evolved new traits within their lifetimes. In this theory, a giraffe would slowly stretch out its neck during its lifetime when tasty treats were too high up in a tree, resulting in an elongated neck. Later in the 19th century, Charles Darwin came along and put Lamarck’s theory to rest when he published his theory of evolution in the Origin of Species, explaining that these changes happen slowly over a span of multiple generations. 

Another theory of Lamarck’s, however, has stuck with us all the way to the present day: his marijuana theory. 

According to Lamarck, cannabis is broken into two species: Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa. By evolving in isolated locations, C. indica and C. sativa adopted distinct characteristics in how they look and how they feel when ingested. These ideas have carried over through generations and are now reflected in popular weed culture today with the sativa vs indica categorizations.

Sativa vs indica - what does Lamarck’s theory say?

The other, more well-known part of this theory is that these two species of cannabis vary in how they impact humans when ingested. It’s this part of the theory which most weed smokers are intimately familiar with, as it’s how most companies (and drug dealers) will categorize their products. 

Combining it all together

If you follow the logic above, you would assume that a short plant with broad leaves would be sedating, while a tall plant with narrow leaves would be energizing. And one may even assume that these different traits would be based on genetic differences between C. sativa and C. indica specimens. 

But this is exactly where the whole sativa vs indica distinction falls apart. 

Nowadays, both scientists and marijuana experts agree that this categorization of physiological effect based on appearance and genetics is, well, simply untrue. 

It is the chemical makeup of the plant, not what it looks like, that is responsible for the varying effects experienced from different marijuana strains. And, according to neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher Dr Ethan Russo, “one cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology.”

But what about the genetics? Putting aside the appearance of the plant, is there a genetic difference between plants that are labeled sativas and those labeled indicas? 

This question was answered in a 2015 study published in PLoS ONE, in which researchers examined the gene pools of 81 marijuana strains. They found that there was only a moderate correlation between a marijuana strain’s genetic structure and its reported classification as “sativa” or “indica.” What’s more, the strain names are even less meaningful when it comes to categorization. 

So, while there is a modest correlation between categorization of indica or sativa and genetic composition, there will be some “indicas” that are more similar to the “sativas” and vice versa. Plus, even though there is a modest correlation between categorization and genetic composition, it isn’t because one type is more likely to be an indica and the other a sativa (as we’ll soon see). 

The real sativa vs indica

Interestingly, in the aforementioned study, researchers did find a distinction between two types of cannabis that do appear to fit within the C. sativa and C. indica genetic categories: marijuana and hemp plants. When it comes to genetics, hemp is more similar to C. indica and marijuana to C. sativa. This means that few marijuana plants would share more of their DNA with C. indica than C. sativa, leaving marijuana plants more sativa than indica. 

Does that mean hemp and marijuana are different species?

The short answer here is no. Hemp and marijuana are usually considered the same species of plant. However, read over the literature and you will learn that there isn’t a consensus among botanical taxonomists as to whether there is one or more species of cannabis. 

Many believe that all cannabis plants belong to a singular polymorphic species based on the fact that they can all interbreed with one another. This would mean that every variety of marijuana and hemp falls under the species C. sativa. 

Yet, there are others that would argue that there are three or four species, including C. indica, C. sativa, Cannabis afghanica, and Cannabis ruderalis, and the differences between them stems from where each of the plants evolved.

The evolution of cannabis

These distinctions have to do with the evolutionary history of the plant. Tens of thousands of years ago, cannabis plants were separated into two growing regions, likely thanks to ice sheets: one in Europe and the other in south-east Asia. Over time, this geographical separation led to differences in the appearance and ideal growing conditions, resulting in the classification of two (or, to some taxonomists, more than two) cannabis varieties: C. sativa in Europe and C. indica in south-east Asia.  

Later, however, human migration spread both C. indica and C. sativa seeds throughout the world. Simultaneously, human selection drove genetic changes in the population. During this time, and continuing to this day, selective breeding has led to nearly every marijuana plant being a hybrid (a genetic combination) between C. sativa and C. indica. 

What this means is that nearly every cannabis plant, both hemp and marijuana, available today is a hybrid and so is neither fully C. sativa nor C. indica. Because of this, even if there were once a way to guess physiological effect based on appearance and genetics, that strategy wouldn’t hold up today. 

Does indica vs sativa mean anything today?

Fast forward to the present date. Even though botanists agree that the indica vs sativa categorization in how it’s commonly used is, well, nonsense, it hasn’t stopped this widespread categorization.

When you walk into a dispensary and ask which strains are indica and which are sativa, what you’re really asking about is how the different strains affect you. This means that you can still use this designation as a tool to help you choose a strain of marijuana that has the effects that you’re looking for. 

In fact, there are some dispensaries that will label their strains as “sativa-like” or “indica-like” to describe their physiological effects, recognizing that this is a useful tool even though it is not accurate, genetically speaking. 

If not indica or sativa, how should we categorize marijuana and hemp?

We do have better ways of classifying weed than the conventional sativa vs indica. It is not the genetic history of the plant, but its chemical composition, that determines the way that it affects us. Therefore, it behoves each of us to look at its chemical composition, known as it’s chemovar or chemotype, when picking the best strain for us.

Take marijuana vs hemp, for example. No one is asking if one of these is sativa and the other is indica. Instead, the legal distinction has to do with the percentage tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). For example, in the United States, if a plant is greater than 0.3 percent THC, it’s a marijuana plant. If It’s 0.3 percent or lower, it’s a hemp plant. 

Using chemovars to choose your ideal bud

The first thing that probably comes to mind when you image using chemical composition to categorize marijuana is its percentage THC and cannabidiol (CBD), the two most well-known and studied cannabinoids found in cannabis. But when looking at cannabis strains, it’s beneficial to look at more than just THC and CBD percentages.

Think about it: most of the marijuana strains at dispensaries these days are high in THC and low in CBD. If two strains have 17 percent THC and 0 percent CBD, it must be something else that’s responsible for one gluing you to the couch and the other stimulating your mind. It is other phytochemicals found in cannabis plants that are to thank for these difference, including minor cannabinoids and another category of phytochemicals called terpenes

Terpenes are aromatic oils found in the cannabis plant that can impact human health and cognition. In fact, it’s the terpenes that are responsible for the unique aromas of different strains. If you have a particularly sedative cannabis strain, these effects are often thanks to a high myrcene content, a terpene with effects similar to narcotics. Another strain that lifts your mood and energy levels will tend to be high in limonene, a terpene most well-known for its high concentration in citrus essential oils. 

And there is yet another terpene with an interesting effect. Alpha-pinene is a rare terpene that has the impressive and unique ability to counteract THC-induced short-term memory impairment. So, if you can find a strain that has both limonene and alpha-pinene, your cognition and energy will be much higher than if you find one that’s high in myrcene. 

Choosing the best marijuana strain for you

Now that you’re armed with the information that sativa vs indica is an outdated way to understand marijuana strains, you have the knowledge you need in order to find the type of bud that you’re looking for. 

Rather than ask for indicas or sativas, first ask about how the different strains feel. Experienced and helpful dispensary attendants will be able to outline what you can expect, and from there, you can pick the product that fits your needs. 

Next, see if you can find a company that tests each batch and strain of marijuana for not just the cannabinoid content, but for the terpene profile as well. This way you can keep that information and find what cannabinoids and terpenes contribute to the type of experience that you desire. 

Nicole Gleichmann

Freelance Health Writer

Nicole is a freelance health writer specializing in cannabis and its derivatives. She has written for Analytical Cannabis since 2018.


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