The Indica vs. Sativa Myth

If you have been reading our blogs for any length of time, you know that we are big supporters of a new taxonomy for cannabis. It’s long overdue. Cannabis has been a cultivated plant for thousands of years, but thanks to a great deal of human intervention, it has evolved and changed and can no longer be shoved into two boxes: Indica or Sativa. Over the years there has been so much cross-breeding of cannabis plants that these labels no longer provide predictive value regarding the effects that each plant produces. Let’s dig a little deeper into this very popular myth!

In the late 1700’s, botanists Carl Linnaeus and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck analyzed cannabis samples from around the world, and coined the terms cannabis sativa  and cannabis indica. At that point in history, these different names were appropriate for the differently shaped plants that were growing across the world. These disparate populations of cannabis, with their distinct appearances and genetics, probably produced very different effects as well; short, bushy, wide-leaved Indica varieties may very well have produced a “stoney” sedative intoxication. Lanky, narrow-leaved Sativa varieties could very well have created a euphoric, uplifting high.

However, a LOT has changed in the last 200 years.

Today’s modern cannabis plants are really “Franken-flowers.” Decades of clandestine hybridization in basements and secret gardens across the globe has created plants that have very little resemblance to their ancestors. Plants may look like the original wide or narrow leaved varieties, but attempting to predict a subjective feeling based on the appearance of the plant is simply not possible. Morphology (a plant’s shape and appearance) has nothing to do with pharmacology (the effects a drug will produce in a human).

Most certainly, cannabis is capable of producing both euphoria (“Sativia” effects) and sedation (“Indica” effects). But these synonyms are inadequate to fully describe the nuanced and varied effects that cannabis is capable of. Cannabis flowers contain hundreds of biologically active molecules, that interact with each unique human slightly differently. To attempt to categorize such an immensely complex system into two categories simply does not do this incredible plant any justice.

It’s not about the label or the supposed genetic lineage of the flower: it’s all about the ingredients. Which chemicals are there, in which ratios, and how much of them will you consume?

How can we fix the myth?

Indica and Sativa labels will (unfortunately) continue to exist for a while. Until we develop a new collective vocabulary about this, we can still find a way to make it work for us. Let’s use wine as an example: Imagine two glasses of wine side by side- they have the same exact color, height, legs when you swirl, etc.- you would think it’s the same wine until you taste them. Then, you realize one is a Merlot and one is a Malbec. By appearance they may have been the same, but only after the experience can an accurate label be applied.

This could be what is happening in your local dispensary: a grower probably samples the product after harvest, and based on its sedative effect, they categorize it as an Indica, and give it a cheeky strain name.

Although there is no guarantee that this “blind taste test” actually happened for the flower you’re interested in, it may be all the information you have in some cases. When possible, shop for the experience you want, regardless of the label on the product. Have a conversation with your budtender, tell them that you know it’s impossible to predict how a cannabis variety will affect you just by the Indica/Sativa label. There is also no guarantee that you can find the same “strain” ever again, even though it may be labeled with the same exact name.

We know that a plant’s DNA has an influence on the chemicals it produces, but we also know that growing, harvesting, and curing conditions matter just as much as the genes. Buying products based on their chemistry, rather than their labels, is the only way to ensure predictable and consistent effects.

How can you help?

We need answers from you guys, too. Documenting experiences, likes, dislikes and other information regarding cannabis consumption can help us discover the how different chemistry in cannabis plants affects people differently.

This is exactly why we founded habu health- to help build consumer confidence through scientific rigor.

We also created an app that will allow individuals to tell us exactly how their cannabis products made them feel. It is only this systematic study of cannabis' effects in people (a branch of science called pharmacology) that will allow us to improve the cannabis experience for people across the globe.

If you’d like to record your session, please visit our pilot app here. All submissions are secure and confidential. Thank you!

Adie Poe