Sativa and Indica are not so Much Categories as Guidelines

Randy Robinson November 2, 2018 0 comments

Do ‘sativa’ and ‘indica’ even exist? Labels are a thing of the past.

By now, you’ve probably encountered an “energizing sativa” or a “sedative indica” at a dispensary. Budtenders will suggest various hybrid varieties if you’re looking for something more balanced, not quite anxious as a skinny sativa, but not quite a knock-out like that indica.

The sativa and indica categories have even carried over into other cannabis products. Sativa gummies are intended for daytime use, while an indica tincture will supposedly help you sleep.

In reality, these categories remain highly inconsistent, so much so that there’s a growing chorus of cannabis scientists who are practically screaming that these categories don’t really exist.

“Sativa” and “indica” can only reliably describe plant structures. Sativa varieties tend to be tall and skinny. Sativas are also notorious for being difficult to grow, and they tend to produce low yields. Indicas, on the other hand, are typically short and bushy, aren’t as finicky about their grow conditions, and tend to produce higher yields than sativas.

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Those are the only real differences between the two. In terms of intoxication or psychoactivity, the sativa and indica designations are basically useless.

Terpenes vs. Cannabinoids

Despite folk knowledge that sativas provide energy and indicas make us sleepy, I’ve never actually seen it. I’ve witnessed tokers pass out shortly after smoking a sativa like Blue Dream. I’ve watched college students stay up all night while wired on an indica. How could this be?

Today, cannabis companies market terpene content as the new wonder component of a cannabis variety. Supposedly, terpenes like pinene and limonene help us stay alert, while other terpenes such as myrcene can make us sleepy. The truth is, there aren’t any peer reviewed studies to support these claims about terpenes. It’s just anecdotal for now, but that has it’s own power.

However, it is clear that different cannabis varieties possess an “up” or “down” quality. Varieties certainly do confer their own properties, but how this happens is still a giant unknown.

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For instance, Vice’s Motherboard reported this month that “All Weed is the Same,” citing a Canadian study which analyzed 11 prominent cannabinoids across 33 varieties. The study concluded that the THC and CBD contents were relatively the same among most of the plants, and that the enzyme that produces CBDa had largely been bred out due to commercial inbreeding (not new info, unfortunately).

What the Canadian study didn’t assess was terpene content. I’m willing to bet a terpene-based study would find more variation among these 33 varieties, but without actual data, I’m just guessing.

Regardless, the researchers confirmed something most breeders already knew: genetic diversity is being lost as we continue to interbreed cannabis. Landraces can introduce new genetic profiles to stale, over-inbred plants, but as commercial cannabis breeders become more reliant on producing quantity over quality, landraces may lose their appeal.

Strain Names are Made Up

You’ll often hear the word “strain” tossed around when referring to cannabis varieties. In reality, most of the buds you’ll find in today’s dispensaries don’t fit the “strain” definition. Personally, I prefer the word “variety,” but even that term isn’t terribly accurate when applied to cannabis.

“Strain” refers to a plant germline that descends from a single plant. “Variety” is another way of ranking plants, something along the lines of a subspecies of a subspecies. Both terms are somewhat informal.

All told, there is absolutely no way to determine if your “strain” of Blueberry is actually Blueberry. Seed banks and seed dealers may offer guarantees that their AK-47 is the real deal, but they can’t prove it. To make matters worse, dispensaries will often slap a popular name on a batch of buds just to move it off the shelves, regardless of the plant’s true lineage.

Sure, you may know what AK-47 is supposed to smell like, but do you really know if you just bought AK-47? You don’t.

Furthermore, is AK-47 an indica or a sativa? According to the High Times Cannabis Cup – the self-proclaimed gold standard of subjective cannabis judging – it’s both. In 1999, AK-47 won second place for Best Sativa. Then, in 2003, AK-47 won second place for Best Indica, despite the two classifications being mutually exclusive. Did the High Times judges forget that AK-47 was supposed to be a sativa? I guess when you’re as high as those guys get while “judging,” does it really matter?

Does the Future Even Matter?

To resolve the gross disparities between indica and sativa, some companies are working on genomics catalogs for cannabis varieties. Mowgli Holmes, founder of Phylos Bioscience, is constructing a family tree for Cannabis sativa through software and cultivation data.

Opposite of Phylos, you’ve got InMed Pharmaceuticals in Canada. InMed has completely abandoned the cannabis plant in favor of genetically modified E. coli that can produce cannabinoids and terpenes in sugar-fed vats. Why fiddle with strain names and shifty categories when you can just pump out any phytocannabinoid or terpene in a day’s time?

What Matters Now

None of this is to say “all weed is the same,” because that’s frankly untrue. Ask any cannabis patient, and they’ll tell you certain varieties work for them while others don’t. Some patients decipher the qualities they require by scent or by flavor, while others rely on home-growers or products they trust.

Cannabis activists have fought long and hard for our right to grow our own cannabis. Growing our own is critical at a time when many dispensaries are more concerned with profits than chemistry. Although you may not know for certain that you’ve got Alaska Thunderfuck, you can be certain that any clones you cut from that plant will essentially be the same plant when placed in new pots.

Basically, figure out what works best for you, then stick with it. Who cares if it’s a sativa or an indica or a hybrid if it improves your quality of life?


Author avatar

Randy Robinson

As someone who wanted to know everything but couldn't decide on anything, Randy completed degrees in English, World History, and Molecular Biology. During their studies, they received an externship at the biotech firm Cannabis Science Inc., focusing on phytocannabinoids as anti-tumor and anti-cancer agents. Based in the Mile High City of Denver, Colorado, you can find Randy on Twitter, Instagram, and Medium @RanDieselJay

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