There’s no doubt that cannabis consumers have developed their own language. When you walk into a coffeeshop or a dispensary, you might be asked: would you like to feel high or stoned? Each of these sensations is typically correlated to one variety of cannabis or another. However, recent genetic research suggests that the way we talk about cannabis might paint an incomplete picture of the herb. As it turns out, indicas and sativas may be a little more unique than you might think.
Are indicas and sativas really that different?
Current thought suggests that there are two primary cannabis species that produce two distinct results. These species are Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. Nonpsychoactive hemp is often classified as a subset of the Cannabis sativa species.
As common thought goes, sativas are tall, spindly plants that cause an energetic head rush, or a high.
However, these simple categories don’t do justice to the complex heritage of the cannabis plant. Strains today may actually be very different from what most assume.
In a recent study published in PLOS ONE, two Canadian researchers compared the genes of a variety of cannabis samples, including plants that fell under the indica and sativa categories. The researchers found that, genetically speaking, the two types of plants may have a different relationship to one another than commonly thought.
While there are some genetic distinctions between indica and sativa strains, the genetic dividing lines are surprising. Study author Sean Myles tells Wired,
Previously many people had thought that the two were only different at the specific gene that regulates expression of THC.
They’re not totally wrong, but the split is nowhere near as accurate as you’d need to be in another horticultural crop with a formal classification system.
How should we really classify cannabis?
Myles and his team are not the only scientists studying the genetics of cannabis strains. Additional genealogical research on cannabis speciation from 2003 has shown that cannabis plants may fit into three genetically distinct groups.
The prospective species are indica, sativa, and ruderalis, with seven taxa, or subgroups.
According to this study, the different varieties broke down into something like this:
- Sativas: Fiber/seed landraces from Europe, Asia Minor, Central Asia, and ruderal (weed-like) populations in Eastern Europe.
- Indica: Fiber, seed landraces from Asia, narrow-leafed drug plants from southern Asia, Africa, and Latin America, wide-leafed drug plants from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and feral populations in India and Nepal.
- Ruderalis: A potential third, small gene pool that holds ruderal populations from Central Asia.
This model accepts three distinct varieties commonly discussed amongst cannabis lovers. However, the plants that make up these groups are not the plants most think of today.
Under this model, sativa strains are more or less hemp, while some strains classified as indica are the varieties presently cultivated for psychoactive cannabis.
This study was based on 157 different cannabis samples. Larger genealogical research is needed to determine whether or not these distinct groups hold up over time.
In the PLOS ONE study, researchers tested 124 samples and found clear genetic distinctions between psychoactive cannabis and hemp, though how to classify these plants with the current available information is still to be decided.
And things keep getting harrier. Advancements in the field of epigenetics have unveiled the fact that the environment can have a significant impact on the ways particular genes express. Decades of underground cultivation has complicated the issue further.
How cannabis is classified will continue to be a hurdle for the cannabis industry, but genetic testing is sure to unlock many of the plant’s long forgotten history.