What "Sativa" & "Indica" DO NOT Mean
If you have even a novice’s experience with cannabis consumption, you’ve likely heard those “in the know” describe various cannabis strains as fitting into one of three different groups: Indica, Sativa, or a Hybrid of those two. Conventional cannabis wisdom tells us that Indica strains are powerfully relaxing, with couch-lock effects and even sedating influences. On the flip side, Sativa strains are said to be uplifting, with focusing or energizing effects from all in the group. Hybrids are therefore somewhere in the middle, depending on the “dominance” of Indica or Sativa in its lineage. These terms have found their way into the legal cannabis industry in states across the US, with dispensary menus frequently breaking products down into groupings based on their strain classification to help guide customers to their desired experience for that sessions.
But what if we told you that this foundational separation of cannabis strains - the almighty Indica/Sativa dichotomy - is actually pure and complete myth with 0% reliability behind it?
Well friends - it’s true! Using “Indica” and “Sativa” as indicators of hard and fast effects from your cannabis products is almost guaranteed to fail you, because there is absolutely no science or truth behind the link between cannabis experiences and Indica/Sativa classification.
We know that this is paradigm-shifting information, but here at Periodic edibles, we’re dedicated to spreading the true science of cannabis, and helping cannabis consumers everywhere get the most predictable and repeatable cannabis experiences possible. That’s why we’re collecting everything you need to know about Indica and Sativa - what they actually do mean, what they definitely do not mean, and what you should be looking for in your cannabis products instead of defaulting to Indica and Sativa - so that you can be empowered with good knowledge to better continue your cannabis journey. We have a quick video covering this topic with cannabis educator Emma Chasen to accompany this article, with additional resources you can use to better understand the science behind this complex subject - however, this article will give you the best overview of the truth and myth entrenching cannabis strains.
Let’s begin in the 1700’s…
The Truth about “Sativa” and “Indica”
In the 1700’s, the scientific field of taxonomy - or the classification of living things on Earth based on their shared characteristics - was just beginning to form. Early pioneers traveled the globe, documenting the physical characteristics of every new organism they could see with their eyes (this detail will become important soon…) and giving formal scientific names to species that had not yet been documented.
One of the most influential pioneers in this field, the “father of modern taxonomy” Carl Linnaeus was the first to document cannabis in 1753, when he christened it Cannabis Sativa L - he noted that this plant grew tall and skinny, with thin and spindly leaves and loosely-formed flower buds. This was the only official cannabis species recognized by science until 1785, when biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was examining samples of cannabis from India and noticed that they had very different characteristics from the standard growing features ascribed to Cannabis Sativa L - these plants were short and dense bushes, with broad leaves and fat flower buds. As such, he determined that this should be a separate species, and named it Cannabis Indica in honor of the origin country of the plant.
It is important to note that although humans have been cultivating and consuming cannabis since our earliest recorded history, these early scientists did not consume these plants and make note of the euphoric effects they provided - they simply examined the physical growing characteristics of the plants. Due to the times, there was no way to examine the chemical make-up of these plants. Linnaeus and Lamarck did not know about cannabinoids, terpenes, or any of the other active compounds in cannabis that impact the mental and physical effects that we feel on consuming cannabis products. Their solitary concern was documenting the physical characteristics of their respective plant species to find their place within the greater web of life on Earth. As such, using “Indica” and “Sativa” as a label of effects is, by definition, false - that is not what these terms mean, and as we’ll get into in the next section, there is no real correlation between the strain type and the experience you'll get from consuming it.
In addition to this lack of initial connection between cannabis effects and the names Indica and Sativa, even if they had originally been connected, cannabis has changed quite a bit since the mid 1700s - the century of modern cannabis prohibition we’re now beginning to emerge from has forced the cultivation of cannabis underground. This means that there has not been any transparency, regulation, or monitoring of cannabis genetics or breeding practices in nearly 100 years. The cannabis that we have in the US today is the result of years and years of smuggling from a wide array of countries, with no clarity on the Indica vs Sativa lineage of the plant - growers didn’t ask many questions, and had to give their best guess when deciding which type of plant they had. Strain names are no better at predicting effects than Indica/Sativa - in the same way that a plant could not be proven to be Indica or Sativa, there was no accountability on what strain a plant actually was. A grower could create a new name if they crossed plants, they could decide to lie about a strain name, substituting a more popular one to increase demand, or they could not know in the first place. Due to the lack of testing against agreed-upon standards for Indica and Sativa, plants were crossed at will, and as a result of this century of clandestine breeding, essentially every single US-produced cannabis plant on the market today is a hybrid. Scientists believe that there are really no true “Indica” or “Sativa” landrace strains left in the world due to the extent of hybridization. (McPartland, 2017) Though they can certainly lean Indica- or Sativa-dominant if the genetics have been proven, almost all of them have been muddied by the black market nature of cannabis in the US before the early 2000s.
Why Buying Cannabis based on “Indica” or “Sativa” is a Recipe for Disaster
So now that you understand what “Indica” and “Sativa” really mean - and by extension, what they don’t mean - let’s look at why these terms are still in use in legal cannabis industry, and why it can make getting the experience you want or need from your cannabis extremely difficult.
So if there’s no truth to the Indica/Sativa dichotomy, why is it still used in dispensaries? The short answer - convenience and adherence to the status quo. For starters, humans like simple choices - yes or no, black or white, this or that - to make decisions easier for themselves, especially in our ever-complicating world. So the simple up-or-down nature of the false Indica and Sativa distinction is appealing in that light, as it makes purchasing decisions more streamlined - do you want to get up and go, or lie down and nap? Secondly, because the “Indica = In Da Couch” and “Sativa = Stimulating” definition has become so ingrained in marijuana consumer culture, it will require a massive amount of re-education to teach the public that this has been wrong all along. Some long-time consumers get legitimately angry when they’re first told that the rule they learned as gospel is actually false - they can feel that they’ve been lied to, infantilized, or played for a fool. This is a natural response - no one likes being told they’re wrong, even if they are!
Unfortunately, the truth of cannabis science, especially for medicinal cannabis applications, is that it’s complicated and intensely multi-factorial, and we are now beginning to have access to research that gives us insight into the actual chemical components behind the nuanced effects of different types of cannabis. The leading scientific researchers in cannabis agree that paying attention to the cannabinoids and terpenes is the only logical way to examine cannabis for consumption. (Piomelli & Russo, 2016)
As we learn more about terpenes and cannabinoids, those of us in legal cannabis markets have a duty to consumers, both medical and recreational, to offer them the best and most accurate product choice for their individual needs. To put it bluntly (no pun intended) - choosing convenience and misguided traditions over science and accuracy is unconscionable. Retailers, producers, and processors alike have an ethical imperative to provide clear information to their customers to empower them to find the cannabis solutions they need.
However, since the legal cannabis market is behind the curve on this at the moment (with a few exceptions we’ll cover in the next section) the onus of investigating the makeup of your cannabis product to find predictability in the experience you’ll receive must largely fall to you, the consumer. While this makes shopping for your products a little more intensive, it ultimately empowers you to find exactly the right products to fit your unique needs, and there are a few simple points to follow that can lead you in the right direction.
Better Ways to Shop for Your Cannabis
Now that you’re an expert on the inaccuracy of the Indica vs Sativa dichotomy, you may be wondering - how do I predict the effects a cannabis product will give me? Guiding this process requires consideration of the following:
Check the Terpenes - Terpenes - or the essential oils that give cannabis strains their unique smell and flavor - are the keys to finding the nuanced cannabis experience you desire. Take note of how the most abundant cannabis terpenes - like Myrcene, Limonene, Pinene, B-Caryophyllene, Linalool, and others - affect you personally, and use that knowledge to better choose products that align with your desired experience for that consumption.
Pay Attention to ALL Cannabinoids - in the black market days, cannabis was all about THC, but thankfully we are now discovering many other beneficial cannabinoids inside cannabis. Take note of the ratio of THC to CBD in your cannabis products and notice how you feel from products with 1:1, 2:1, 7:1, etc. In legal markets, you can also now find products with good percentages of minor cannabinoids like CBG, CBC, THCV, and many others, all of which have exciting medical and mental effects that you can use to tailor your cannabis experience to your needs.
Find Retailers and Companies that are working to shift the paradigm - as more consumers begin to get wise to the hollowness of Indica vs Sativa, businesses with their customers’ interests in mind are beginning to more away from the Indica vs Sativa distinction on their products. Here at [Pe], we’re extremely proud to have been among the first processors in Oregon to shift our product labeling to effects-focused distinctions and harness the power of terpenes in our recipes. Many others in Oregon and across the country are doing the same, so look for products that list terpenes and cannabinoids, and don’t list Indica or Sativa to indicate effects to get more repeatable and consistent experiences. Likewise, retail dispensaries are beginning to require terpene and cannabinoid testing on the products they sell, and many are moving away from or abandoning Sativa and Indica altogether to more effectively guide their customers to the right products for their needs. Try to find a reputable dispensary that doesn’t rely exclusively on Indica and Sativa to communicate effects. Check menus online to see how a dispensary is organizing their products, and when in doubt, go in and ask a budtender for a product for a specific effect, and see how knowledgeable they are about the true science of cannabis.
We hope that these insights on the current studies and historical context of the terms “Indica” and “Sativa” have empowered you to better choose cannabis products for your unique and personal needs. If you’re interested in learning more about how cannabis works together with our bodies to support our health in many ways, check out our write-up on the Human Endocannabinoid System. If you’re nervous about experimenting with cannabis for the first time, especially edibles, read our blog post on preventing and combatting the negative side effects of THC overconsumption.
*DISCLAIMER: These opinion pieces are personal experiences of the individual authors, and are not medical recommendations, medical claims, or usage recommendations from the company. Our products are not approved by the FDA to treat, cure or prevent any diseases. Periodic edibles supports responsible cannabis use in accordance with all local laws.